Monday, April 24, 2006

The Ambassador of Brahms


Two weeks ago I attended a USC-sponsored conference on international polling in Washington. One of its purposes was to determine how such polls might further different nations’ efforts in public diplomacy; with better pulse-taking, the thinking went, you might get better policy-making, or at least presentations of that policy that resonate better with target audiences.

One participant noted that there were many large anti-Iraq war protests in Germany because the German media—made up of that country’s elites—covered the war differently. I took this to mean that German TV focused on American missteps and Iraqi suffering, generating anger and dismay in that country and generating mass antiwar sentiment on a scale seen only sporadically in the U.S.

Switch scenes now to America’s first diplomat, the Secretary of State, who was the subject of a flattering piece in the April 9 New York Times while I was at that conference.

The article, in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section, focused on Secretary Rice’s chamber-music group. Rice, a pianist so accomplished that Yo-Yo Ma once asked her to accompany him, frequently plays Brahms, Shostakovich and other composers with four other high-powered Washington types who need a creative outlet for their copious spare time.

Deep down in the article is this graf:

Ms. Rice has only just begun to see the potential of music as a diplomatic tool, notably last February, when she delivered a speech in Paris about American rapprochement with Europe in the face of vehement disagreements over the invasion of Iraq. During the trip, she visited the Hector Berlioz Conservatory in Paris, where she attended a children’s music class and watched young ensembles perform. As cameras caught her listening, she seemed deeply affected by the fledgling musicians.

At the time, there were “whole questions about U.S.-French relations and so forth,” she said, “and I think it was just nice to connect with the French kids.” Asked to play something, she declined, but promised to come back sometime with her chamber group.

Great scheduling by Rice’s staff, and the bit about her seeming deeply affected by the kids has the virtue of being true; Rice entered the University of Denver as a music major and has played throughout her life.

The French and especially French elites seem given to snobbery and to thinking that the Bush administration is dominated by several species of suit-wearing Texas barbarian. Secretary Rice, on her promised return trip, has an opportunity to make a small but significant change in elite opinion at the Berlioz Conservatory, and it shouldn’t be passed up.

Any dent that can be made in the negative opinions of French elites toward the Bush administration could lead to further rapprochement, in the French media and elsewhere. Classical music is not an unlikely common ground at a time when the Bush administration is under siege by Americans and the French elites feel under siege by North Africans.

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