Gifts that Keep on Giving

3 May

Gifts are common practice in diplomacy. The tradition goes back as far as diplomacy (perhaps even predating our conceptions of the practice), and were a way to directly garner favor and show respect to foreign rulers. Recently in fact there has been a spat of articles on the diplomatic gifts President Obama has received. Under US law diplomatic gifts above $350 are disclosed, cataloged, and turned over to the official archives, because these gifts are only received by the President on behalf of the American people. (Here’s an interesting look at Gabon’s pricey gift: While these gifts go directly to leaders (though in cases like the US may be passed on to the people) I was wondering what role gift giving plays in public diplomacy.

 To reign in the definition of what we’re talking about here I am simply refereeing to symbolic (if expensive) gifts given for diplomatic purposes- not economic aid. I also want to look at cases where instead of giving gifts directly to foreign rulers gifts have been given to entire foreign publics. I had a hard time researching this sorts of gifts (those no real good search term for them) but they exist and occur quite regularly. For instance the (troubled) Tolstoy bust on AU could be considered a gift from one country the public another. But mostly I wanted to think of things that were on a grander scale. The two examples I came up with were The Statue of Liberty and the Cherry Blossoms around the Tidal Basin.

Lovely Lady Liberty dates back to an effort began in the 19th Century by members of the French public to bestow a gift to the American people in a symbolic gesture of friendship and unity. It took a while to raise enough funds to transport and assemble it but eventually it was set up and became an American icon. And over the course of its creation, transport, and assembly it was heavily publicized in both countries- filling the newspapers, calling for local fundraising drives, and even being exhibited (in pieces) at the world fair. Since then the Statue of Liberty has become a clear symbol of both for New York City and the American Immigration story, its relation to France has receded. This is no doubt due to it being so far removed from its historical origin, and having gained such a unique place in America’s societal symbolism.

The Cherry Blossoms around the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC are a different story. While the cherry blossoms may seem like just a part of the DC scenery to many, many others are aware of their origin as a gift from the Japanese Ambassador. The annual Cherry Blossom Festival with its emphasis on Japanese culture, Japanese-American relations and heavily funded outreach is a regular reminder of the trees symbolic meaning and their public diplomacy function.

What this shows is that while a public gift (ecological or architectural) may seem like an innovative way to perform long term public diplomacy, physical objects have a way of becoming a part of their environment. Annual or semi-annual event programming made possible (or at least given a certain inertia) by these public gifts may be a more effective public diplomacy strategy. Combining this traditional diplomacy practice of gift giving (scaled up to a public level) with modern public diplomacy approaches to cultural diplomacy programming seems to be a fairly effective way to communicate with foreign publics. Also worth mentioning is that this gift giving can be done by individual citizens and portions of the domestic public, without the direct funding or assistance from the government but can still benefit government image. This is an interesting practical example of the “new” public diplomacy.



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