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Blog Post | Do diplomatic gifts matter?

In this blog, Jorg Kustermans asks the question whether diplomatic gifts matter - a subject covered in the latest HJD Forum on gift giving in diplomacy.

The usual place to start a scholarly discussion of gift-exchange is an essay of the French ethnologist Marcel Mauss, first published in 1925 as Essai sur le don: forme et raison d’échange dans les sociétés archaïques. It is a brilliant essay, which ends with its author making a passionate plea for the virtues of generosity and solidarity, which he took the practice of gift-exchange to embody. Up to this day, Mauss’s essay bears close attention and careful engagement. But instead of elaborating on Mauss’ theoretical ideas, I will present three short anecdotes about diplomatic gift-giving. The ideas that they illustrate are developed in more detail in a recent HJD Forum on the subject. Readers are warmly invited to proceed to the contributions to that forum in order to find a more systematic answer to the key question: “Do diplomatic gifts matter?”. The short sketches that follow serve primarily as an amuse bouche.

Persians and Ethiopians

I shall begin with a story from a relatively distant past. It concerns a diplomatic encounter between an envoy of the Achaemenid or First Persian Empire and the Ethiopian king. Herodotus depicts the following dialogue (Histories book III, § 20-21).

Persian envoy: 
Cambyses king of Persia, desiring to be your friend and guest, sends us with command to address ourselves to you; and he offers you such gifts as he himself chiefly delights to use.

Ethiopian king:
It is not because he sets great store by my friendship that the Persian King sends you with gifts, nor do you speak the truth (for you have come to spy out my dominions), nor is your king a righteous man […] Now, give him this bow, and this message : 'The King of the Ethiopians counsels the King of the Persians, when the Persians can draw a bow of this greatness as easily as I do, then to bring overwhelming odds to attack the long-lived Ethiopians; but till then, to thank the gods who put it not in the minds of the sons of the Ethiopians to win more territory than they have.'

The episode immediately illustrates that there is little merit in romanticizing the meaning of diplomatic gifts. There is a certain tendency, also in the work of Marcel Mauss, to present gift exchange as an alternative to warfare. Political tensions will be reduced, so to say, when polities begin to exchange gifts. However, what this anecdote demonstrates, is that gifts can be deceptive and that they should be handled with care. Refusing to accept a gift is bad form. Being enamored by whichever gift one receives is bad politics. The Ethiopians knew what apparently the Trojans did not.

Saudis and Americans

The second story is of more recent vintage. It concerns a state visit of American president Barack Obama to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In The Promised Land, the first volume of his memoirs, president Obama recounts how, upon entering his lodging for the stay, he “noticed a large travel case on the mantlepiece.”

I unsnapped the latches and lifted the top. On one side there was a large desert scene on a marble case featuring miniature gold figurines, as well as a glass clock powered by changes in the temperature. On the other side, set in a velvet case, was a necklace half the length of a bicycle chain, encrusted with what appeared to be hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of rubies and diamonds – along with a matching ring and earrings.  (pp. 362-363)

The American president, who is prohibited by law to keep these kinds of pricey gifts personally, then recollected how he felt about receiving these luxurious objects.

I thought about […] the many young men […] across the nearby borders of Yemen and Iraq, and in Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose earnings in a lifetime would probably never touch the cost of that necklace in my hands. (p. 363)

There are several observations that are worth making with reference to the situation and Obama’s evaluation of it. First, Obama obviously did not leave the gift behind. To have left the gift behind in his room in Ryadh would have caused unnecessary offence. The solution, then, was to accept the gift as the leader of his country, but not to accept it as a private person, and therefore not keep it in his private possession. Upon their return home, the gifts would be processed and recorded by the Protocol Gift unit and then, unceremoniously, stored in a National Archives depot. Second, the episode shows that there is significant cultural variation. Some countries (Saudi Arabia, for instance) appear to care more about diplomatic gifts than other countries (the USA, for instance), and some of the countries that care very much about diplomatic gifts are central among the emerging powers (China, for instance). Westerns diplomats may want to take note and acquaint themselves more thoroughly with the dynamics of gift-exchange. Third, Obama’s negative portrayal of the Saudis’ lavish gifts does not mean that he and his countrymen do not appreciate the political value of other, more metaphorical forms of giving. To the extent that United States saw itself as the “hegemon” in the post-Second World War world, did the country not pride itself on its generosity in supplying global public goods? And isn’t it their worry that China comes across as more generous than the United States does these days? To invoke a classical anthropological figure: hegemons are the big men of world politics. Their main worry is that they will be outcompeted by other big men.

The Dutch and the United Nations

A final example concerns Dutch diplomacy. The design journal FRAMƎ reported on its website (03.10.2013) on the renovation of the Delegates Lounge at the United Nations Headquarters, which the Dutch government had fought hard to be put in charge of and were happy to finance.

Now taking place on a site overlooking the East River in New York City, [its reporter wrote] precisely 65 years after the first foundation stone was laid, is a large-scale renovation of the United Nations complex. Whereas the original structures were designed and built by a team headed by Wallace K. Harrison, who called his project ‘a workshop for peace’. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned Hella Jongerius and other Dutch creative icons to redesign the North Delegates Lounge without veering too far from the original concept. The UN’s request entailed a platform for Dutch design: a showcase project that would focus a global spotlight on the country’s designers and artists.

There is a number of points that one could make about the occasion: that also “frugal states,” as the Dutch have come to be known in the context of the EU, appear to value generosity, at least tactically; and that gift-giving in the 21st century may be about nation-branding and image management as much as about status. Moreover, as we know from the account of Loraine Sievers in her contribution to the HJD Forum, the Dutch design choices elicited lukewarm reactions among many U.N. delegations, because they thought that it lacked the majesty that they felt befitted such crucial site of diplomacy. This indicates that, although gift-exchange has historically been a key means of cross-cultural communication, cultural differences do sometimes complicate its practice. As also George Macartney, the first British envoy to China, experienced at the court of the Qing in 1793, success in diplomacy is never assured. He brought with him a number of gifts intended to demonstrate the scientific progress of his country, but the Chinese emperor showed little to no enthusiasm. Not every gift makes an impression.

So, do diplomatic gifts matter? The plethora of stories on diplomatic gifts seem to suggest that at the very least, it is a long-standing practice. The contributors to the HJD Forum do more than just recount these stories, they theorize the significance of diplomatic exchange. My purpose here was not to summarize their findings and arguments, but to offer an introduction to this important Forum that will take readers from China to the United States, from Byzantium to Uganda, from New York to Geneva. It is a trip worth taking.

Jorg Kustermans, PhD, is an associate professor of international politics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. He was the guest editor of the HJD Forum on Diplomatic Gifts and recently co-edited A Requiem for Peacebuilding? (Palgrave, 2021).

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