The art (and pitfalls) of diplomatic gift-giving

Christmas shoppers who struggled to buy something for the man who has everything should spare a thought for those whose daily job is finding the right gift for the world’s most powerful leaders.

Forget Santa’s workshop in the North Pole — year round the elves of the State Department’s busy protocol office have to select and wrap thoughtful gifts as an important symbol marking diplomatic visits.

They also have to log all the gifts presented to President Barack Obama, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State John Kerry and their spouses.

“Diplomatic gift-giving is a long historic art that’s taken very seriously by a lot of leaders and a lot of countries, so we have to be prepared for all circumstances,” a State Department official told AFP.

In 2013, First Lady Michelle Obama was given a white gold flower-shaped jewelry set of earrings, a ring and necklace resplendent with yellow sapphires and diamonds by the queen consort of Brunei.

It was worth an estimated cool $71,468 and was accepted, as “non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and US government,” according to the official list of gifts submitted to the federal register and released last month.

In fact, that was the reason for accepting all the presents lavished on US government officials and which by law have to be declared.

In 2013, Obama was also given a cornucopia of gifts, from vases and paintings to sculptures, a blue-striped ottoman with storage compartments from Peru; a CD of the best-selling British songs from British Prime Minister David Cameron; a hand-made drum from Senegal; a mounted zebra skin from Tanzania and even some porcelain plates from his frosty counterpart, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And for his wife, a pair of silver and blue crystal Baccarat drop earrings from Valerie Trierweller, the former partner of French President Francois Hollande, accompanied by a book entitled “Nature: Simple Healthy and Good” all valued at $435.

– Symbols of global ties –

A US president can receive upwards of 15,000 gifts every year, according to the National Archives, which is responsible for storing and recording what it calls “enduring emblems of international cooperation and friendship.”

If the gifts are worth more than $375 they belong to the US government and have to be handed over, unless the recipient decides to buy them for the market value.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton bought for $970 a necklace of two strands of black pearls given to her by her idol, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in October 2012.

While Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of the top US diplomat, chose to keep a silver and coral jewelry set worth $425 — a present from Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.

In contrast, the value of US gifts to foreign leaders is a closely guarded, some might say a state secret.

And officials rarely reveal what presents Obama and Kerry carry with them on their diplomatic trips abroad in a bid to avoid embarrassing either the US government or their hosts.

They do keep a list — and check it twice. There’s nothing worse than getting something you already have.

“You wouldn’t want to make that diplomatic misstep,” chuckled the State Department official, asking to remain anonymous.

Once a diplomatic trip is confirmed, the protocol office swings into full gear to suggest suitable gifts for all the foreign dignitaries they might meet. In the end though, the final choice is made by the gift-giver.

“We try to make each gift have as much significance as we can,” the official said.

– No returns –

The office researches the recipient’s interests, tries to make a link between the two countries, and showcase American-made products.

When Obama visited Pope Francis this year he brought with him a box containing nine varieties of seeds from the White House gardens hoping they would be planted in the gardens of the papal palace, the Castel Gandolfo.

The box was hand-crafted in wood from the Baltimore Basilica, known as America’s first cathedral, and decorated with a special paint using copper from the Statue of Liberty.

But gaffes are made. Obama was widely excoriated by the British press in 2009 when he gave then British prime minister Gordon Brown a set of 25 American classic movies on DVDs, which did not play on the British system.

It seemed a poor return for Brown’s gift of a pen holder carved of timber from the sister ship which gave the wood to make the famous “Resolute Desk” in the Oval Office.

The same year during a trip to London, the US president raised eyebrows again when he gave Queen Elizabeth II an iPod loaded with video footage and photographs of her visit to the United States in 2007.