When Bhupinder Singh, an Indian maharaja, visited Berlin in 1935, he wormed his way into an audience with a reluctant Adolf Hitler. The two hit it off so well that a few formal minutes on the leader’s calendar turned into lunch, with follow-up meetings over the next few days. At their last encounter, Hitler presented his new Eastern friend with a dazzling Maybach DS-8 Zeppelin Cabriolet, a sleek convertible measuring 18 feet in length.
In Diplomatic Gifts: A History of Fifty Presents, Paul Brummell tells us that bestowing such a car on the Maharajah was an attempt by Hitler to steer him away from the British, for whom he had been actively recruiting Sikh soldiers during World War I. The trick was unsuccessful. Bhupinder died in 1938, still loyal to the Raj, and his son – who was humiliated in the palace grounds by the Nazi Maybach – gave the car away.
Mr Brummell is a British Ambassador, currently the Queen’s husband in Latvia (barely a sinecure following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). Having served as a British envoy in places such as Barbados, Romania and Turkmenistan, he combines a bubbly passion for mysterious history with a honed skill in the diplomatic arts. Arranged chronologically, his book takes the reader through an enchanting – and occasionally bewildering – series of gifts made by one nation (or its ruler) to another, beginning with a gift of two gilded statues made in 1353 B.C. by the Egyptian pharaoh to a king in Mesopotamia.
Diplomatic Gifts: A Tale in Fifty Gifts
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Gifts, says Mr Brummell, are “a feature of diplomatic engagements in all eras and continents”. At their finest, they have “represented a symbol of enduring friendship between two powers,” like the French people’s Statue of Liberty, or the Japanese cherry trees that “herald spring” in Washington. Mr Brummell, a crooked Brit, is not blind to diplomatic gifts as a “comedic footnote to international relations,” nothing is more delicious than the straw penis sheath gifted to the Duke of Edinburgh on a visit to the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.
If this brisk and instructive book has one flaw—and it’s a minor one, mind you—it’s in the somewhat clumsy semiotics of gift-giving in the introduction. “The gift item,” writes Mr. Brummell, “distinguishes itself from other apparently identical items in that it is a gift.” Elsewhere, since US law prevented George W. Bush from giving three Battistoni silk ties, he tells us given him by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, these gifts, “intended not to be worn,” “had the form of ties but not their function.” (Woody Allen, in his film Annie Hall” a word for something like that: Heavyosity.)
It’s best to jump straight to the good stuff this book is packed to the brim. Exotic animals, “gifts guaranteed to impress,” feature prominently in Mr. Brummell’s account. Communist China made diplomatic gifts of pandas, most famously in 1972 when Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were flown to Washington as cuddly ambassadors following President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing.
In earlier times, writes Mr. Brummell, “unknown animals could work magic.” Such was the case with the elephant presented by Caliph Harun al-Rashid to the Carolingian Emperor Charlemagne in AD 802. The gift of a mighty animal like an elephant, Mr. Brummell tells us, would suggest power and majesty on both the giver and the receiver. And the impracticality of the gift “enhanced its prestige.” It took the elephant five years to reach Charlemagne, and only one of the three emissaries the emperor sent to retrieve it – a man named Isaac the Jew – survived the return journey from Baghdad.
Another pachyderm was given to Pope Leo X by King Manuel I of Portugal in 1514, a man himself the size of an elephant (who had to be dragged out of bed by two servants). The gift caused a sensation, because “an elephant had not been seen in Rome since the days of the Empire,” as Herr Brummell notes. The purpose of the gift was to demonstrate Portugal’s newfound reach in India – which is why Manuel sent a rhinoceros to Rome the next year that had been gifted to the Portuguese by an Indian sultan. Although the newly gifted rhino drowned in a shipwreck off the north-west coast of Italy, it lives on in a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, making it, in Mr. Brummell’s words, “one of the most famous depictions of an animal in art history”.
Diplomatic gifts to the United States are a notable part of Mr. Brummell’s catalogue, and no account would be complete without a reference to the diamond-encrusted porcelain statue depicting King Louis XVI. Benjamin Franklin gave in 1785. Franklin was US Ambassador to France, and the lavish gift befitted his standing at the court of Louis. Congress allowed Franklin to keep it, even if, as was feared, it might signal his indebtedness to the French. Such a gift from an absolute monarchy did not look good for enlightened America and led directly to the passage of the Foreign Emoluments Clause at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Henceforth, no US official could receive a gift from “a king, prince, or foreign state.”
The emoluments clause, writes Mr. Brummell, would “change the nature of diplomatic gifts from a personal to a regulated transaction.” The clause is working overtime: In the 16 years of the Bush and Barack Obama administrations, 1,099 gift packages were recorded as having been received from the President. Those tempted to see it as a blanket measure – one that denies a hard-working president the joy of Italian relations – should consider Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. In 1973, as Finance Minister of France, he received several diamond gifts from Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the tyrannical (and allegedly cannibalistic) President of the Central African Republic. Giscard became president the next year. In 1981 he lost the presidential election to François Mitterrand, not least because he failed to crack the diamonds. “They weren’t big stones,” he said in his defense.
Mr. Varadarajan, a contributor to the journal, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Classical Liberal Institute at NYU Law School.
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