NEW YORK – “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say,” Paul McCartney sang nearly a half-century ago. Now, in her 90th year, Queen Elizabeth II suddenly seems determined to put the lie to that idea.
At a spring garden party on the grounds of Buckingham Palace – the most genteel of settings imaginable – the British monarch recently laid into the entourage that accompanied Chinese President Xi Jinping to London on his 2015 state visit. In a recorded conversation with a Metropolitan police commander, Lucy D’Orsi, the queen called Chinese officials “very rude,” and expressed sympathy for D’Orsi’s “bad luck” in having to deal with them.
For one thing, according to D’Orsi, Chinese officials walked out of one meeting in London with her and Barbara Woodward, the British ambassador to China, threatening to call off the entire visit. As for the queen, her joint ride down London’s Mall with Xi in a horse-drawn carriage was apparently nearly crashed by a Chinese security official posing as an official translator.
Of course, cultural clashes during high-level international visits are not out of the ordinary. 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 unless she extends her hand. George W. Bush was criticized for following a misstatement in a 2007 speech with a wink in the queen’s direction. (Perhaps only the emperor of Japan expects foreign leaders to follow more painstakingly detailed rituals.)
In any case, there are far more egregious examples of bad manners at state functions. Russian President Vladimir Putin notoriously allowed his large black Labrador into the room to nuzzle the famously dog-shy German Chancellor Angel Merkel at their first meeting. Photographs of the incident show Putin grinning like a schoolyard bully at this act of intimidation.
The discourtesies are not always so pointed. Lord Edward Halifax, the very tall British foreign secretary, almost handed his topcoat to Adolf Hitler on a visit, 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. Clearly, even when there is no malicious intent, bringing world leaders together can court diplomatic disaster.
Given this, having world leaders live under the same roof for an extended period of time may be the most dangerous approach of all, though it seemed to work for Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The American and British leaders appear to have forged the closest of political friendships during Churchill’s 24-day stay in the White House in 1941.
In fact, that visit provided the occasion for one of Churchill’s most famous quips. While Churchill was in one of the White House baths, Roosevelt suddenly wheeled into the room to discuss a semi-urgent matter. Realizing his mistake, Roosevelt tried to get out quickly. But, before he could, 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 those who hosted the young Tsar Peter I of Russia during his famous “grand embassy” tour of Europe at the end of the seventeenth century. Not only did he and his entourage fail to achieve their primary diplomatic goal of building alliances to help in the fight against the Ottoman Empire; they also left a slew of stately homes in a state that might have made 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 the topic 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 he had brought from China. Perhaps he suspected that Stalin, as the BBC alleged last year, was collecting and analyzing his feces to glean information about the Great Helmsman’s temperament.
Yet Chinese officials’ deportment in London on their latest visit demonstrated a particular kind of arrogance, offering insight into the way China’s leaders regard their country’s position in the world today. They seem to believe that China has once again become the “Middle Kingdom,” occupying a central position in the world that demands global deference – and vassalage for its immediate neighbors.
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.”
In this sense, it is no surprise that Chinese officials in the UK did not give the queen the courtesy one might expect. In their view, Britain’s sovereign received the treatment a second-rate power merits.
Nina L. Khrushcheva, the author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics and The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind, is Professor of International Affairs and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at The New School and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.
By Nina L. Khrushcheva