When Bhupinder Singh, an Indian maharaja, visited Berlin in 1935, he fought his way to an audience with a reluctant Adolf Hitler. The two hit it off so well that a few formal minutes on the Führer’s calendar turned into lunch, with follow-up meetings over the next few days. During their last meeting, Hitler presented his new oriental friend with a dazzling Maybach DS-8 Zeppelin Cabriolet, an elegant 18-foot-long convertible.
In “Diplomatic Gifts: A History of Fifty Presents”, Paul Brummell tells us that granting such a car to the Maharaja was an attempt by Hitler to alienate him from the British, for whom he had been actively recruiting Sikh soldiers during The world war. I. The scheme failed. Bhupinder died in 1938, still loyal to the Raj, and his son – mortified by the Nazi Maybach on the palace grounds – donated the car.
Mr. Brummell is British Ambassador, currently the Queen’s man in Latvia (hardly a cakewalk after the Russian invasion of Ukraine). He served as the British envoy to places such as Barbados, Romania and Turkmenistan and combines a bubbling passion for arcane history with a refined mastery of the diplomatic arts. His book, arranged chronologically, takes the reader through an enchanting – and sometimes confusing – range of gifts made by one nation (or its ruler) to another, beginning with a gift of two gold-plated statues, made in 1353 BC by the Egyptian pharaoh. to a king of Mesopotamia.
Diplomatic gifts: a story in fifty gifts
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Gifts, Mr Brummell says, have been “a feature of diplomatic engagements across all ages and continents”. At best, they have “constituted a symbol of lasting friendship between two powers”, like the Statue of Liberty of the French people or the cherry trees of Japan which “announce spring” in Washington. A wry Brit, Mr Brummell is not blind to diplomatic gifts as a ‘comic footnote to international relations’, none are more delightfully cheerful than the straw penis sheath given to the Duke of Edinburgh during a visit to the Pacific island state. Vanuatu.
If this casual and informative book has one flaw – and it is, mind you, minor – it lies in the somewhat laborious semiotics of the gift in the introduction. “The gifted object,” Mr. Brummell writes, “is different from other ostensibly identical objects in that it is a gift.” Elsewhere, he tells us that since US law prevented George W. Bush from using three Battistoni silk ties given to him by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, these gifts, “intended not to be worn”, were “in the form of ties, but not their function. (Woody Allen had a word for that kind of thing in his movie “Annie Hall”: heaviness.)
It’s best to jump straight to the good stuff, which this book is full of. Exotic pets, “gifts sure to impress,” feature prominently in Mr. Brummell’s story. Communist China made diplomatic gifts of pandas, most famously in 1972, when Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were flown to Washington as cuddly ambassadors after President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing.
Once, writes Mr Brummell, “unknown animals could seem magical”. This was the case with the elephant presented by Caliph Harun al-Rashid to the Carolingian emperor Charlemagne in 802 AD. The gift of a mighty beast like an elephant, Mr. Brummell tells us, would suggest power and majesty on the part of both the giver and the receiver. And the impracticality of the gift “added to its prestige”. The elephant took five years to reach Charlemagne, and only one of the three emissaries sent by the emperor to look for it – a man called Isaac the Jew – survived the return trip from Baghdad.
Another pachyderm was gifted in 1514 by King Manuel I of Portugal to Pope Leo X, a man who was himself of elephantine proportions (requiring to be winched out of bed by two servants). The present caused a sensation, since “no elephant had been seen in Rome since the days of the empire”, as Mr. Brummell notes. The purpose of the gift was to demonstrate Portugal’s new reach in India – which is also why Manuel, the following year, sent a rhinoceros to Rome that had been gifted to the Portuguese by an Indian sultan. Although the re-gifted rhinoceros drowned in a shipwreck off the northwest coast of Italy, it survives in a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, making it, according to Mr. Brummell, “l ‘one of the most famous representations of an animal in the history of art’.
Diplomatic gifts to the United States are a notable part of Mr. Brummell’s catalog, and no account would be complete without a reference to the diamond-set porcelain statue given to Benjamin Franklin by King Louis XVI in 1785. Franklin had been the United States Ambassador to France, and the lavish gift was commensurate with his position in the court of Louis. Congress allowed Franklin to retain it, although, as feared, it might signal that he was indebted to the French. Such a gift of an absolute monarchy was not a good look for Enlightenment America, and it led directly in 1787 to the passage of the Foreign Emoluments Clause in the Constitutional Convention. Henceforth, no American official could receive a gift from “any king, prince or foreign state”.
The emoluments clause, writes Mr. Brummell, “would change the nature of diplomatic gifts from a personal transaction to a regulated transaction”. Clause Works Overtime: In the 16 years of Mr. Bush and Barack Obama’s administration, 1,099 gift packages were recorded as received by the President. Those who would be tempted to see it as a white measure – a measure that deprived a hard-working president of the pleasure of Italian relations – would do well to consider Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. In 1973, while France’s finance minister, he received several donations of diamonds from Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the tyrannical (and reputedly cannibalistic) president of the Central African Republic. Giscard becomes president the following year. In 1981, he lost the presidential election to Francois Mitterrand, largely because of his inability to be outspoken about diamonds. “They weren’t big rocks,” he said in his defense.
Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and the Classical Liberal Institute at NYU Law School.
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