Interview British Ambassador and author Paul Brummell

Paul Brummel

Our interview with British Ambassador Paul Brummell, but first and foremost, I would like to acknowledge the excellent and patient work of Dr. Robin Lathangue to transcript a video interview into a writing interview. Also Ambassador and esteem Author Paul Brummell, we could have kept the conversation for hours, but we had to respect his full agenda.

Diplomatic Gift-Giving. Discussion with British Ambassador and Julien Jans-20230703_151954-Meeting Recording.mp4

Your book covers ground from antiquity to the present, including the story of French President Hollande’s camel, who finished up as Tajin. Quite an amusing story of which French humorists have made much. Given that stretch of time historically, how long did it take you to write this book? 

Turns out it was my lockdown project. I started the project towards the end of 2019 and obviously then until March 2020. I finished the draft right at the end of 2021. The final manuscript was finalized in February 2022, so it took me just over a couple of years. 

I found other writers who specialize in diplomatic gifts. Some from the Korean dynasties, for example. But how did you select which stories you wanted to include? 

Yes, it was fun but difficult exercise to whittle it down. I wanted to identify fifty items that told the story of diplomatic gifts. The task I set myself was to identify gifts which cover the whole span of human history. So, they go right back to ancient Egypt and up to the present day and I also wanted to cover a representative range of geography. 

In other words, to cover as many stories and types of context as possible, and that's quite difficult actually. I knew I wanted to include all the really famous diplomatic gifts, you know, for the Trojan Horse, Statue of Liberty. But I wanted to make a bit of space for some stories that people wouldn't know about and which I felt could illuminate an aspect of gift-giving in an interesting way. So, cutting them down was quite difficult.

And there were a few stories that kind of got away, either because I just couldn't find enough material on them or they were too similar to one another. So, there are a few that I regret not including. I think the fact that Venezuelan gifts have statues of Simon Bolivar, for example, is itself a fascinating story. But you can't cover everything.

There is a lot to write about diplomacy and the relationships between countries. Why did you specialize in diplomatic gifts? The physical objects of the exchange? 

I think the experience that prompted me to write the book was accompanying my wife, who's a pharmacist, to a conference she was attending in Vienna. And I had with me our 9-year old son. So I was looking after our son while she attended the conference. And one day I think we did a little deal: One morning I took him to the Prata amusement park, which was kind of his treat. In exchange, I asked my wife to  come with me to see the Hofburg and to at least look relatively interested as we go around. So, we did that and we got to a room which was absolutely full of display case after display case of a single gift and the pieces from an absolutely exquisite green ribbon dinner service. And it was a dinner service given by King Louis the 15th of France to Maria Teresa. And I got thinking about this.

Because obviously being a diplomat by profession, you know I've been exposed in my career to all sorts of gifts. When ministers and members of the royal family are traveling to other countries, it often involves a gift exchange. But the gifts of today pale into comparison when set against something like the lovely green ribbon dinner set. I got to thinking: Well, what's changed? Diplomatic gifts are still around. They are still an important part of diplomacy, but - somehow - they feel a bit different in comparison to the diplomatic gifts of old.  So that got me thinking about diplomatic gifts. And that's really what formed the core of the book. Looking at diplomatic gifts over time and really kind of testing the thesis that they've remained as a key feature of diplomacy. But I argue they have changed over time; they've become a bit less important.

Australia has a policy of “no gift exchange,” or exchanges must be very limited. What are the reasons for this?

The thesis in the book is effectively that diplomatic gifts really important in the building of social relationships, building relationships between states. But they can be dangerous because they can draw one into obligations over time.

As nation states have evolved along with fears around corruption and bribery and things like that. States have developed safety mechanisms and one is around limits, as you say with the Australian example, limits on the value of diplomatic gifts that can be given or accepted.

The second mechanism is around immediate reciprocation. It is around that sense of building a relationship. So, you give a gift, unlike a commercial transaction. Where there's no enduring link between buyer and seller. If you give a gift because there's a requirement to reciprocate the gift, you kind of develop an ongoing relationship, but you can remove the sense of obligation that that creates by immediately reciprocating. 

And so, what's happened - and it's been facilitated by the developments of transport and communication – is that if a minister goes to another country, they sort of give a gift but they are offered a gift immediately. Rather than in the days of great envoys of old setting out with cargo of precious gifts to a foreign land, giving those gifts and then years later they would come back to the home with the return gift.

So do you mean they have a stash now, with last minute reserve gifts?

I think a lot of ministers or ministers’ offices do have a sort of cupboard of emergency gifts, particularly for a visitor who comes and gives a gift unexpectedly. Then they go to it surreptitiously and bring in a gift of equivalent value out. But hopefully with good diplomacy that can be averted because what you would try to do is in the discussions ahead of a formal meeting, you're establishing the facts. Will a gift be offered? What sort of value will it be so that the host can be nicely prepared for with a gift to return?

A bit like last minute Castro cigars where I can just grab from the box and just wrap it and say here you go? 


I really love this anecdote. I'm sure you will remember. It's the first chapter of your book and you request sugar crystallized fruits at Christmas time. Can you explain this anecdote? Something about the perils of communication…

It's a story, possibly apocryphal, but it's one I like very much, which relates to a very distinguished British diplomat called Oliver Franks - the British Ambassador to Washington immediately after the Second World War. He was a famously brilliant man, but also he was quite an austere, slightly puritanical sort of character. And the tale goes that at Christmas 1948, his secretary comes into his office to say that a local radio station has asked him what he'd like for Christmas. Very nice of them! And he thinks for a little while and replies. And so that Christmas, the Christmas broadcast goes out and the DJ asks not just Oliver Franks but several ambassadors around Washington for their Christmas wishes. The French ambassador wished for world peace, and the Soviet ambassador wishes for an end to imperialism and slavery, and the British ambassador ask for a small box of crystallized fruit. Quite the contrast! So that's one of the stories of the perils of communication around diplomatic gifts.

Do we know of any aftermath? 

Well, he went on to a very, very distinguished career in public service. So, it didn’t seem to harm him very much, although he probably got fed up with the anecdote. 

Historically, what role do diplomatic gifts play in relations between regimes in our world which is changing all the time? You partially answer this but to my mind it leads us to the idea of peacemaking. And I remember what you wrote about  Princesses being married because they were like ambassadors of their own countries and could be used if one regime wanted, for example, to start a trading route through the territory of another regime? 

The first example that I give in my book is the Amarna letters and these date from the 14th century BCE ancient Egypt. They were a set of clay tablets which were unearthed in the 19th century in what was the ancient city of Akhetaten ?

And what these were basically the sort of diplomatic communications of their day. It turned out they were the letters, faithfully transposed on clay tablets between Egypt and four other great powers of the day. And what's really interesting about these letters is that a huge number of them center on diplomatic gifts!

It was clearly central to diplomacy. A lot of the letters are about other leaders of the other powers wanting Egyptian gold. This seemed to be the big thing: They thought Egypt had loads of gold and they wanted some of it and they were offering all sorts of things in return. You know, “Take as many slaves as you want,”- that sort of thing. And if Egypt sent a gift which was a bit substandard, they complained a lot. 

The example I give in the book was one ruler complaining vigorously because he'd asked for and been promised two golden statues and what he got were two gold plated statues rather than two solid gold statues. He really felt he'd been short changed.

The last example in the book is around exchanges between leaders of today using very nice objects like pieces of art. There's also a gift exchange of a pair of RM Williams boots given by the Australian Prime Minister to the President of Indonesia. Sort of nice, very pleasant items, but it turns out very suddenly they are not absolutely central to diplomacy. Nice “add ons” but not pivotal.And so really the thrust of the book is setting straight what the role that diplomatic gifts has been historically.  

There is an important book written in 1925 by Marcel Laws, who was a nephew of Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist. Laws really identified the role of gifts as a whole in establishing and maintaining social relationships – in other words, central to diplomacy, and I think that's why diplomatic gifts have remained as in some form or another a key to effective diplomacy.

So can we say it's like a courtesy when you meet someone and offer a big gift at the beginning with a powerful meaning like, say, offering a dozen or three dozen red roses. And later in the friendship you find you know this person better and you know their favorite brand of biscuits or candies and where you can make a quick short detour just to grab it for them. 

Yeah, absolutely. I think there's a lot to that and actually it's pretty much over Neumann's central thesis that, you know, when states are sort of making first contact with each other, the rules of the game are really unclear. So, it's really easy to make a mistake or a faux pas. What tends to happen is, is that, you know, they go for something quite grand. But as you say, as they get to know each other, it's making clear that the relationship is a personal one. 

So, there might be a gift of much lower material value, but something that suggests a sort of personal touch or friendly touch. Peter the Great of Russia was a really good example of this. And he had a real habit of sending to other potentates he esteemed. The typical gift he would send would be something that he had handcrafted and actually worked on with tools when he found time. 

And that had a sort of dual effect. It hinted at his cultural and handicraft skills. But on the other hand, it also suggested that it was a friendly, broaching a personal relationship. These things weren’t “state to state” sorts of gifting, but it did get personal: The “ruler-to-ruler” gift of acknowledging a peer of sorts. 

And another example which is quite interesting the way that some of the female Key figures in the Renaissance – they’d often be wives of the Heads of State of Italian City States, for example. They developed their influence not by giving grand, expensive gifts – this would have been seen as gauche - for a consort of a ruler.

What they would do is choose things like jams based on products grown in their own soil and gardens; something they may have jarred themselves, or could bill as having been made by themselves, trying to give it, you know, that “personal” touch.

Handcraft adds a layer to the message, n’est pas? As in, "I spent time doing this for you.” It brings to mind the idea of focus, like contemplating the recipient as the work is done. My approach to my small business: I craft made to order. I don’t mass produce and sell it on Amazon. Everything is made to order. And you have to keep thinking: If you appreciate the recipient of the gift, you are less likely to cut corners.

Je ne sais pas, but it seems to me it is more meaningful, compared to ordering off the shelf.

Yeah, you have described a very thoughtful gift. And I think that it illustrates another aspect of diplomatic gifts. Because the primary purpose is around establishing a social relationship. What has been kind of central characteristic of a lot of diplomatic gifts is that they are used as a form of “soft power,” showcasing or framing the culture or the traditions or the artistry of the gifting power. They're very useful, actually, because of course they're chosen by the gifter, and certainly they serve the purposes of the gifter. Isn't that an important maxim, when thinking about diplomatic gifts? The soft power dimension can serve as a signal or calling card, a willingness to establish a contact – not always friendly, it turns out.

Exactly. So, how do you recover from an episode of treachery, after the Trojan horse?

The interest of the gifter or giver may not be benign at all! It's quite interesting linguistically. You know the German word “gift” has a connotation of giving, of course; but it also means “poison.” And I think this can be a dimension of the diplomatic gift. Depending on the intent, it might have sting in its tail. The classic example, as you mentioned of course, is the Trojan horse. This was a gift from the Greeks to the Trojans, but it was a gift designed to take their city. It bore within it a brigade of soldiers. That’s a wonderful mythological example. Turns out historically we cannot confirm that there actually was a Trojan horse. And, in any case, we have some equivalents in our own times. 

I have in mind, in the 1940s, the American ambassador to Moscow received a carving of the great Presidential Seal of the United States. It was beautifully done. It was given to him by a Soviet diplomatic delegation to commemorate the friendship between the then Soviet Union and the Americans in securing a victory over Hitler and German Fascism. The US ambassador was so delighted with this he put it up over his desk in his study. And it was several years later it was discovered that it contained a very cunning type of listening device. So, you do have to be aware of the potential that a diplomatic gift might a include scorpion’s tail.

I'm actually very interested in how the trust between two countries can be tested and the classic example of that is gifts of food and drink. And particularly where you know a visiting ruler is offered a great banquet, in their honour, and one assumes that their hosts’ interests are benign. So, it does make a statement about the relationship and, sometimes, whatever the strength of the relationship, there is a little bit of caution that steps in, and the ruler or the country concerned decides not to test it out.  In fact, under US rules, you see next to the gifts of food and drink a reference declaring that this gift was disposed of in accordance with Security Service policy. It’s not unusual to have that placed next to just about every gift of food and drink received by a U.S. President. And I am guessing that the US Secret Service policy is simply just to dispose of the gift.

There was a story about a special Japanese Whisky offered under President Obama’s administration, but disappeared under the Trump administration, the empty bottle was only found. Maybe they continued testing?

There are lots of stories in a similar vein. For example, the late President Kennedy's love for Cuban cigars as well.

Do you remember a personal gift you received? I think you said in a previous podcast that you received a live goat? 

I think that's probably my most memorable gift I've ever received, which was in Turkmenistan, and I was presented with this - you know - beautiful baby goat. And he'd obviously been kind of shampooed. It had a little Red Ribbon round its neck. It was rather delightful! But I had no idea what to do with this goat, so I just left it in the garden of the residence. And then it turned out the residence was a rented property. And I think our landlord got a little bit worried that it was progressively chomping through his prized plants in the garden. So, he said to me. “Well, I'll tell you what, I'll keep the goat for you on my farm”. I said, “That's absolutely fine”. And then for ages after that he kept asking me to visit his farm and have a meal of shashlik with him. And I kept putting him off and I thought, “The longer I can put him off the longer the goat will live!” 

As an ambassador today in the twenty-first century -what sort of gifts do you receive these days? 

In ambassadorial life, most heads and missional authorities will at some time usually be presented with a gift which says something about that locality. It might be a picture book of the local area. In return I would reciprocate with something which, as I say, kind of highlights the United Kingdom, like tea or cheese or sparkling wine.  Something that speaks to British exports and British innovation. 

You didn’t dare to offer Marmite by any chance?

Turns out I haven't actually offered Marmite! I mean, you either love it or you hate it. Marmite would be either accepted with relish, or accepted politely depending on which side of the fence the recipient is on. It's not a gift I've offered I have to say.

I lived in England for a year, in Torquay, and enjoyed the great weather of Devon. I remember my first time trying Marmite: I concluded it was preferable to the Australian Vegemite.

Oh, now those are fighting words! [Laughing.] And I, for one, won't enter into that debate! 

How important is cultural literacy is in diplomacy? Are there protocols, etiquette, and customs for which you must prepare? To know about? How do you go about doing that?

t's really important to understand. So, in preparation for a posting, that's one of the aspects that you'll certainly be digging into, you know, trying to find out about and be ready on arrival at post. One key feature of every embassy is they have a mix of UK based staff. There are diplomats who come out for a fixed posting length from the United Kingdom, but also in situ staff. So, staff members already residing in that country, who are based there, have a really key role in explaining the lay of the land to us newcomers.

But there are problems that may arise. The cultural “do’s and don'ts” and it’s best to be prepared. It's like, you need to know, at a minimum, what counts as a faux pas, what to avoid.

In Latvia flowers are an important diplomatic symbol, but you have to get the numbers right. You must bring an odd number of flowers to an optimistic happy event, for example, because bringing an even number of flowers suggests a funeral. It helps to know such rules.

Can you think of any famous examples of where the gifter got it wrong, where they didn't really understand the kind of cultural circumstances into which they were going? 

One very famous example I can think of is Lord McCartney's diplomatic mission to Peking in 1793. This was a big British effort, you know, industrial revolution taking place in the UK. We were starting to think about manufacturing to the world, but we were really challenged the Chinese who were controlling trade. They were controlling it through Hong Kong and Canton, and they weren't allowing us to trade directly with what was then called Peking, now Beijing. 

So, we had this very elaborate diplomatic mission that sought to open up Chinese trade, but it completely failed! And it completely failed because they just didn't understand the terms of engagement that undergirded the whole thing. 

McCartney thought he was going in for a negotiation of equals. Under which he would be bringing gifts, and they were also to him trade goods. He was putting on display and offering up the sort of products that Britain had to offer in a new trade agreement.

Fine, except the Chinese don’t see it that way. They thought it was a kind of mission of tribute. You know, McCartney was coming to celebrate the Emperor's birth! He there representing a supplicant subordinate power. Completely missed signals so there was never any hope that that mission was going to succeed in its negotiations because the Chinese just didn't view it as a negotiation at all.

How do you deal with that potential for misunderstanding? You know, between your protocol, your etiquette from your country as opposed to the one you are visiting?

So when I had two postings in Central Asia there was one big challenge that I faced when I was sort of arriving with a British mindset. You know - if you're invited to dinner, it's kind of polite to eat everything on your plate. Except that mindset in central Asia is that it's polite to over-provide for guests. They worry that haven't provided enough food if you just keep eating. So, the effect was that I had to learn pretty quickly the regional etiquette. Otherwise, I would have just expanded my waistline far more than I actually did in my time in those countries.

In the end, it works better if you have embassy colleagues and you have read enough about the country to be aware of the challenges, certainly before accepting the invite.

So, we saw the cultural consideration. Do you approach it differently if it's more a capitalist versus a communist orthodoxy, or whoever is in power at the moment? 

It's really a balance: Typically, there is there is a sense of what sort of gifts are proper to offer … There's a predisposition, certainly in the UK and in many countries, against giving a gift of excessive value, because that could be construed as a bribe.

So that's a really important consideration. Beyond that, something that showcases the United Kingdom in a positive way. 

What sort of things are expected if the purpose is to establish and maintain a good positive social relationship? Do you think strategically about that recipient? What sort of research goes into that? 

Again, Latvia is a good example: Flowers are a really nice gift, but of course they're perishable, right, they don't have a lasting material value. So, they serve very nicely to avoid connotations of bribery. But still, it's a kind of nice friendly thing to do. We use flowers a lot in as many locales as possible. However, you must always be attuned to local circumstances, and to maintaining your principles, and the overall framework of the gift-giving customs from your country.

To refer back to the Byzantine era, I was impressed by the strategy of gifting with silk, but at the same time making sure there was no trade or very limited trade exchange. So, who could think all this through and be the mastermind of diplomatic gifts?

Yeah, I think I think you're right in many ways and I think this illustrates quite an interesting point, because if you look, if you compare Byzantium with the Roman Empire, what you find is that the Romans in relative terms, are pretty lousy at diplomatic gifting. In fact, they were not great diplomats. And that's I think because they didn't really need to be. They were this great sort of expanding power. As you know, there was no equal to the Roman Empire in the world at the time, and so they really didn't sort of need diplomacy.

Byzantium was different and was kind of jockeying for power. So diplomacy became essential they were really, really good at it. The Byzantines used diplomatic gifts in a really clever way. And so the great Byzantine gift they alighted on was silk and particularly silk dyed in the imperial purple. 

You know they had effectively, for a long period of time, pretty much the monopoly over production of the really kind of exquisite silk. Certainly, Western Europe didn't have it, so they had this commodity that was desired. It sort of represented the authority of the Byzantine Empire. So, it was a really effective diplomatic gift. 

You know this worked probably up until about the 10th century, but then you know, the 12th century, 13th century, the Byzantine Empire became more and more fragile, closer and closer to collapse. And you saw that the byzantine became increasingly panicked. And they would resort to using as diplomatic gifts things that were very precious to them. So, you know, a famous example was the Crown of Thorns, obtained by Louis IX of France. That’s quite, quite an interesting case study. But in their heyday. Yes, I think the Byzantine Empire were real masters of diplomatic gift giving.

Another topic I know is that this September, London will host the Young Diplomat Forum. What advice would someone want to get around diplomatic gift-giving for foreign dignitary in this context? 

So I think the key thing is doing your research. The menu of diplomatic gifts, you must know. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs can help with what the context is, and who the notaries are and what gifts that might be available. 

And then, what do we know about the recipient? What are they interested in?

And there will also be a sort of “knowing the game” on contacting an advance, as I say. The kind of protocol of the recipient and making them aware that we're thinking of a gift.

An example would be a phone call from the Australian government to the Indonesian one, just quietly asking, you know, what's your president's shoe size? 

So actually there  is sometimes some specific information that the gifted person needs to know. But I think generally these days there are no surprises and that is quite good in in diplomatic gifting.

Safe to say we share the gift information fully beforehand at 95%, and then 5% held back for the surprise? For example, a handmade leather notebook, but without much detail in terms of style. This could be a go-to gift when in doubt?

Yes, although there can be examples in diplomatic gifting that were really sort of personal. And gifts have been fashioned, you know, photographs, albums related to the photographs related to the recipients, previous contacts with the country concerned – all that.

Really nice, well thought out, well researched items and there's certainly a place for those in diplomatic gifting at every turn. But honestly that's usually for a specific context and more than that just wouldn't be practical to do for the kind of day in day out everyday world of gifts.

Is there a continuity in giving gifts over the years to a regime?

Yeah, I think actually gifts sometimes reference previous diplomatic gifts as there will be a whole history there worth looking into. 

For my mind one of the great diplomatic gifts of all time is the Resolute Desk. And this was a desk given in 1880 by Queen Victoria to the then U.S. President, Rutherford Hayes. And it's made out of the timbers of HMS Resolute - a ship that had gone in search of Lord Franklin who himself was in search of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic.

He was lost and tragically, you know his expedition was found to have perished. But a whole load of expeditions went up in search of him. And the Resolute was one of those ships. But the Resolute itself then got stuck in the Arctic Sea, and its crew had to evacuate it. And it was found drifting ages later by a US whaler, who managed to tow it back into a US port. And the US government decided to buy it off of this whaler and use it as a diplomatic gift. 

So, they sent it. They sent the Resolute back. They sailed it back across the Atlantic. And it was brilliant. It was a great idea, and it was received beautifully in the UK. Queen Victoria herself went on board and met the crew on the Isle of Wight. So real success. 

And so when HMS Resolute came to be scrapped, it was decided to make a wonderful desk with scenes of Arctic exploration from her timbers. This was then given back to the United States and proudly sits right at the centre of the Oval Office even today. So, it's a lovely kind of enduring image of American and British friendship.

Would there any advice you have for the young diplomat just starting out? 

This is perhaps where the kind of historical memory of embassies and postings becomes really important. Hopefully a record will have been kept of what gifts have been given before. Because the last thing you want to do is come up with a sort of brilliant idea that turns out to be exactly the same gift that we gave two years ago to the same head of state. So doing the homework in terms of that historical memory is also important.

No recycling directly? 

No, not exactly recycled. But you can offer the same type of gift again. And indeed members of the UK Royal Family, for example, will often give to a dignitary on first contact a signed photograph - which is a lovely personal gift, but one that is only done once. So, if they meet the same, you know, foreign Head of State or Government, on another occasion, well with that in mind a different item would be given.

So photographs, yes; what about paintings and portraits?

Oh, absolutely portraits are really interesting gifts because they have one key characteristic, which is that they are, in a sense, inalienable; you can’t disown them. 

Because it's absolutely clear, but it's a diplomatic gift and it's clear who it came from. So, it’s not the sort of thing you can deny or disown. And, actually, in the world of diplomatic gifting that approach has some pros and some cons around it. And I explore some of them in the book.

In your experience, have you observed, or do you know an instance where gifts help to resolve the diplomatic issue or dispute?

There’s one famous historical example that I give in the book. Which goes back to 1829 and it relates to a Russian playwright called Alexander Griboyedov, and he was appointed as Russia's minister in Persia. And it followed a period of very difficult relationships between Russia and Persia. They've been sort of wars, the Russians and sort of gradually expanded their borders at Persian expense.

He was given quite nice accommodation in Tehran, but then things started to go wrong for Griboyedov. And the thing that particularly went wrong was that the Shah's eunuch, Mirza Yakub Makarian, was an Armenian and he turned up at the Russian diplomatic premises, seeking refuge and asking help to get back to Armenia.

And this completely incensed higher society in Tehran. And it was then worsened when two Christian Armenian women decided to join Makarian. And people were starting to get agitated and the mullahs were really inflamed by this and the net effect was that the Shah’s eunich, Griboyedov and all but one of his staff were murdered.
And the Shah, who had no part in the rioting, was absolutely terrified by this. The Russians are coming to invade! They will seek revenge for this! 

So he dispatched a Crown Prince up to Saint Petersburg. And bearing this beautiful, great diamond called the “Shah Diamond.” It had taken from the moguls some decades before, and that did the trick. The Russians were delighted by this very large kind of coffin shaped diamond that he'd been given and decided to stay put.
It was all sort of papered over. The Russians didn't invade. And indeed, the Russians later developed an alliance with Persia against the UK primarily. So yeah. So diplomatic gifts can be used to help resolve a squabble.

Are diplomatic gifts expected at Christmastime? 

Australia today is a very good example of – they actually have a list that Australian government departments can turn to and it's been outsourced to a company providing gifts. And there is a sort of menu of options depending on the seniority of the receiver. So, it says, you know, for a head of State or Government choose between this menu of really nice items worth 300 Australian dollars or or above. All right, whatever the number or whatever the price is. 

And then for senior officials, it'll be a bit lower. And then for drivers and protocol officers, it'll be the lowest category of gifts. And all of them are kind of desirable, not hugely expensive but desirable, all made in Australia items. 

So RM Williams boots are the example I give in the book that fall into the top category of gifts but they go right down to the least.

But you need obviously to be aware of cultural sensitivities. So, you know, for some cultures, some religions, you wouldn't give alcohol, you wouldn't give certain types of meat, for example. It's always important to be aware of the cultural context. And finally, think about your own soft power: You may have your own objectives are the particular things that you want to showcase at that moment. So might be, you know, gifts made to visitors to your country in the context of - if they're coming for a conference on IT. You'd probably want to offer a kind of IT themed gift, you know, so USB sticks or whatever. We've always taken pains to in the gifts offered to visiting dignitaries to showcase a product relevant to the conference or event

Do diplomatic gifts ever come across as bribes? 

So there is there are quite a lot of checks and balances to ensure that, um, actually it doesn't have a huge value and not least because of the concern to make sure to avoid any risk that diplomatic gifts are conflated with bribes or could possibly be seen as bribes.
The UK has drawn up a whole set of legislation the Anti Bribery Act. And we have to make sure that diplomatic gifting is fully consonant with those principles. And so that does point to gifts being sort of nice, but notional in character.
It's quite interesting.

I did some research based on gifts received by US presidents, because the US has a very open system where there is a mandated register of gifts received by U.S. officials. It's published annually, so you can read it. You can look at all the gifts received by US presidents and what the values were and looking at that. It's quite interesting that most countries in the world are kind of similar.

There are some exceptions, mostly in the Middle East, and there you see countries whose tendency is to give gifts of a much higher value and and they do so quite deliberately and I think they know that the gifts that will be received back from the United States will be of a lower value than the gifts they are giving. But you know under their sort of cultural norms and their gift giving strategies that's fine and that's the strategy they adopt. 

Lavish giving in some cultures is seen as a show of respect for the recipient, so that's why it's undertaken and they will know full well that certain rules the recipient cannot officially receive them. So, what happens is that they are taken by the National Archive and will probably end up in the Presidential Museum.

You try for a little surprise and hope the gift give off the “Wow!” factor…

There's a very nice piece of research that has looked at the Mamluks, and the kind of Islamic concept of the exchange of “the marvellous” – exactly the sort of thing that made you go, Wow! And that's one of the reasons I think, for example, why exotic animals have been so popular as diplomatic efforts for a country or a culture that's not used to a giraffe or a rhinoceros or a panda pear. There's nothing that makes you go wow more often, more amazingly than seeing one of these. 

Astonishing animals that almost seem like a figure from the world of fantasy. And of course now you know, in an era of mass communications, in an era of restrictions on the value of gifts that may be placed, it's more difficult to create that Wow moment but it is still a nice feeling where you, you can, you can give a gift that makes people go. “Gosh, wow, that's that. That is amazing”

So I think there is, always, a search for a gift that showcases and is innovative. Unusual pieces of technology, for example; something that's a little bit ahead of the curve if it says something about the strength of the, you know the  technological advancement of the gifting culture as well. It promotes your own country as well as producing a gift that will be memorable because it created a surprise.

What about large gifts like the Statue of Liberty, the Washington cherry trees? Made to be seen by the whole population for centuries. How can these ever be a surprise they are so visible?

Yes, I think that there are two really interesting examples you give there and I think they speak to a sense of that diplomatic gifting has changed over time from being focused on a single ruler to being focused on a country or society.

As societies have evolved from absolute monarchy to democratic societies where the voting individuals across the society are more important. And also I think what has evolved over time is that more actors, more people, have been involved in the selection of the gift. For example, the cherry trees that were gifted by Japan to Washington, this was not a gift that originated with a civil servant or politician in Japan. The idea evolved overtime with a lot of enthusiasts and the United States being promoting the idea of bringing cherry trees from Japan. Private sector and public sector – and also including Nellie Taft, the wife of the then US President who wanted to beautify the park along the Potomac River. 

So she sort of got the idea of bringing cherry trees for that purpose and all of that. You know, these conversations have been going on for years and then the Japanese alighted on this as an opportunity and then brought over the cherry trees and the cherry trees – I mean, what a wonderful gift! With every flowering, every year reminds you of that original gift. So, in a sense, that’s a gift that keeps on giving.

When President Macron went to visit President Trump, they planted a French oak tree. After some nice pictures with shovels in hands. The sapling was moved carefully indoors for protection, but someone forgot to water the sapling and it died.

Well the first time the Japanese sent cherry trees to Washington, they were found to everybody's embarrassment to be infested with parasites and so the whole lot of them had to be destroyed. So the Japanese then took great care to ensure that the second set of cherry trees were very healthy. The second time was just fine but it did take them two tries to achieve it.

So a gift could go through weeks or months or sometimes years of preparation and negotiation and maybe you have to create something like a command task force between the two countries to make it happen. Quite the contrast to a quick exchange which happens over the course of a few minutes.

Well, when a minister travels, they will typically carry a varied set of gifts - nice items and they've been thought about. But there is no sense that this is going to profoundly change the relationship that is under construction.
And yet there are other gifts which are deeply considered and are really intended to make a statement about the relationship between two countries. An example from the UK is the gift we receive every year. Since 1947 from Norway a Christmas tree goes into Trafalgar Square and this reflects the gratitude of Norway for the support we gave during the Second World War, and particularly for hosting the King and Government of Norway in exile. 

So, it's a gift that really kind of means something and says a lot about the bilateral relationship. And decades later our ambassador in Norway still goes every year up into a forest. With, I think, the mayor of the city of Oslo, and the mayor of the City of Westminster, and they select and cut down the Christmas tree that will then be taken to London for that year. So, it remains a diplomatic gift that a lot of effort continues to be invested in.

Like in Canada, we receive  Tulip bulbs in the color of the Canadian flag from… 

From the Netherlands. Exactly right. A very similar sort of gift, actually. Again, in gratitude for Canada's wartime role in supporting members of the Dutch royal family.

Okay last question: Paul Brummell, do you plan to write more books? On diplomacy or related topics in the future?

I'll never say no! And I was fascinated by doing the book! But there's plenty of work