From Pandas to Street Art: a History of Diplomatic Gifts

Paul Brummell’s Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents offers a lesson in the pitfalls of power play

Bei Bei the panda in 2017. Courtesy Flickr, Creative Commons; photo: Ron Cogswell; CC BY 2.0

This fun compendium traces the history of diplomatic gifts, from the ivory statues the Pharaoh Akhenaten sent and received to neighbouring kingdoms in the fourteenth century BCE, to landmarks including the Statue of Liberty (an 1884 gift from the people of France to America). As the British ambassador to Latvia, the latest in a long career of Foreign Office appointments, Paul Brummell knows about diplomacy and the subtle political cues gift-giving can render. Evaluating whether a present is a true expression of friendship, a power play or a downright bribe is part of the job, and in his introduction Brummell delves into various anthropological studies that have helped him decide.

Courtesy Hurst

One 1920s report for example observed that the people of the Trobriand Islands engaged in a complex system of present swapping in which the same gifts, a necklace and a bracelet, would be regifted constantly, presumably to ensure no one ever felt short-changed.

Art and antiques have often been diplomatic gifts, but given the pitfalls of an artwork being read wrongly, the more anodyne the better. Nonetheless David Cameron’s present of a painting by little-known street artist Ben Eine to Barack Obama in 2014 seems a national embarrassment given he received an Ed Ruscha in return.

Animals provide superior publicity, with China’s ‘panda diplomacy’ being the most obvious example. Following a ceremony in 1972 for the political elite, in which an orangutan named Miyo pulled a string to reveal a banner welcoming two new pandas gifted by China (Kang Kang and Lan Lan), 20,000 members of the Japanese public queued to meet the black-eyed pair. Yet beasts present practical problems: while arrangements were being made to get a baby camel gifted by Timbuktu to François Hollande in 2013 to France, the animal was temporarily entrusted to a local family for safekeeping. Except, through some misunderstanding, they cooked it in a tagine. Indeed, the term ‘white elephant’ derives from the receipt of beasts from monarchs in Southeast Asia that were, and as gifts with strings attached continue to be, a burden hidden in an honour.

Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents
by Paul Brummel, Hurst, £25 (hardcover)

Most recent


We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. This includes personalizing content. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, revised Privacy.