British royals aren’t wilting flowers — they’re diplomatic weapons. And Elizabeth II is one of the best.
There is no figure, no institution on Earth, which matches the queen and the British royal family for sheer grandeur. None, save only the papacy — and even the pope has to cede some pride of place. For where his earthly realm, the Vatican, is a mere 100 acres, she is Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. The last clause means she is supreme governor of the Church of England; the first means she was selected by God.
The aged queen, now 90 years old, has, in the 64 years of her reign, met everyone of importance, been to 116 countries on 265 official visits and through it all, has dispensed pleasant platitudes, appropriately neutral questions and ready — but not too wide — smiles. She has dispensed for these many years a kind of secular benison on all who meet her, high and low. To get to meet her is a prize hugely coveted. And the British government is determined — even under heavy fire — to grant this prize to newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald J. Trump.
This is, to be sure, a mistake — and has been greeted with enough outrage on the part of the public that the prospect of Trump’s state visit will be debated in Parliament this Monday. The famed finesse of the British diplomatic service appears to have deserted it, or it was overridden by inexperienced politicians. It was the kind of mistake that the Nobel Committee made when it bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize on Barack Obama in 2009, the year of his inauguration, to his lasting surprise. Obama, who gave one of his gracious, thoughtful speeches at the ceremony, had done too little; Trump has had far less time in office (though, for many, he has already done too much).
But the backlash against the move has been misguided in its own way. It has been framed in terms of protecting the queen from the debasing proposition of interacting with Trump, whose recent decision to, among other things, freeze and cap admission of refugees to the United States and ban immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — has sparked outcry. The meeting would “cause embarrassment to Her Majesty,” reads one petition against the visit, which has collected 1.8 million signatures and counting, and as a result, will be debated in Parliament. One sign, spotted at a recent protest at 10 Downing Street against the visit plans, read “God save the queen from the fascist tangerine.” Lord Peter Ricketts, administrative head of the Foreign Office from 2006 to 2010, in a letter to the Times of London, questioned whether Mr. Trump was “deserving of this exceptional honour” and argued that the queen has been put in “a very difficult position.”
But those who protest on behalf of Her Majesty’s honor seem not to have considered whether she requires any such protection. Trump, distasteful though many may find him, is hardly the first unsavoury character with whom the Queen has dined on behalf of the British state, and may not even be the last. The royal family has long been a potent tool of British statecraft, and Elizabeth II, in particular, has been an unparalleled ace to play when interests are engaged and foreign heads of state, benign or malign in their ruling styles, need to be flattered.
The queen has been here before, and knows very well what is required of her in situations like this one:
She will replenish her stock of harmless questions and small courtesies, stiffen her stoicism, and receive the latest burden with smiles – but not too wide.
She will replenish her stock of harmless questions and small courtesies, stiffen her stoicism, and receive the latest burden with smiles – but not too wide.In 1978, the Queen entertained Nicolae Ceausescu, general secretary (and thus leader) of the Communist Party of Romania. He had one of the worst records in the communist world: tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, women forced to procreate, the Ceausescu family personally running, and ruining, the Romanian economy. But at the time, the then-Foreign Secretary, David Owen, saw an opportunity to drive a thicker wedge between Ceausescu and the rest of the communist bloc: The Romanian dictator thus got a full state visit, and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath — an order of chivalry dating from the early 18th century. (The visit marked the occasion of Elizabeth’s only known rebellion against the obligation of hospitality: She reportedly hid from Ceausescu and his wife when they stayed with her at Buckingham Palace, stepping behind a bush to avoid them as they were strolling in the garden.) It’s difficult to gauge how much Elizabeth herself may have made the difference, but Owen’s plan did work: Ceausescu remained distant from other communist leaders, and both trade and diplomatic relations between Britain and Romania remained strong until the dictator was swept from power in a coup and shot with his wife on Christmas Day, 1989.
In a less successful endeavor, Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, also received the honor of a state visit and, in 1994, the same title as Ceausescu — Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (by then, it had become familiarly known as the “order of the bloodbath”). The trip had been organized at the invitation of the then-Prime Minister, John Major, in a bid to improve relations between the two countries, at a time when Mugabe’s more brutal tendencies were not so evident. Even dinner with the queen, however, was not, it seems, enough to prevent Mugabe from using state security forces to remove farms from white hands several years later, nor did it dim Mugabe’s later habit of reserving some of his harshest rhetoric for Zimbabwe’s former colonial master. (Both Ceausescu and Mugabe were later stripped of their state honors.)
Not every monarch has been so useful to the British state: The diplomatic charms of Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, were crippled by shyness and a bad stammer. Her grandfather, George V, was by nature a moderate and a conciliator, and thought of himself as “a very ordinary sort of a fellow.” But his potential as a weapon in a charm offensive was limited by his constant awareness of being head of an empire which stretched across the world, which could make him seem — in some sense, obliged him to seem — imposing. Queen Elizabeth, by contrast, is the post-imperial monarch, and she has always been good at putting guests and those she encounters on her endless visits and tours at ease because of her ability to show interest, to avoid controversy, and to appear at once regal and ordinary.
Her charisma has been deployed against some of the toughest targets in international affairs. The queen has hosted President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who later went on to annex Crimea, sponsor separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, and marginalize or ban both the independent press and nongovernmental organizations in Russia. She’s met with President Xi Jinping of China, who presides over a country in which civil rights lawyers, journalists, and other alleged dissidents are jailed for long stretches and, in some cases, tortured. Ceausescu and Mugabe were recently cited by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson during a stormy debate on the invitation in the House of Commons. It was a diplomatic way of saying: It has been worse.
And Trump is a necessity. His apparent willingness to do a rapid trade pact would compensate in some measure from the shock that is bound to come with the ending of the country’s membership of the EU single market. The referendum result to leave the European Union has given Prime Minister Theresa May herself little choice but to make nice with the United States; she restricted her responses to Trump’s policies to expressions of mild disapproval made at home, not in Washington. A state visit further cements a relationship that May appeared to begin successfully in Washington last month, and which the president seems to want. She had already secured a promise — which she made explicit in the post-meeting press conference — of Trump’s support for NATO, after a time in which he called it “obsolete.” She will hope for more such concessions, and may even see herself as a bridge across the Atlantic for the European Union she is in the process of leaving — though at their meeting in Malta on Feb. 3, most EU leaders rejected the idea.
Thus, Elizabeth has a large duty to perform and it is unlikely to be her last. Elizabeth II appears unlikely to retire — she seems to believe her regal duty ends with her human life. And as she grows older, she grows more popular: A poll last year showed that 70 percent of those questioned believed she should not abdicate, against some 20 per cent who thought she should, making her an increasingly useful tool for British officials, including diplomats.
But she will not be queen forever, and whether her successor, Prince Charles, will be as potent a weapon remains to be seen. He is not thought to be keen on the Trump visit. In a speech to a Jewish charity in late January, he commented that “the horrific lessons of the last war seem to be in increasing danger of being forgotten” — taken as an allusion to Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. The two men, roughly the same age (Charles is 68, Trump 70) also take quite different positions on global warming: The Sunday Times has reported that presidential aides have warned the Palace that Charles should not press his views on the president, in case of an eruption.
It will be a tense, perhaps unhappy, visit, with British feminists, ecologists, leftists, anarchists, and Muslim organizations likely to take to the streets. Boris Johnson was right: The late Nicolae Ceausescu and the reigning President Robert Mugabe are much more murderous figures. But Trump has gotten under the liberal skin. She will be ready for it, but this may be Elizabeth’s toughest state visit yet.