Stupid Presents

This week, the prime minister of Britain, Gordon Brown, arrived here on a state visit.  There was a minor flap when our relationship with the UK was referred to as a ‘special partnership’ when it should be ‘special relationship.’  Whatever.

But the gifts that were exchanged between the President and the Prime Minster were telling:

  • The Prime Minister brought, for President Obama, a pen holder made from the wood of an old British warship.  President Obama gave a collection of DVDs of classic American movies.  (I hope, at least, that the DVDs were encoded for use in the UK….)
  • The Prime Minster’s wife brought dresses and books for the President’s daughters.  Michelle Obama’s gifts for the Prime Minister’s sons were two toy Marine One helicopters.  (Made in China, no doubt….)

Doubtless, if the Obamas were buying gifts for friends of the family, their choices would have been reasonable.  But Barack is the President now, on the world stage, and needs to do better.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Clinton presented the Russian foreign minister with a yellow box with a red pushbutton to symbolize the President’s wish to ‘push the restart button’ on relations with the Russians.

The box was labeled with ‘Reset’ (in English) and ‘Peregruzka,’ which someone at the State Department thought meant ‘reset,’ but actually means ‘overcharge.’

Moreover, whoever made up the box did a rotten job: the Russian word is rendered in the Roman alphabet, and the labels on the box were written on tape (proper industrial control panels are engraved).  I’m astonished that with all the resources of the State Department at hand, our Secretary of State could field such a piece of crap.

A while back in my career, when I worked for a really large organization, we were all sent off for two days training about how to maintain a non-hostile working environment.  One of the points discussed in the training was to be mindful of cultural differences between yourself and the people around you.

This would seem obvious, not just in the context of a workplace, but especially in the context of our leaders, who are dealing with people from around the world.

We like to believe that former President Bush shunned diplomacy, and was inept in dealing with the world, but he got details like this right, which helped assure that even though the people we dealt with might disagree with us, they took us seriously.  In contrast, the Obama administration comes off as a gaggle of buffoons.  It won’t matter if they agree with us or not if they think we’re a bunch of clowns.

Surely we can do better….

Leave a Reply