Interview British Ambassador and author Paul Brummell
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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