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Rock 'n' roll diplomacy

Posted on Thursday, March 28 @ 03:02:55 CET by Macphisto

(Nationalpost.com) -- The usual wardrobe for a diplomat urging world leaders to fight global poverty consists of a dark suit and an earnest frown, not blue wrap-around sunglasses and a black leather jacket. But then, there is no mistaking U2's Bono for a run-of-the-mill statesman.

While it is true the Irish rock star has the ear of presidents, prime ministers and power brokers the world over, including, most recently, arch-conservative Jesse Helms, Bono has done so without straying from his on-stage persona. In fact, it is his championing of Third World causes from his position as leader of the world's biggest rock band that has made him so successful.

His mission has brought him an audience with the Pope, and his recent appearance at the World Economic Forum in New York caused elder statesmen to act like awestruck teenagers.

"These Canadian politicians keep taking the lead on issues that really concern us, the people who are in what you might call the movement for change in the developing world," Bono told reporters after emerging from a private half-hour chat with Jean Chrétien.

"It's just great to have the Prime Minister actually walk like he talks," Bono said, and the Prime Minister could barely disguise his delight. Paul Martin, the Minister of Finance, has also been seen basking in Bono's glow.

The politicians stumble over each other to be photographed with Bono for good reason.

His willingness to meet with leaders of all political stripes both illustrates his commitment to his cause and makes his connection to the sometimes unsavoury world of rock 'n' roll palatable to even the hardest-line conservative.

Such meetings have not always played well with his peers in the left-of-centre world of rock, Bono recently told the London Guardian.

"[U2 guitarist] Edge was pleading with me not to hang out with the conservatives," Bono said. "He said, 'You're not going to have a picture with George Bush?' I said I'd have lunch with Satan if there was so much at stake. I have friends who won't speak to me because of Helms.

"But it is very important not to play politics with this. Millions of lives are being lost for the stupidest of reasons: money. And not even very much money. So let's not play Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Let's rely on the moral force of our arguments."

The diplomat without a surname follows through on his meetings, going out of his way to commend leaders who act on issues he supports. This reward has prompted action on complicated issues that were once relegated to political obscurity.

Bono admits Third World debt relief was an "unhip" issue before he set his sights on it three years ago. Upon joining the Jubilee 2000/Drop the Debt campaign, he brought the issue to world leaders in very specific terms. The issue was the monies owed to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the governments of the developed world by the desperately poor nations of Africa and Asia.

Rather than castigating developed nations, Bono embraced the Jubilee's message of Christian forgiveness.

He helped persuade the Clinton administration to cancel all U.S. debts, and has since been a fixture at any meeting on the subject.

He was recently at the side of President George Bush for the unveiling of a US$5-billion increase in U.S. foreign aid over three years.

The announcement was unexpected, and Mr. Bush joked about Bono's unlikely mingling with the Republican administration in his speech.

"[Vice-President] Dick Cheney walked into the Oval Office, he said, 'Jesse Helms wants us to listen to Bono's idea,' " Mr. Bush said.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Bono's efforts as a statesman have not interrupted his day job as a pop star. If anything, the two careers have proved complementary. In the months after Sept. 11, the cathartic music of U2 took on a new relevance. The group was named Spin magazine's Band of the Year and was chosen by readers of Rolling Stone as the Artist of the Year.

U2's most recent album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, was released to critical and popular acclaim two years ago, but sales surged again in the fall of 2001.

Songs such as Beautiful Day and Walk On, with their world-weary sadness and sense of hope, struck a chord with listeners. The band turned the remaining shows of its "Elevation" tour into tributes to the fallen.

Such grand statements make him an easy target for cynics, but Bono manages to deflect their barbs with his self-effacing demeanour and intense focus on his political agenda.

"I'm uncomfortable being a rich rock star, doing this. I'm unhappy with that juxtaposition," he told the Guardian. "I would love not to be doing this -- for somebody else to do it who was not as compromised as me. That guilt has driven me to be a policy wonk.

"It makes me queasy to turn up just for the photo opportunity so I turn up for the briefing as well. I go to bed with World Bank reports. These issues are bigger than whether it makes me comfortable or not. So the band might cringe, I might wince, but I went to Washington to get a cheque and I'm going back to get a bigger one."

Benjamin Errett
National Post

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