How music is the real language of political diplomacy

Forget guns and bombs, it is the power of melody that has changed the world

 How music is the real language of political diplomacy title=

 Only at the start of this decade did music find its way into the study of international relations. A little late, perhaps? “When it comes to analysing non-textual musical sources, historians have tended to shy away,” Fléchet says. “In a way they’re afraid they don’t possess enough technical tools to grasp what music is.” Yet, in many ways, musical soft power has existed since at least the 17th century, starting with the birth of opera. One of the functions of this Italian art form was to project the power of the princes of the time. Back then diplomats required some musical training. “There were treatises,” says Ramel, “that indicated that they had to learn to ‘play like a viola’ – in other words, to show restraint and elegance.”

A big change came after the first world war, when Woodrow Wilson proclaimed an end to “secret diplomacy” between nations and the start of “open diplomacy”. In democratic states, music now needed to touch people directly. In the 1960s, for example, during the cold war, the US State Department organised international tours of American jazz musicians. “Perhaps,” Ramel speculates, “it was a way to project an image of the free world founded on pluralistic values and identities.”

Since then, every embassy has a cultural attache. The US engages in “audio diplomacy” by financing hip-hop festivals in the Middle East. China promotes opera in neighbouring states to project an image of harmony. Brazil has invested in culture to assert itself as a leader in Latin America, notably by establishing close collaboration between its ministries of foreign affairs and culture; musician Gilberto Gil was culture minister during Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s presidency from 2003 to 2008. He was involved in France’s Year of Brazil. As Fléchet recalls, “the free concert he gave on 13 July, 2005 at the Place de la Bastille was the pinnacle. That day, he sang La Marseillaise in the presence of presidents Lula and Jacques Chirac.” Two years earlier, in September 2003, Gil sang at the UN in honour of the victims of the 19 August bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. He was delivering a message of peace, criticising the war on Iraq by the US: “There is no point in preaching security without giving a thought to respecting others,” he told his audience. Closing the concert, he invited then UN secretary general Kofi Annan on stage for a surprise appearance as a percussionist. “This highly symbolic image, which highlighted the conviction that culture can play a role in bringing people together, shows how music can become a political language,” Fléchet says.