Published on Aug 18, 2023

Throughout history, nations have used gift diplomacy to project their cultural identity and national values, and establish rapport that can transcend linguistic and political barriers. These gifts can be honest gestures of friendship or subtle attempts at coercion, and occasionally come with unintentional, yet amusing consequences. As states navigate an increasingly complex global landscape, the practice of gift diplomacy remains a dynamic tool that requires careful consideration and strategic deployment. This report reviews historical examples and contemporary cases of gift diplomacy and analyses its multifaceted functions—fostering goodwill, enhancing cultural exchanges, strengthening alliances, and manipulating perceptions. The report also looks at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approach to gift diplomacy, and how he has leveraged it to strengthen diplomatic ties, showcase India's cultural heritage, and enhance the country's global image.

Giant Pandas and Puppies, Moon Rocks and Mangoes: Gift Giving in Diplomacy
Introduction

Gift-giving has long played a role in diplomacy, making it a difficult task to identify precisely the first diplomatic gift in history. There is no dearth of stories, however, that tell of the importance and symbolic value of gifts given and received by historical figures—from the Egyptian pharaohs, imperial Chinese rulers, Renaissance-era European monarchs, the first peoples of America, to modern-day heads of state. For instance, the Amarna Letters[a] reveal that diplomatic gifts were at the heart of the international system even in the 14th century BCE; and that rulers at that time would detail exactly what gift they wanted and in what quantity, and the reciprocity that was implicit in the gesture.[1] In one of the letters, a Kassite king of Babylon, Burna Buria II, complained to Pharaoh Akhenaten that the Egyptian court’s messengers had visited him thrice without gifts—and that because of this, the messengers were to return to Akhenaten empty-handed.[2]

Today, gift-giving is a crucial soft power tool. Weighed with symbolism, making an object a diplomatic gift transforms it from the ordinary to a crucial part of history—intrinsic to the place and people whose exchange it participates in. While a gift is meant for the receiver, the giver is the one that benefits the most in the exchange. A diplomatic gift is at once a peace measure, a symbolic message, and a chance to show off at the world stage. Thus, a diplomatic gift must balance two elements—the potential to show off the cultural and material riches of a country; and the fulfillment of a diplomatically sensitive operation to send the right message, whether negative or positive.[3] Indeed, while diplomatic gifts come in various shapes and sizes, they universally champion local craftsmanship, history, and materials. Intended to “capture the essence of a nation”, it is an effort to promote domestic brands and craftsmanship globally.[4]

Some diplomatic gifts, over time, come to mean more than what they were first intended to symbolise. For instance, the Statue of Liberty was gifted (1884-86) by the people of France to the people of the United States (US) to commemorate the centennial of American independence, the drive for democracy, and the freedom of the nation’s slaves. Today, the statue is considered a symbol of democracy world-wide.[b]

Some stories are in mythology, too. There is the Trojan Horse, which according to the accounts of Homer, Virgil and Iliad was a gift from the Greeks to the Trojans during the Trojan war c.1250 BCE.[5] Pretending to abandon the war, the Greeks left a giant wooden horse (the horse being an emblem of Troy) as a ‘gift’ outside the walls of Troy. The Trojans brought the gift inside their city walls, not knowing that inside the hollow horse were Greek warriors who later emerged at night, opened the gates of Troy for the rest of their troops, and brought the Trojans to defeat. A real-life example that comes close to being a ‘Trojan horse’ involved the Soviets. In August 1945, a delegation of Soviet Young Pioneers gifted the US Ambassador in Moscow the Great Seal of the United States. It was hung in a wall in the office of the Ambassador, only to be later discovered in 1951 to have been a covert listening device for the Soviets.[6]

Whether laden with good intentions or bad, diplomatic gifts facilitate the making of history while being history themselves. This report traces the history and tenets of diplomatic gift-giving by describing some of the more prominent gifts in contemporary history. The report also examines the art of diplomatic gift-giving as a facet of the foreign policy of the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. 

How Do World Leaders Gift?

The many gifts given by world leaders in history have ranged from flora to fauna, food to technological gadgets, bits of the moon, and portraits; from the traditional to the more abstract, among others. This section chronicles the different kinds of diplomatic gifts, using historical and contemporary examples.

Innovation and Technology

Gift diplomacy often presents an opportunity to showcase one’s prowess. In the past, there have been instances of inventions being used as gifts. These have unique advantages: they are novel and represent something the recipient country does not possess, thus increasing its potential of appreciation;[7] they carry an implicit message that the gifting state is superior in such field; and it is an opportunity to explore new markets for that commodity.

In 757, Constantine V, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire gifted a pipe organ to Pépin III, King of the Franks, which is believed to have reintroduced the musical instrument into Western Europe.[8],[c] Some gifts of this kind did not work, however. In 2009, during then US President Barack Obama’s first visit to the United Kingdom, an iPod was gifted to the now deceased Queen Elizabeth II. Several years later, Obama’s Chief of Protocol, Amb. Capricia Marshall, would recount how the gift backfired on two fronts: it was a model made for the American market and not the British one; and moreover, the iPod, loaded with some of the Queen’s favourite music, was considered “too familiar” for a first visit between two leaders.[9]  In the same year, Obama’s gift to the former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a DVD collection of 25 American films, reciprocating Brown’s gift of a pen holder made from the sister ship of the HMS Resolute.[d] The DVDs turned out to be unplayable due to regional restrictions, drawing the ire of the British press.[10]

Personalised gifts

In certain instances, gift diplomacy serves to appeal to a country’s ties, rather than merely showcasing products. It involves curating something personal for the leader involved. An example of this approach took place during Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the United States in 2011, perhaps in an attempt to rectify the diplomatic misstep from the previous encounter. A collection of rare memorabilia and photographs from her parents’ visit to the United States in 1939 (which was also the first time a reigning British monarch visited the country) was put together in a handmade leatherbound album; the Queen was also gifted a brooch from Tiffany,[e] which she wore the next day for the state dinner.

For her husband, Prince Phillip, bits and shanks were handcrafted for his carriage ponies, and then Prince Charles and Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla, were gifted a box made of a tree that had fallen in the premises of the White House—it contained saplings from three different parts of the country, speaking to Prince Charles’ avowed commitment to the environment. The most successful gift of the visit symbolically was perhaps the honey produced by the beehives kept by the Obama administration in the White House—giving a nod to the hives kept by Prince Phillip and Prince Charles.[11]

In 2015, PM Modi presented Queen Elizabeth with photographs taken from her first visit to India 54 years prior. Some of the shots captured the Queen when she was Chief Guest at the 1961 Republic Day parade in New Delhi, during her visits to other Indian cities such as Varanasi, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, and Kolkata.[12],[13]

PM Modi, during his 2023 state visit received an early 20th-century American book galley, a vintage American camera, an archival print of George Eastman’s patent of the first Kodak camera, and a hardcover book of American wildlife photography. The gifts bridged both the prime minister’s interest in wildlife photography, and a showcase of American tech.[14]

Fauna

Animals have been used as diplomatic gifts by various state leaders throughout history. In the year 802, Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate gifted Charlemagne, Emperor of the Carolingian Empire an elephant. Horses, moose, rhinoceros, and giraffes have all crossed borders as symbols of goodwill between nations. These animals were usually not native to the recipient country, making them a novelty. In more recent times, Russian President Vladimir Putin has received canine companions, while in 2015 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was gifted a horse by his Mongolian counterpart, Prime Minister Chimed Saikhanbileg.[f]

Perhaps the pinnacle of animal diplomacy lies in China’s ‘panda diplomacy’,[g] whereby the country would gift giant pandas, today a vulnerable species, while in the midst of certain negotiations in which it wishes to gain favourable policy agreements or lucrative business deals. For instance, in 2011, China gifted Scotland two giant pandas which were immediately handed to the Edinburgh Zoo. Shortly after, China and Scotland signed trade deals on salmon, renewable energy technology, and land rover vehicles for an estimated US$4 billion.[15] China has recently stopped gifting pandas and lends them instead. In 2016, a pair of Chinese pandas (named Ai Bao and Le Bao) were leased as a state gift to South Korea, who would eventually go on to give birth to South Korea’s first natural-born panda. Chinese President Xi Jinping had promised to donate the pandas in 2014 when he met with then South Korean President Park Geun-hye, following an agreement on research cooperation on giant pandas.[16] The state gift underlined the closer relations and cooperation with China that were a cornerstone of the Park Geun-hye administration’s foreign policy.

Remarkably, the idiomatic phrase, ‘white elephant’—possessions that one cannot get rid of whilst its costs outweigh its usefulness—comes from gift diplomacy, referring to the story of white elephants gifted by the King of Siam (modern-day Thailand).[h]

Portraits

Receiving a portrait of the giver may appear as a sign of vanity, but in the realm of diplomacy, they hold tremendous significance. Throughout history, monarchs have gifted paintings, and as technology advanced, photographs of themselves. There were, for instance, the state portraits of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of France, gifted by the King to the US Confederation Congress in 1785. The same year, a miniature portrait of the King was gifted to Benjamin Franklin, the Minister of the US to France.[17] In a more contemporary context, the late Queen Elizabeth II gifted President Joe Biden at the G7 summit in 2021 a framed photograph of herself.[18]

These gifts hold deeper meaning. Paul Brummell[i] highlights that as gifts serve as a means of establishing and maintaining social relationships, portraits serve as a tangible reminder of the personal connection by reminding the recipient or other viewers of the donor, even in their absence. Portraits, by their very nature are inseparable from the giver of the gift.[19]

Food

Gastro-diplomacy has long played a role in a country’s soft power, and food itself has occupied a prominent position as a diplomatic gift.[20] In the past, their unfamiliarity allowed them to be seen as ‘marvels’—and even today, they are a way to showcase the culinary culture and agricultural products of the giving state.[21]

In the year 1512, the Republic of Venice sent 50 blocks of cheese to Qansuh Al-Ghawri, the Sultan of Egypt—highlighting Italy’s food culture in a new land.[22] These days, France is known to send out wine as diplomatic gifts. The Arabs have for decades been sending out dates as gifts—a tradition that continues, during state visits and on the occasion of Eid. The latter is of particular interest given that dates are consumed during iftar, or the breaking of fast during the holy month of Ramadan.[23]

More contemporarily, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is known to send mangoes and hilsa fish to her counterparts in India.[24] Perhaps the most successful example of “mango diplomacy” comes from India itself. During his state visit to India in 2006, then US President George W. Bush told then Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh that “the US was looking forward to eating Indian mangoes”.[25] Mangoes had been banned in the US since 1989 till that point[j]; soon after that visit, the ban was lifted and Indian mangoes landed on American shores, giving Indian mango growers a substantial market.[26] Prime Minister Modi has, on several occasions, presented culinary gifts during diplomatic exchanges. These would include Indian teas and organic honey.[27]

Annual gifts

Today, some diplomatic gifts enjoy the prestige of being presented annually between the two parties and take on a ceremonial role. An example is the Christmas tree gifted to the city of London by the city of Oslo, every year since 1947. There is also the bowl of shamrocks gifted each year, since 1952, by Ireland to the US—originally a gift from the Irish Ambassador to the United States to then President Harry S. Truman, but today part of a two-day ceremonial event marking St. Patrick’s Day. The Taoiseach, or the prime minister of Ireland makes a visit to the US each March to present the shamrocks, in a crystal glass bowl crafted in Ireland to the US president.

Gifts as Competition

While all diplomatic gifts are symbolic, some are intentionally given to spiteThe space race, a pivotal aspect of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 20th century, extended to the realm of diplomatic gift exchange. In 1961, Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted a puppy to then US President John F. Kennedy. The puppy, later named ‘Pushinka’, was the daughter of Strelka, one of the dogs that become the first higher living organisms to survive a trip to outer space—a win for the Soviets. Several years later in 1969, then President Richard Nixon commissioned National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for gifts that included a miniature flag of each country sent to the moon in the Apollo 11 mission, and four specks of moon rocks collected during the mission. These gifts, sent out to 135 countries were highly desirable, and more importantly for the United States, underlined its technological achievement.[28] Many of these NASA gifts continue to be displayed in museums of the recipient countries around the world.

Vaccines and Humanitarian Aid

Gift diplomacy can also be a tool for offering humanitarian assistance, especially in times of crisis or natural disasters. By providing aid and relief materials, the gifting country not only exhibits compassion, but also shows its willingness and capabilities in supporting other nations—a valuable diplomatic tool in increasing a country’s soft power influence. The COVID-19 pandemic underlined this, although development and aid-based transfers between countries has been a part of diplomacy for a long time. As part of Vaccine Maitri (‘Vaccine Friendship’), a humanitarian initiative undertaken by the Indian government during the COVID-19 crisis, India supplied vaccines to over 100 countries and UN territories as grants, commercial exports or through the COVAX facility.[k] India’s support also included COVID-19-related equipment and medicines.

Over the years, India has emerged as a leading provider of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Its HADR capacities foster the theme of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“The whole world is one family’), and have done so since the 2011 tsunami crisis that hit countries in the Indian Ocean region. Since then, the country’s HADR efforts have grown more visible across various missions—among them, rescue and assistance operations in Nepal in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, in Sri Lanka during Cyclone Roanu in 2016, in Indonesia following an earthquake in 2018, and in Madagascar in 2020 during a massive flooding.[29] In February 2023, India provided humanitarian assistance and medical aid to Turkiye and Syria, following a devastating earthquake.

Under PM Modi, India seeks to integrate the different facets of diplomatic gift-giving in the country’s foreign policy. By bringing India’s cultural history to the fore while promoting the country’s socio-economic progress and local industries, PM Modi’s strategy in diplomatic gift-giving stands out from among his peers.

Gift Diplomacy Under PM Modi

Tracing the history of India’s diplomatic gift-giving is not an easy task in the absence of official public records. Some known examples, however, stand out. For instance, independent India’s first Prime Minister, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru was known for his ‘elephant diplomacy’—where India would gift elephants to countries, especially on the request of the recipient country’s children.[l],[30] PM Indira Gandhi and PM Rajeev Gandhi, meanwhile, were known to have a penchant for gifting Indian textiles. For his part, PM Atal Behari Vajpayee, during his visit to the US in 2003, gifted then President Bill Clinton a silk carpet. Earlier, in his 1999 visit to Pakistan to meet then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, PM Vajpayee had brought CDs of Hindi-language film classics like Pakeezah and Mughal-e-Azam, along with shawls for the then First Lady Kulsoom Sharif.[31] His successor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in 2004 gifted George W Bush a marble tabletop inlaid with precious stones that reflected the colours of both the Indian and the American flags. The following year, a silver box with the designs of the Diwan-e-Am (Hall of Audience) was presented by PM Singh to Bush.[32] The gifts, while local, emerged from an established bureaucratic process and focused on a narrow “Indian” cultural identity and artistic sense—purchased from Central Cottage Industries Emporiums or other Government entities. The choice of gifts was mostly made by the Chief of Protocol, often in consultation with the Indian Ambassador of the recipient country in order to gauge if a local or personal context could be added to the selected gift. Only in the last few years, has the practice been elevated to redefine what is seen as an “Indian diplomatic gift”.

Like his predecessors, since assuming office in 2014, PM Modi has often used diplomatic gifts to convey important messages. What sets him apart is his ability to intertwine two pillars of his domestic agenda—One District, One Product[m] and Vocal for Local—[n] in his gift-giving. He skillfully showcases India’s rich tradition of craftsmanship and emphasises the importance of promoting local production. 

June 2023 State Visit to the United States

During his state visit to the United States in June 2023, Prime Minister Modi presented President Joe Biden a sandalwood box containing a silver idol of Lord Ganesha, a diya (an oil lamp)and ‘Das Danam’,[o]and a first edition copy of the book ‘The Ten Principal Upanishads’. First Lady Jill Biden was gifted a 7.5 carat eco-friendly green diamond, kept in a box made of papier-mâché, known as kar-e-kalamdani. 

Table 1. Gifts from PM Modi, State Visit to the US (June 2023) 

Item Description
Sandalwood Box Crafted by a master craftsman from Jaipur, Rajasthan using sandalwood sourced from Mysuru, Karnataka[33],[34]
Idol of Lord Ganesha and Diya Crafted by a family of fifth-generation silversmiths from Kolkata, West Bengal[35]
The ‘Das Danam’ The ten donations were sourced from several parts of India including Punjab, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand.[36]
7.5 carat lab-grown diamond Manufactured in a factory in Surat, Gujarat[37]
Kar-e-Kalamdani box for the Diamond Crafted in Srinagar, UT Jammu and Kashmir

The gifts were sourced from different parts of the country, allowing opportunities for local craftsmanship. They also highlighted India’s technological development (i.e., with the lab diamond). Further, acknowledging Biden’s 81st birthday, one item added a personal touch, to what could have otherwise been seen as a nation-to-nation gift exchange.

G20 Leaders’ Summit 2022 in Bali, Indonesia

As the host of the upcoming G20 summit in 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s carefully curated gifts played a vital role in conveying India’s aspirations and showcasing what the nation aims to achieve in the year ahead. Reflecting the diversity and richness of India, these gifts were sourced from various regions across the country and highlighted a range of cultures and traditions.

Table 2. Gifts from PM Modi, G20 Leaders’ Summit (2022)[38]

Dignitary and Country Gift Sourced From

Joe Biden,

President of the United States

Kangra Paintings Himachal Pradesh

Rishi Sunak,

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Mata Ni Pachedi –handmade textile offered in temple shrines, crafted by the nomadic Waghris community Gujarat

Anthony Albanese,

Prime Minister of Australia

Pithora Art –

Ritualistic tribal folk art which is similar to the Aboriginal dot paintings of Australia’s first peoples

Chhota Udaipur, Gujarat

Giorgia Meloni,

Prime Minister of Italy

Double Ikat Patan Patola textile in a Sadeli box

Textile – Patan, Gujarat;

Box – Surat, Gujarat

Emmanuel Macron,

President of France;

Lee Hsien Loong,

Prime Minister of Singapore;

Olaf Scholz,

Chancellor of Germany

Agate Bowl Kutch, Gujarat

Joko Widodo,

President of Indonesia

Silver Bowl;

Kinnauri Shawl

Silver Bowl – Surat, Gujarat

Kinnauri Shawl- Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh

Pedro Sanchez,

Prime Minister of Spain

Kanal Brass Set –

large straight brass trumpet played on ceremonial occasions

Himachal Pradesh

G7 Leaders’ Summit 2022 in Schloss Elmau, Germany

For this occasion, the prime minister curated gifts sourced from various districts of Uttar Pradesh. The gifts were chosen not only for their artistic and cultural significance but also for their ability to resonate with analogous artistic practices within the recipient’s country. The selection aimed to establish a connection and bridge cultural gaps between India and the nations represented at the summit.

For instance, a gift was presented to then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, commemorating a momentous anniversary of the monarch’s reign in the UK. This gesture acknowledged and honoured an important historical event, showcasing India’s appreciation for the shared history and close ties between the two nations.

Similarly, the President of Senegal, Macky Sall, received a gift that highlighted the traditional matrilineal practice of weaving in his country. This choice showcased India’s respect for Senegal’s cultural heritage and celebrated artistry and craftsmanship.

Table 3. Gifts from PM Modi, G7 Summit (2022)[39]

Dignitary and Country Gift Sourced From

Joe Biden,

President of the United States

Gulabi Meenakari Cufflink and Brooch set Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Olaf Scholz,

Chancellor of Germany

Metal Marodi carving Matka Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh

Emmanuel Macron,

President of France

Ittar (perfumed oil) bottles in a Zardozi box.

The zardozi box is in the colours of the French flag

Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Fumio Kishida,

Prime Minister of Japan

Pieces of Black Pottery Nizamabad, Uttar Pradesh

Boris Johnson,

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Platinum handpainted tea set.

The metal platinum was chosen as 2022 was also the year that the UK celebrated the then Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee[p]

Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh

Joko Widodo,

President of Indonesia

Ram Durbar (the court of Ram created in lacquer-ware).

A scene from the Ramayana was picked, given that the epic is a part of both countries’ literary traditions.

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Cyril Ramaphosa,

President of South Africa

Dokra Art in a Ramayana theme Chhattisgarh

Justin Trudeau,

Prime Minister of Canada

Hand-knotted silk carpet Srinagar, UT Jammu & Kashmir

Mario Draghi,

Prime Minister of Italy

Marble-inlay table top.

Marble-inlay or pietra-dina has its origins in ancient and medieval Rome

Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Alberto Fernandez,

President of Argentina

Dokra Art in a Nandi theme Chhattisgarh

Macky Sall,

President of Senegal

Moonj baskets –

Similar to Sengalese baskets

Cotton durries –

The weaving techniques of these are similar to Manjak loincloths from Senegal.

Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh

Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh

But Where Do the Gifts Go?

World leaders who receive diplomatic gifts rarely get to keep them for themselves. Often, governments have strict protocols on the acceptance and storage of diplomatic gifts, as well as limits on the monetary value of the gifts that can be accepted. In the United States, the Gift Office under the Chief of Protocol’s office receives all diplomatic gifts on behalf of White House and Department of State officials, whilst maintaining records of diplomatic gifts. This includes all diplomatic gifts which have been received by the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State as well as their spouses.[40] The gifts are then transferred to the National Archives, and become part of the presidential library museum collection.  In order to keep a diplomatic gift, the official would have to personally buy back the gift from the state—since upon acceptance, the gift officially becomes state property.

In India, under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act of 1978, a member of any delegation who is the recipient of a foreign contribution in the form of a gift would have to, within 30 days of receipt, inform in writing the leader of the delegation, the Secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry or Department which is sponsoring the delegation. Intimation of receipt, the foreign source, its approximate market value in the country of origin, the place and date in which it is received, and other relevant details, are mandated under this act.[41] The gifts are then transferred to Toshakhana (treasure house) at the Ministry of External Affairs. Recipients are allowed to keep items valued at less than INR 5,000. If the items exceed the limit, they are allowed to retain them by paying the shortfall. Some important gifts from foreign dignitaries could also be sent to the National Museum for display.

In UAE, the western wing of Qasr Al-Watan, the presidential palace, is home to diplomatic gifts received from visiting heads of state and foreign dignitaries. The collection is available to view for the visitors of Qasr Al-Watan.[42]

Conclusion

In the study of diplomatic gifts across world leaders, a few key themes emerge.

The most successful diplomatic gifts have personal or emotional ties behind them.

These could be personal to the recipient, reflecting culture, heritage or notable interests, or to the occasion. An example is the gifts presented by PM Modi to President Obama which acknowledged his position as the first Black President of the United States, and his personal heroes. They included digital recordings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Correta Scott King’s visits to India, the “Spirit of Mahatma Gandhi”, as well as copies of the Bhagwad Gita and the Bhagwad Gita According to Gandhi.[43] In return, President Obama gifted Prime Minister Modi a rare edition of the book: World’s Congress of Religions in 1893, which featured Swami Vivekananda.

An example of the latter is the gift President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump gave Queen Elizabeth II during their visit to the United Kingdom in 2019. In a customised White House red leather jewelry box, they gifted her a silver and silk Tiffany and Co. poppy brooch.[44] The choice of the flower was symbolic as the visit was during the 75th anniversary of D-Day.[q]

They must be signature to the country, locally produced, and branded.

Diplomatic gifts are a way of showing a country’s industries and products on a larger level and must champion local craftsmanship or companies. Sometimes, though, this does not happen. For instance, in 2012, then British Prime Minister David Cameron gifted President Obama and his family a Dunlop table tennis table complete with UK and US table tennis bats. While the gift was to reflect British manufacturing and workmanship, it was later discovered that the table, while ‘designed and branded’ in the UK, was manufactured in China.[45]

Diplomatic gifts must keep in mind local customs, traditions, beliefs, and rules. 

To best convey the respect behind a gift being offered, it is important to ensure that the gift is well researched. For instance, several East Asian countries consider a gift of a clock or a watch as a bad omen—since ticking time is considered an omen for death. Several countries also have rules that govern the import of animals and certain food products.

They must not be too cheap, nor too expensive.

As diplomatic gifts are funded by public funds, they must reflect the financial and economic priorities of the governments. In addition, several countries also have rules that govern receiving gifts over a certain amount.

With enough thought, or expense, states can attempt to leverage interest and influence.

Armed with the knowledge that turning a gift down may lead to diplomatic concerns and embarrassment for both the giver and the recipient, world leaders have often used diplomatic gifts as a show of both muscle and opulence.

During then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s historic state visit to Tripoli in 2008, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi bestowed her with expensive gifts valued at US$212,225, as per the US Federal Register’s annual report on gifts given to members of the US administration. These included a diamond ring and a locket with his own portrait inside.[46]

In Karachi, many roads and neighbourhoods find their namesake in the Saudi Kingdom. In the 1950s, the Saudabad housing project was built with the support of Saudi Arabia’s King Shah Saud Bin Abdul Aziz, to “express his resolve of friendship with Pakistan.”[47] Two decades later, Pakistan would host some of the most important leaders of the Muslim world at an Islamic Summit Conference where King Shah Faisal was also present. Shortly thereafter, the name of Drigh Road, the main boulevard that runs from the famed Hotel Metropole to Star Gate, was renamed Shahrah-e-Faisal.

In conclusion, diplomatic gift-giving is a timeless tradition that celebrates not just the giver and the recipient, but also the local craftsmanship involved. An astute weapon of soft power (and sometimes even a show of hard power), diplomatic gifts continue to evolve. Yet, they will remain a fascinating aspect of foreign relations, intertwining tradition, symbolism, and the pursuit of diplomatic objectives.


Sitara Srinivas is a former Junior Fellow with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme and an incoming MALD candidate at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.

Noyontara Gupta is a Research Assistant at ORF. 

The authors thank Shivam Parthi (Intern, ORF) for his research assistance.


Endnotes

[a] A set of diplomatic correspondence that took place in the 14th century BCE in present-day Egypt. See: Paul Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2022), pp. 98 (of a digital copy).

[b] It is a globally known tourist attraction that brings the state of New York large amounts of tourism receipts every year.

[c] Following the fall of Rome in 476 AD, the organ ceased to be used in Western Europe – while continuing to be used in Eastern Europe.

[d] Timber from the HMS Resolute was used to create a table gifted by Queen Victoria in 1880 to the then US President Rutherford B. Hayes. Since then, it has been used by almost every American President in the Oval Office.

[e] A prominent American jewelry company

[f] Rules instituted by India’s environment and forest ministry stipulate that animals presented during diplomatic visits cannot be brought back to the country. The horse is said to be at the Indian mission in Ulaanbaatar.

[g] In his book, Paul Brummell highlights why Pandas were such a popular gift. First, they were clearly and exclusively Chinese, found in the wild nowhere else, making them a very good business card for China. Second, they were visually attractive (and cute). And third, given their popularity – they are highly sought after, making them a great bargaining tool.

[h] According to legend, when the King of Siam wanted to punish anyone who had displeased him or fallen out of favour, he would gift them a white elephant. The elephants were believed to be sacred, and thus were not allowed to be worked and required costly special treatment, making them a burdensome “gift” for the recipient.

[i] Current British Ambassador to the Republic of Latvia, and previously Head, Soft Power and External Affairs Department, Communication Directorate, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, UK. Amb Brummell is also the author of ‘Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents’.

[j] American FDA standards did not allow for mangoes to be imported, around concerns of usage of hazardous pesticides by Indian farmers, and the fruit possibly carrying pests that could be harmful to American agriculture.

[k] According to the World Health Organization, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility is an initiative aimed at enabling countries to have early and equitable access to effective vaccines.

[l] Accounts show that letters would be received by the Indian Prime Minister’s office from groups of children around the world.

[m] One District One Product (ODOP) is an initiative that promotes and highlights at least one product from each district of India, to generate “holistic socioeconomic development across all regions”. It has identified 1,102 products from 761 districts in India. See: National Portal of India, “One District One Product”, National Portal of India.

[n] An effort to ‘Make in India’ and to promote manufacturing and production of goods and services in India – to enhance income and employment. See: Ministry of Commerce and Industry, “Vocal for Local”, Press Information Bureau.

[o] Donations made when a person reaches the age of 80 years and 8 months. President Biden turns 81 in November 2023.

[p] 75 years of being on the throne.

[q] The day Allied Forces launched an invasion of Normady, France to liberate German-occupied Europe. The operation marked a turning point in World War II, leading to eventual Allied victory. The poppy flower is used in the UK to commemorate those who died in the First World War, and by extension, others who died in battle.

[1] Paul Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2022), pp. 69 (of a digital copy).

[2] Paul Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents, pp. 69 (of a digital copy).

[3] Solene Aubert, “Symbolic and Problematic: Gifts in Diplomacy,” Harvard International Review, April 20, 2022.

[4] Solene Aubert, “Symbolic and Problematic: Gifts in Diplomacy,”

[5] Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents, pp. 72 (of a digital copy).

[6] Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents, pp. 72 (of a digital copy).

[7] Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents, pp. 144 (of a digital copy).

[8] Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents, pp. 144 (of a digital copy)

[9] “Watch Now: The Art of Gift-Giving in International Diplomacy,” Perry World House, April 5, 2022. (for ed. – not sure how to cite YouTube videos)

[10] Simon Jeffery, “Obama’s DVD gift to Brown – it’s the thought that counts,” The Guardian, March 6, 2009.

[11] “Watch Now: The Art of Gift-Giving in International Diplomacy,” Perry World House

[12] “PM Modi’s gift to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth,” Narendra Modi, November 13, 2015.

[13] “PM Modi gifts Darjeeling tea, organic honey, Tanchoi stoles to Queen Elizabeth II,” Indian Express, November 13, 2015.

[14] FP Explainers, “PM Modi gifts Bidens a sandalwood box and green diamond. But can they keep it?,” First Post, June 22, 2023.

[15] Cosimo Bizzarri, “The Power of Giving: How to Master the Evolving Art of Diplomatic Gifts,” Quartz, August 1, 2016.

[16] Park Ji-soo, “China’s living symbol of friendship arrives in Korea,” The Korea Times, March 3, 2016.

[17] Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents, pp. 358, 347, 372 (of a digital copy).

[18] FP Explainers, “PM Modi gifts Bidens a sandalwood box and green diamond. But can they keep it?,”

[19] Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents, pp. 358 (of a digital copy).

[20] Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents, pp. 221 (of a digital copy).

[21] Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents, pp. 221 (of a digital copy).

[22] Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents, pp. 221 (of a digital copy).

[23] Iqra Riaz Ud Din, “Saudi Arabia gifts 100 tons of dates to Pakistan for Ramadan,” The Diplomatic Insight, March 28, 2023.

[24] Kalol Bhattacherjee, “Mango Diplomacy: Sheikh Hasina sends gifts to PM Modi, President Murmu,” The Hindu, June 13, 2023.

[25] White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Bush and Prime Minister Singh,” U.S. Department of State Archive, March 2, 2006.

[26] David Karp, “A Luscious Taste and Aroma from India Arrives at Last,” The New York Times, May 2, 2007.

Vandana Menon, “Even a Pandemic Can’t Stop the Indian Mango,” The Juggernaut, May 15, 2020.

[27] “Why PM Narendra Modi’s gift of tea to Queen Elizabeth was appropriate,” The Economic Times, November 18, 2015.

[28] Paul Brummell, Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents, pp. 590 (of a digital copy)

[29] Press Information Bureau, “India has emerged as first responder in HADR at global level,” March 14, 2023.

[30] Rinchen Norbu Wangchuk, “Why Children From Tokyo to Berlin Once Wrote Letters to Nehru Asking for Elephants”, The Better India, December 17, 2022.

[31] Sagarika Ghose, “When Vajpayee defied hardliners to visit Pakistan as prime minister with a call for friendship”, Scroll, January 6, 2022.

[32] Prabhu Chawla, “Diplomatic gifts have no ideology, but watch for the hidden pun,” The New Indian Express, November 20, 2022.

[33] Outlook Web Desk, “What Did PM Modi And President Biden Gift Each Other? Here’s All About It,” Outlook, June 22, 2023.

[34] “Modi gifts Biden, US First Lady Sandalwood box with ‘das danams,’ green diamond,” DT Next, June 22, 2023.

[35] Outlook Web Desk, “What Did PM Modi And President Biden Gift Each Other? Here’s All About It,”

[36] “Modi gifts Biden, US First Lady Sandalwood box with ‘das danams,’ green diamond,”

[37] “Surat adds its sparkle to lab-grown diamond gifted by PM Modi to U.S. First Lady,” The Hindu, June 23, 2023.

[38] “PM Modi’s gifts to G20 leaders showcase India’s rich cultural diversity,” ThePrint, November 16, 2022.

[39] “PM’s gift diplomacy: Kashi cuff link for Biden, UP ‘ittar’ for Macron,” The Times of India, June 29, 2022.

PM Modi’s gifts to G7 leaders showcase Uttar Pradesh’s one district one product scheme,” ANI News, June 28, 2022.

PM Modi’s gifts for world leaders at G7 meet,” The Economic Times, June 28, 2022.

[40] US Department of State Archives, Protocol Gift Unit.

[41] Foreign Contribution (Acceptance or Retention of Gifts or Presentations) Regulations, 1978.

[42] David George, “6 unique presidential gifts at Qasr Al Watan,” Gulf News, April 21, 2019.

[43] “Narendra Modi gifts Bhagavad Gita to Obama,” The Indian Express, September 30, 2014.

[44] Elizabeth Angel, “Queen Elizabeth’s Gift From Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Was Chosen Very Carefully,” Town & Country, June 4, 2019.

[45] Cosimo Bizzarri, “The Power of Giving: How to Master the Evolving Art of Diplomatic Gifts,”

[46] Cara Parks, “Libya’s Qaddafi Gave Condi Rice $212,000 In Gifts, Including A Diamond Ring,” The Huffington Post, July 25, 2009.

[47] Naimat Khan, “In Pakistan’s Karachi, many neighborhoods and roads in Saudi Kingdom’s name,” Arab News, March 29, 2019.

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Authors

Sitara Srinivas

Sitara Srinivas

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Noyontara Gupta

Noyontara Gupta

Noyontara Gupta is a Junior Fellow with Programmes, Appraisal and Management. She is also the Intern Coordinator at ORF Delhi. Her research interests include international ...

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