12/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If Foreign Policy Were a Castle

from Schloss Leopoldskron, near Salzburg, Austria

"Schloss," which means castle in German, sounds silly to my Anglophone ear. I remember a comedy routine from years ago built around the idea that certain words are unavoidably funny. The only one I can remember is pickle; but I'll bet a majority have German roots. Perhaps this explains why Yiddish, a Germanic language, while so bound up in tragedies, succeeds as a language of comedy. Anyway I can't help smiling inwardly at the word "Schloss," and ever since arriving at this particular Schloss, sleepless, on Monday morning, I've been employing it whenever possible, as a mood-lifter.

On a brief Schloss tour we were told that the Prince-Archbishop (he was indeed both) Firmian built this house after persecuting some Protestants. The connection between these two things was tantalizingly slight; our guide allowed only that Firmian somehow conceived the Schloss as penitence for what he had done to the Protestants. It must be good to be Prince-Archbishop.

Later I happened to be sitting next to Austria's former ambassador to the U.S., who told me that the 22,000 Protestants expelled by Fermian threw themselves on the charity of Lord Oglethorpe, who sent them on to Georgia (Savannah, specifically), over which he then (1734) held great sway. There is to this day, she said, a Salzburg society in Georgia.

People of the ambassador's eminence, and others whose eminence lies in the future - whom a non-native speaker of English might call "pre-eminent" - gathered at Schloss Leopoldskron this week to discuss "The United States in the World: New Strategies of Engagement." The Schloss, and an adjoining Meierhof, house the Salzburg Global Seminar, which three young Americans founded right after World War 2. Their idea was to promote American culture and foster dialogue. A wholly admirable if not altogether original idea, for which Leopoldskron is the perfect Schloss.

We've considered quite a few issues so far this week but I might as well start with the Israel/Palestine question, represented here principally by the Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi. She was on TV a lot some years ago and often looked as if she'd been up all night negotiating things, but these days she is lively and fit. Like many of the seminar attendees, she hoped the U.S. under Obama would be pulling out of its "messianic" period. As for the Middle East, she was guardedly (very guardedly) optimistic, in that the new administration seemed to her inevitably an improvement. And she expected that the Europeans might begin to be more active and cease "to play by American rules."

I was a little surprised by how much Europe bashing went on at the seminar, considering that it was mostly Europeans, and in Europe. (The Chinese contingent seemed not to go in for public bashing, which was good of them.) Has the Bush period induced in Europe a moment of masochism? More likely they are revving themselves up for a fresh try, in the Obama era, at playing a greater role on the world scene. The UK Foreign Office is gearing itself for a big Mideast push, lumping the various issues together and going for the grand solution rather than splitting the problems up and taking them one at a time. Most people at the conference seemed to think this was overly ambitious and doomed - "Intellectually you have to be a lumper, but procedurally you have to be a splitter," was how Ashrawi put it. But it was at least a sign of Euroenthusiasm.

Ashrawi sparred a bit with an Israeli attendee. A bad sign, perhaps, and yet: "In my experience," she said as their colloquy wound down, "people who don't trust each other sign better agreements than people who do." Now that is a glass half full.