Why do diplomats give gifts?

At the U.S. Department of State, diplomatic gifts come in all shapes and sizes from woven straw baskets to precious gems. In ancient civilizations on every continent, dignitaries and leaders exchanged gifts to welcome, honor and cultivate beneficial diplomatic relationships.

For so many centuries, the exchange of gifts has held us together. It has made it possible to bridge the abyss where language struggles.

Barry Lopez
Two men in suits exchange gifts
Former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, left, and Zhejiang
Provincial Governor Lu Zushan, right, exchange
gifts during a meeting. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, Pool)

Many of the gifts shown here (and in the U.S. Diplomacy Center’s collection) embody symbols of esteem and welcome for our Secretaries of State while traveling abroad or receiving visitors. Gift exchanges take place in the ceremonial climate of toasts, banquets, speeches and formal greetings.

A gift of state often captures the essence of a nation, chosen for its ability to exhibit pride in a unique culture and people. Gifts of state may showcase traditions of fine or folk arts, crafts or craftsmanship. They may display wealth in precious stones or metals, fine textiles and apparel. Gifts may draw from a rich heritage of antiques and antiquities or an expressive storehouse of cultural icons. This way the gift becomes more than a mere formality, but a reminder of the special alliance between the gift giver and receiver.

Presidents, First Ladies, U.S. Secretaries of State and other U.S. leaders give a wide range of gifts including jewelry, fine books about the U.S., ornamental objects or engraved silver trays. A Secretary may choose a gift that contains a personal message. Secretary Condoleezza Rice, for example, gave away small porcelain boxes with a portrait of Sojourner Truth, the great 19th century African-American female abolitionist and suffragette. If there is an especially close relationship, the U.S. may provide a one-of-a kind gift based on a foreign dignitary’s interests. The Protocol Office at the U.S. Department of State identifies and wraps gifts for the President and Secretary of State to exchange.