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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University March 5, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 24
 
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Hard Rock, Soft Diplomacy

Some months ago I was fortunate to be invited by Hungarian ambassador Andrea Simonyi to a small dinner at his official residence in Washington. It was a Hopkins connection that gained me this coveted invitation, in this case through a Peabody student whose grandfather is a prominent Hungarian-American and a long-term member of Congress.

Ambassador Simonyi is a dynamic and engaging person with a few surprises up his sleeve. During our dinner conversation, I learned that he has a deep interest in rock music. In fact, the ambassador plays electric guitar in a Washington, D.C., rock band called Coalition of the Willing. The band — which plays covers ranging from the Beatles to a Hungarian version of Wild Thing — is composed of some friends who live and work in the Washington area. Ambassador Simonyi is the front man, playing the guitar and singing most of the songs.

Naturally I wondered — and you may, too — just how did a senior diplomat from a former Eastern bloc country become a rock 'n' roller?

"It's really quite simple, Bill," he told me. "When I was growing up in communist Hungary, the conditions were very bleak, and we had little in the way of life's necessities, and no personal freedom. However, through contraband material and banned radio broadcasts, we were able to hear the Western music of the '50s and '60s. It was, in no small way, our lifeline, giving us a sense of hope and freedom, and connection to the values of the Western world. Without that, I don't know how we would have survived."

People call this soft diplomacy, and in a world of line-in-the-sand confrontation and war, I think it is a highly underrated approach. Our own SAIS faculty member Azar Nafisi — the former Iranian English professor who wrote the best-selling book Reading Lolita in Tehran — has expressed this concept so eloquently when I have heard her speak. "Literature," she says, "is about hope, about the freedom to think and dream." Unfortunately, these are values generally not permitted to women in the Islamic regime of Iran. After the revolution, Nafisi, no longer able to teach English at the university where she held a faculty appointment, went underground and met surreptitiously in her home with a small group of Iranian women for weekly tutorials in English literature. It was an act of bravery — and of hope.

Since Sept. 11, our language and, I fear, our mind-set have become increasingly militaristic — the "war on terror" says it all. Yet, Ambassador Simonyi reminded me, as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi so eloquently demonstrated, real power lies not in weapons of mass destruction but in the persuasiveness of words and ideas.

"Bill," he said, "never underestimate the power of American culture to change the world."

I've been thinking about that. Imagine if we had taken just a fraction of the money we are now spending in the Iraq war and used it instead to start Western secular schools in the Middle East, paying poor families to send their children to places that provide a high-quality education and promote values of freedom, peace, diversity and tolerance. An impossible dream, perhaps. But one that may have fared no worse than an onslaught of armies. Ideas have a way of slipping into places that tanks cannot go. Ever since my dinner with Ambassador Simonyi, I have been remembering that it is our ideals, not our armaments, that truly make us strong.

 

William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.

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