HALF a century ago, Paul McCartney sang: “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say”. Now, in her 90th year, Queen Elizabeth II seems determined to put the lie to that idea.
At a genteel spring garden party on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, the British monarch recently laid into the entourage that accompanied Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to London on his state visit.
In a recorded conversation with a Metropolitan police commander, Lucy D’Orsi, the queen called the Chinese officials “very rude,” and expressed sympathy for D’Orsi’s “bad luck” in having to deal with them.
D’Orsi says Chinese officials walked out of one meeting, in London, with her and Barbara Woodward, the British ambassador to China, threatening to call off the visit. As for the queen, her joint ride, with Xi, down London’s Mall, in a horse-drawn carriage, was interrupted by a Chinese security official posing as an official translator.
Cultural clashes during high-level international visits are not unusual. In 2009, when US First Lady, Michelle Obama, briefly placed her hand on the queen’s back during a reception, the British media snorted that one must never touch the sovereign.
George W. Bush was criticised for winking at the queen following a misstatement in a 2007 speech. (Perhaps only the emperor of Japan expects foreign leaders to follow more painstakingly detailed rituals.)
There are far more egregious examples. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, notoriously allowed his large, black Labrador to nuzzle the famously dog-shy German Chancellor, Angel Merkel, at their first meeting. Photographs show Putin grinning like a schoolyard bully at this intimidation.
The discourtesies are not always so pointed. Lord Edward Halifax, the very tall British foreign secretary, almost handed his topcoat to Adolf Hitler, having mistaken the diminutive Führer for a servant.
US President, George H.W. Bush, became ill at a state banquet in Japan, vomiting into the lap of prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, before slumping into a stupor.
Having world leaders stay under the same roof for an extended period is dangerous, though it seemed to work for Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The American and British leaders forged the closest of political friendships during Churchill’s 24-day stay in the White House, in 1941.
That visit was the occasion for one of Churchill’s most famous quips. While Churchill was in one of the White House baths, Roosevelt wheeled into the room to discuss a semi-urgent matter. Realising his mistake, Roosevelt tried to get out quickly. But Churchill stood up, naked, and proclaimed: “The prime minister of Britain has nothing to hide from the president of the United States!”
Things did not go so well for the hosts of the young Tsar Peter I of Russia, during his famous “grand embassy” tour of Europe at the end of the 17th century.
Not only did he and his entourage fail to build alliances in the fight against the Ottoman Empire; they left a slew of stately homes in a condition that might have made rocker, Keith Moon, blush.
Some readers may say that the granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, who, it is falsely said, gaveled his shoe on a desk at the United Nations General Assembly in 1960, should steer clear of world leaders’ manners. But there is a point to be made about the recent conduct of the Chinese. When it comes to diplomatic offhandedness, the Chinese have long had what British gamblers would call ‘form.’ On a visit to the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong famously refused to use the flush toilet adjoining his room, and instead used a chamber pot.
Perhaps he suspected that Stalin, as the BBC alleged last year, was collecting and analysing his faeces to glean information about the Great Helmsman’s temperament.
Yet Chinese officials in London on their latest visit demonstrated arrogance, offering insight into the way China’s leaders regard their country’s position in the world. They seem to believe that China has once again become the “Middle Kingdom,” occupying a central position in the world and that it demands global deference — and vassalage for its immediate neighbours.
China’s hierarchical conception of world order has deep roots, which Yan Xuetong, perhaps the country’s leading contemporary strategic thinker, explores in his books, The Transition of World Power, and Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power. According to Yan, China’s actions are always considered moral, because they reflect the proper “order” of the international system. Anyone failing to recognize — or, worse, directly challenging — this hierarchy is in the wrong.
That attitude can be seen in the statement of a former Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, now a member of the State Council (the central government’s executive organ).
At the ASEAN summit in 2011, Yang rebuked his Vietnamese hosts, and other ASEAN members, for refusing to accept China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, saying, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Nina L Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs and associate dean for academic affairs at The New School, and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.