• Diplomatic Gifts - Triumphs and Disasters


    Laaocoon, a priest of ancient Troy had it right when he warned King Priam, ‘I fear the Greeks even when bearing gifts.’, The gift in question was a huge wooden horse left outside the city by the ancient Greek besiegers, who then withdrew to a convenient distance. According to Homer’s Iliad, Priam saw the horse as tribute. After all, the horse was a symbol of Troy, wasn’t it? So he had the wooden horse pulled inside. Overnight the Greek soldiers hidden inside the horse climbed out, opened the gates to Odysseus and his warriors and the rest is archaeology. Troy was destroyed but the idea survived. A Trojan horse is a gift with a weapon hidden inside.

    In modern times, Trojan horses have got smaller and the soldiers inside are now electronic. Allegedly, national leaders and dignitaries at the St Petersburg G20 meeting in September 2013 were presented with mobile phones equipped with clandestine bugs to record data and voice information and relay it back to Moscow. Allegedly, because the Russian government vigorously denied this was true.

    Gift-giving between ambassadors and from ambassadors to heads of state and from heads of state to each other has been going on throughout history. In 1583, Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest, followed up Marco Polo’s trip to China and established his first ‘house’ in Zhaoqing. In Mary Laven’s fascinating ‘Mission to China’, she describes how Ricci, dressed in the robes of a Confucian scholar, fascinated the Chinese ‘literati’ or civil servants with clocks, prisms and other marvels of Western science that his hosts had never seen.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t always work out that way. Lord Macartney, Britain’s first envoy to China in 1793, arrived with gifts ‘specially selected’ by King George 111, ‘King of the most powerful nation on earth’ and ‘sovereign of the seas’. Error number one. In China gifts to the Emperor were not exchanges between equals. They were considered as tribute to the Emperor of China from a vassal.

    Things got worse. When Macartney reached Beijing he discovered the Emperor had moved to Jehol, about 140 miles away. So Macartney, sensibly, judged it better to leave the heavier and more delicate gifts in Beijing and proceeded to Jehol with the rest. Uh, oh! Error number two. This was considered a major breach of protocol by the Emperor’s advisors, who expected that all the gifts would be carried to Jehol, as normal.

    But Macartney wasn’t done yet. He decided to make a list of all the gifts in Mandarin, extolling the value of each one and stressing the role of the king himself in selecting objects to represent art and science in Europe. Error number three. The correct protocol would have been to understate gift values to avoid any embarrassment to the Emperor.

    Having done that, he signed the list, borrowing the title of ‘’legate’ or ‘envoy in Mandarin . Error number four. The Chinese mandarins were infuriated by his use of the word, which represented a much higher position than they considered him to hold.

    It’s probably better at this point to cease imposing on diplomatic grief but you can follow up the story in Sir Christopher Meyer’s engaging, ‘Getting our Way: the Inside Story of British Diplomacy.’

    Institutes like the University of East Anglia’s London Academy of Diplomacy train diplomats in appropriate gift-giving as part of their MA in International Diplomacy. Thank God, they do. As Meyer says, ‘Gifts are one of the great diplomatic minefields.’ And it hasn’t stopped.

    In 2008, the new British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, thought carefully about a suitable present for President Obama. He had a penholder made from the wood of one of the Victorian era ships that had participated in ending the slave trade. It matched the age and style of the wood from a ‘sister ship’ used in the President’s ‘ Resolute’ desk in the White House.

    So what did he get back from his American cousins? A set of classic US movies, including ‘Psycho’, on DVD. To add insult to injury, when Brown’s aides tried to play one they discovered the DVD’s were US format (Region 1) not European (Region 2) and didn’t work!

    ‘Tacky’ gifts can work, however. Prime Minister Cameron gave a table tennis table decorated with US and UK flags to President Obama. And President Obama gave Cameron a high-class barbecue or ‘All American grill’. The outcome was a great photo opportunity, with the two leaders rolling up their sleeves at Downing Street and making hot dogs.

    Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama serving hot dogs at

    Downing Street

    Who chooses these gifts and how do you go about choosing gifts for a foreign national leader or ambassador? And what happens to them after? Three criteria seem to determine what you give to whom. One is to give something that represents national culture or history. Another is to research the personal interests of the leader or dignitary and choose something that matches his or her preference and also works for the national culture. A case of Scotch whisky won’t go down well in the Arab world. Neither will anything including pork or pigskin. What is given, however, must be top quality.

    The third criterion is what one Downing Street official described as ‘measured reciprocity,’ This involves matching approximate value for value and also ensuring compliance with local financial regulation. You don’t want your present impounded by Customs and Excise or, worse still, prompting a police investigation into possible corruption.

    What about Britain’s own dear Queen Elizabeth 11 and her consort, HRH Prince Philip? Her Majesty was said to be delighted by the Obama’s gift of an MP3 player with videos of her 2007 visit to the US.

    Buckingham Palace frequently sends a signed silver framed photo of the Queen and Prince Philip. In return she has received gifts ranging from lacrosse sticks to cowboy hats, snail shells and sloths. As usual reciprocity can go wrong. When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presented the Queen with £115,000 worth of jewellery and other items the FCO responded with a folding piece of wood, netting and two bats. Yes, it’s that table tennis table again.

    Panda Diplomacy

    China announces a gift of two pandas to Canadian Prime minister Stephen Harper and his wife.

    Talking about sloths and snail shells, one of the oddest gifts is animals. Lions, baby elephants and giraffes have all figured in diplomatic gift lists at one time or another but the world’s favourite animal gift is the panda. In 1972 US President Nixon visited Beijing (a breakthrough in China/US cold war relationships) and received two pandas from Chairman Mao. This ‘Panda diplomacy’, as it was christened, became a major way of raising international awareness of China. The gift of ‘Chi Chi’ and ‘An An’ to British Prime minister, Edward Heath in 1974 prompted huge press coverage in the UK. Would they breed or wouldn’t they?

    By 1984 China had changed from outright gifts to ten-year loans. But in January 2013 William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary took possession of a gift of two pandas, with no conditions attached.

    What happened to all these gifts? All the gifts are property of the state, above a certain very low level. The animals usually go to zoos but the objects often go to national museums or end up in a storeroom and are brought out on state visits. However, in the UK, as Sir Christopher Meyer writes, ‘Most gifts to British prime ministers end up being sold at knock-down prices in government auctions.’

    Barry Tomalin is visiting lecturer at the UEA London Academy of Diplomacy and world expert in international culture and communication. He is co-author of ‘Cross-Cultural Communication: Theory and Practice’ and ‘The World’s Business Cultures and How to Unlock Them.’


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