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The power of giving: how to master the evolving art of diplomatic gifts

Daniel Greenfeld for Quartz
The goal is to place someone in your debt.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Not all gifts turn out to be good omens. In 1983, during an official visit to Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of the US president, gifted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein with spiked torture hammers. Hussein reciprocated with a video of Syrian soldiers stabbing puppies to death and beheading snakes with their teeth. Twenty years later, as secretary of defense, Rumsfeld led the invasion of Iraq that would eventually lead to Saddam’s dethronement and death.

Since prehistoric times, leaders across tribes and empires have exchanged land, money, cattle, brides, and precious stones to foster peace and good relationships. Today, pigs and pearl shells have been replaced by iPods and expensive watches, but the motivation remains the same.

The giver is ultimately the person who will benefit most in the exchange.

“The donation is not altruistic,” explains Giada Fiorindi, a designer who dissected the ritual of diplomatic gift-giving in her Master’s dissertation at Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. “The goal is to offer gifts to potential enemies in order to establish a relationship, by placing them in debt.”

The giver is ultimately the person who will benefit most in the exchange, as long as the present creates an expectation for a gift in return.

Most diplomats and heads of state rely on a specific department to help them choose their presents. In the US, it’s the Office of Protocol’s Gift Unit that selects presents, with varying degrees of success. In 2014, for example, secretary of state John Kerry gave Russian foreign minister Sergej Lavrov two large potatoes from Idaho. It seemed an unnecessary humiliation for Lavrov, who had already received a questionable gift from Kerry’s predecessor. In 2009, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, handed him a replica of a red button supposed to symbolize an easing of tension between the two countries. Yet the word peregruzka that appeared under the button meant “overcharged” and not “reset,” as the Office of Protocol had intended.

To avoid such embarrassments, dignitaries, diplomats, and CEOs should follow a few simple instructions for gift-giving in the third millennium.

Go local

In more than 50 years of ruling Cuba, Fidel Castro and his cabinet have mostly given out Cohiba cigars. France is known to hand out bottles of wine, Italy sartorial ties.

Choosing locally made products, which showcase the best of your country, is a golden rule when it comes to gift-giving but needs to be applied carefully. “The delegations that actually put effort in representing their national pride piteously fall in the clichés designed by those that don’t belong to that state,” explains Fiorindi.

Reuters/Remo Casilli
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras received a tie from Italian Matteo Renzi during a news conference at Chigi palace in Rome in 2015.

Applying the rule sloppily can backfire. In 2012, British prime minister David Cameron gave president Barack Obama a ping pong table by the British brand Dunlop, which was nonetheless made in China.

François Hollande received a camel from Malian authorities during an official visit to the African country in 2013. The French president left it in the custody of a family in Timbuktu who misunderstood the situation and promptly turned it into a tagine, a slow-simmered stew typical dish of the region.

Leave wildlife in the wild

Dating back to the 7th century AD, the so-called panda diplomacy is the practice of gifting or loaning giant pandas, which are born in China, to potential allies, in exchange for money and business agreements. In 2011, for example, Edinburgh zoo was leant two pandas. Shortly after, China and Scotland signed trade deals regarding salmon, renewable energy technology, and Land Rover vehicles for an estimated $4 billion in total.

In spite of the centuries-long success of this practice, giving animals to heads of state is generally a bad idea.

Reuters/Laurent Dubrule
Cutest diplomat ever.

Careless were the days in which Marquis de Lafayette gave John Quincy Adams an alligator, which the US president kept in the White House’s East Wing bathroom to show to his visitors. Today things are more complicated.

The increasing attention to animals’ rights means that gifting a live animal is likely to cause a headache to the recipient, who will have to lock it in a nearby zoo or find someone kind enough up to adopt it (without slow-cooking it). George H. W. Bush chose the first option in 1999, moving a Komodo dragon received from Indonesia to the Cincinnati zoo; the dragon adapted well and had 30 babies. His son entrusted a two-month-old Goran Shepherd donated by Bulgaria to a friend living on a farm, after the puppy had waited for two days at the National Security Agency.

An exception can be made for strongmen and dictators, who usually have a weak spot for wildlife and don’t give a damn about animal rights. Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has sent cargo flights full of African wild animals—including giraffes, zebras, baby elephants, some of which died during the transport—to both North Korea and China. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s soft spot for furry friends is well known. Over the years he has received two Persian leopards from Iran, a Karakachan puppy from Bulgaria, three pure-bred Arabian horses from Jordan, and a goat from the former mayor of Moscow.

Beware of ticking clocks

Despite being an all-time favorite among diplomatic gifts, watches and clocks are problematic. First of all, they can take on different cultural meanings. For example, a ticking clock in China and Taiwan may suggest that someone’s running out of time, and therefore symbolize death.

As a general rule, showing off your wealth may be perceived as a vulgar move.

Furthermore, a precious watch, like all highly priced items, can be out of place at a diplomatic gathering. In 2015, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi allegedly had to confiscate around 50 wristwatches (Italian), Rolex and other brands, from members of his delegation, who had received them as gifts from their Saudi hosts and started fighting over them in Riyadh.

With 38 appearances, Rolex is also the most common brand gifted to the US from 2002 to 2015, according to a report from the Department of State.

Be frugal

From 2002 to 2015, the year of his death, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz gave the US 121 gifts for a total estimated value of $5.2 million. Saudi Arabia also sent nine of the 10 most expensive gifts received by the US in the same period, including the most expensive one, the painting of a Native American buffalo hunt whose value was estimated at $1 million.

Oil painting of a Native American buffalo hunt by C.M. Russell
George W. Bush
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Ambassador of Saudi Arabia
Emerald and diamond jewelry set
Teresa Heinz Kerry
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, King of Saudi Arabia
Diamond and pearl jewelry set
Michelle Obama
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, King of Saudi Arabia
Diamond and emerald jewelry set
Michelle Obama
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, King of Saudi Arabia
White gold jewelry with teardrop rubies and diamonds
Hillary Clinton
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, King of Saudi Arabia

The idea of giving away as much as you can dates back to early diplomatic exchanges, such as the potlatch, a Native American ritual in which clans and villages would show their authority over others by distributing and destroying as much of their wealth as possible. Today, offering lavish gifts may display the same kind of power dynamics, but in countries burdened by economic crisis it is ultimately a waste.

In the US, each present that exceeds $375 in value is stored away and likely forgotten, unless the dignitary who has received it offers to buy from the state, which is rare. Hillary Clinton did it with a $970 necklace she received in October 2012 from Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Expensive gifts can backfire, as “the bill of diplomatic donations is still paid with public money,” as Fiorindi, who is currently developing her research into an online archive and investigation platform called Tokens of Decadence, explains. “In 1981, for example, French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s electoral defeat was partly attributed to the fact that he had received diamonds estimated at several million dollars from the self-proclaimed emperor of the Central African Republic, Bokassa I.”

As a general rule, showing off your wealth may be perceived as a vulgar move. In fact, among the five cheapest gift-givers to the US appear Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland, widely considered as some of the world’s best functioning democracies.

Pick on their passions

Better to stick to a meaningful present, which will show recipients that you’ve been seriously thinking about them.

Before Obama met British royals in 2014, the Gift Unit asked Jackie Wilson, an Oklahoma-born craftswoman of rocking horses, to make one that would be gifted to prince George for his first birthday. The present was a success and the royal baby was recently photographed riding it.

The rocking horse presented to Prince George of Cambridge by US President Barak Obama and his wife Michelle Obama appears in an exhibition at Buckingham Palace.

During his presidency, Bill Clinton once gave boxing fan Nelson Mandela a scrapbook featuring photos, memorabilia, and letters personally written by major living US boxers. The South African president loved it. North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-il loved the basketball signed by his idol Michael Jordan that then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright handed to him in 2000.

Don’t take gifts too seriously

If you can get your counterpart to laugh, your negotiation is already in a good place.

“I have to admit when we reformed health care in America, crocodile insurance is one thing we left out.”

In 2011, UK foreign minister William Hague gifted his Australian counterpart Kevin Rudd a tub of goose fat, a remedy against the cold that the Aussie had been complaining about on Twitter. The following month Australia had its—ironic—revenge, on Obama. The US president was welcomed in the Northern Territories, with a $50,000 Australian dollar insurance against crocodile attacks. “I have to admit when we reformed health care in America, crocodile insurance is one thing we left out,” Obama commented.

Another lesson on how not to give too much importance to the centuries-old ritual of exchanging diplomatic gifts comes from Pope Francis. In February 2015, the pope ordered to put on sale in a sort of shop window (link in Italian) inside the Vatican the vast array of paintings, tapestries, paperweights, fountain pens, jewelry, swords, and silverware that he receives every day from all over the world.

Only diplomats from the Holy See and a few lucky romans can buy them, starting from a minimum offer for each object: €100 were the entry price for a pagoda that he had received from the Bangkok’s archbishop. All the proceedings go to charity, which is not only a good act, but also a muscular one. If in the average diplomatic exchange the giver always finds itself in a stronger position, then the best way for a donee to rebalance the odds may be to get rid of the gift altogether.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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