Clay tablets from ancient Egypt. A portrait of King Louis XVI of France. Japanese cherry trees. A heavy desk built from the oak timbers of an abandoned 19th-century exploration ship. A boxed set of classical music DVDs. A Malian camel.
These items have little in common, except that all achieved fame—and in some cases notoriety— as diplomatic gifts from one head of state to another. And now, all are described in rich detail by consummate British diplomat Paul Brummell in his new book, “Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents.”
From the Trojan Horse to the Statue of Liberty, this history offers a new take on both the curious detail and the grand spectacle of global politics. The 476-page tome, published April 5, is available through Oxford University Press for $29.95; it contains 100 color illustrations ranging from Cleopatra’s needle to the remains of Napoleon II.
Brummell, who’s been Britain’s ambassador to Latvia since July 2021, recently spoke with the Washington Diplomat.
“As a diplomat, I’ve noticed that gifts these days are low-key. Ministers tend to bring a small gift for their counterparts, and when you go to a local town, you might get a picture book from the mayor,” Brummell said in a phone interview from Riga. “But looking back into history, diplomatic gifts went right to the heart of the thinking of the great kings. They didn’t hold back.”
For example, he said in a reference to the Armana Letters dating to around 1350 BCE, “one king might write to another, ‘we really like lots of gold, and I’ll be prepared to give you a few slaves in return.’ So it got me thinking. Even though gifts have been reduced in importance over time, they still seem to be a part of diplomacy. That was really the genesis of the book.”
Thanks to the pandemic, Brummell had plenty of time to work on his endeavor.
“My main opportunity was COVID-19 and the fact that there was a very long lockdown,” he said. “With opportunities to do other stuff curtailed, that enabled me to sit down and research, and ultimately write a book on diplomatic gifts. It’s a subject that has always fascinated me.”
What’s more, he said, “there’s never been a comprehensive history of diplomatic gifts,” and while many books highlight individual presents, “there’s very little that puts diplomatic gifts into a collective historical text.”
From Hitler’s Maybach to China’s ‘panda diplomacy’
Brummell himself is the ideal expert to write such a book. Currently serving his fifth posting as head of mission, the 56-year-old career diplomat has previously represented Britain as ambassador to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan (with accreditation to Kyrgyzstan) and Romania. He was also the UK’s high commissioner to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.
Gifts, Brummell explained, have been part of international relations since ancient times. They can serve as tokens of friendship, apology or authority; as taunts, bribes, boasts or tricks. Press coverage of such gifts tends to focus on examples which highlight cultural differences between the giver and receiver; where a present is perceived as excessive, sometimes with connotations of bribery; or where the gift poses particular challenges.
He calls diplomatic gift-giving “a highly complex political art—an exercise in brand-building for the giver, via an item that must suit the recipient’s own interests and character.” For example, Byzantine emperors sent fragments of the True Cross to fellow Christian rulers around Europe, while Ottoman sultans preferred silk robes.
“One of the features of diplomatic gifts is that people choose such gifts to stand out,” he told us. “Exotic animals have a long history of use as diplomatic gifts, and the Chinese have carved out a niche for themselves with pandas. The most famous example of that was President Nixon’s famous 1972 visit to China, when he came back with two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing.”
Less famous is the baby camel given to French President François Hollande during his 2013 visit to Mali.
“Unfortunately, he couldn’t take the camel back with him on his presidential plane,” Brummell said. “And the Malian family who’d been entrusted with the camel’s care made a tagine [traditional North African stew] out of him.”
Another example of a gift gone wrong is the luxurious 1935 Maybach touring car delivered by Adolf Hitler to Maharaja Bhupinde Singh, the influential ruler of the princely state of Patiala in northwestern India.
Supposedly given by Nazi Germany in an effort to keep the Maharaja neutral just as European hostilities were heating up, said Brummell, “it arrived just as the shadow of war was coming. It was a complete embarrassment. The Maharaja’s son put it in a garage, and it never saw the light of day.”
Why leaders really exchange gifts
In writing the book, Brummell said one of his biggest challenges was deciding not which presents to include, but which to leave out.
“Gifts serve the interests of the giver, and there’s quite a history of gifts with insidious content,” he said. The infamous Trojan horse—not a malicious computer program but the real wooden horse used by the Greeks to capture the city of Troy—is one of the 50 gifts included in the book.
“But there are also modern-day examples of this, including a gift presented by Soviet pioneers to the American ambassador in Moscow, W. Averill Harriman” in the 1940s, he said. “It was a beautiful wooden seal, and Harriman was delighted. He put it up on the wall, and years later it was discovered that it contained a bug.”
In fact, the United States is “hugely important” in terms of the evolving history of diplomatic gifts, according to Brummell. One gift he mentions prominently was presented by King Louis XVI of France to Benjamin Franklin.
“He gave what was a very traditional French diplomatic gift at the time to a much-respected departing ambassador: basically a picture of himself. It was set in a huge number of diamonds, so it was a very expensive thing,” he said.
“This highlighted the fact that the United States—as a new independent country founded on the ideals of the Enlightenment—was in a completely different place from the monarchy of France. It was really awkward for Franklin, since the Articles of Confederation specifically barred him from accepting expensive gifts.”
Ultimately, Franklin willed the painting to his daughter, Sarah.
“My argument is that gifts are important. They bind giver and receiver in a way that an exchange of commodities doesn’t,” Brummell said. “If you buy a product, there’s no continuing relationship. But with a gift, the receiver feels a need to reciprocate. That’s really useful in diplomacy, because diplomacy is all about social relationships.”
But gifts have other useful purposes as well.
“I’ve found that a lot of gifts given by foreign leaders to US presidents were really exercises in soft power—efforts to showcase the culture or food or talent of the giving country,” he said.
When British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Washington in 2009, he gave President Barack Obama an elaborate pen holder carved from the timbers of a Royal Navy anti-slavery ship that patrolled the waters of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
Brown also gave Obama a framed commissioning paper from the HMS Resolute—the same British Arctic exploration ship whose timbers were later used in construction of the desk presented by Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880—and used by American presidents ever since.
And of course, no book on diplomatic gifts could be complete without mentioning the Japanese cherry trees, 3,020 of which were donated by the city of Tokyo to Washington, D.C., in 1912.
Two of the original trees planted by First Lady Helen Herron Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the then-Japanese ambassador—about 125 feet south of what is now Independence Avenue SW—are still standing. A large bronze plaque situated near the bases of the trees commemorates that planting ceremony 110 years ago.
“With every spring and glorious pink blossom, the American capital is reminded of Japanese generosity,” Brummell said. “It’s one of those gifts that keep on giving.”