Animal Diplomacy: Does it melt the Diplomats’ Hearts?

A brief history of how animal diplomacy has helped improve relations throughout the years

April 12th, 2019
Diana Usurelu, News from Berlin
20190412_Animal Diplomacy.jpg

Animals have been used as diplomatic gifts for centuries if not thousands of years. They are an element of soft power in its purest form. Animals are like symbols of power (like lions or bears), strength (like elephants or horses) or beauty (like exotic birds).

The most popular and perhaps the best at implementing animal diplomacy is China. Their most known animal is the panda, and have been used to strengthen international relationships for a very long time. The first ever-recorded act of panda diplomacy was when the Empress Wu Zetian (625-705) sent a pair of giant pandas to the emperor of Japan. Since then this practice has only increased, from 1958 to 1982 China has gifted a total of 23 pandas to nine different countries that include Japan, US, UK, France, Russia, and others. However, although the most popular and representative gift are pandas other animals such as Chinese sturgeons, Aldabra giant tortoises, and horses were used to benefit intercultural relations. Asia is rich in exotic, unique animals and hence also other species were used in diplomacy. Presenting animals as gifts to dignitaries is an ongoing ritual that dates back centuries. It is a means to demonstrate bravery, chivalry and respect for those that receive the gift.

Australia has followed the Chinese pattern and has been developing its own koala diplomacy. It was on prominent display at the 2014 G20 leader's meeting in Brisbane where heads of state, including US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, were given the animal to cuddle in front of the world's media. Dr. Harris Rimmer said the presence of koalas at the G20 had been a circuit breaker at what had been an otherwise tense meeting. Nevertheless, as well as China, Australia offers other exotic animal as a mean for cultural diplomacy. For instance, Prince George of Great Britain received crocodiles from the Australian government. Also, 4 marsupials were sent to Singapore for half a year in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Singapore.

Russia has mastered the art of animal diplomacy and with a leader like Vladimir Putin who is genuinely fond of animals their dog diplomacy is bound to have success. It probably dates back to when one of the first dogs that was sent by the USSR into space and came back alive. Strelka one of the two hero dogs that have ventured into the orbit and returned safely had a daughter, Pushinka, who was given by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy when her family lived in the White House.

Putin’s love of animals is well documented and prospective allies have noticed.  He has actually become a potential target of puppy diplomacy. In 2010 the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov gave to Putin a Bulgarian shepherd dog, which later proved to be one of his favourite pets. A more recent example was when in 2017, Turkmenistan was keen to resume natural gas exports in Russia. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov convened a meeting with Putin in Sochi, where he presented the Russian leader with a Central Asian shepherd dog puppy. The exact diplomatic impact of the dog remains unknown, but Russia does plan to resume natural gas imports from Turkmenistan.

There are of course many other examples about animal diplomacy that are perhaps less talked about such as the Kamodo dragon also known as “the sexiest lizard in the world”, it was gifted to President George H.W. Bush by President Suharto of Indonesia. The elephants sent to Mao Zedong in 1953 by Ho Chi Minh, the then leader of Vietnam serves as another perfect example of animal diplomacy as they were not only used to amplify diplomacy, but also to bring smiles on children faces like when Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, sent an elephant to the Chinese children in 1972. These are only a few of the many animal diplomacy examples, but the important thing is that they prove that soft power is important and can have positive impact, especially when animals are involved.

A particular emphasis is placed on how animals are a special kind of diplomatic gifts, with a variety of meanings and functions. Taking animals seriously implies a rethinking of both the process and the outcomes of diplomacy. The changing place of animals in overall diplomatic practices tells us something not only about changing relations with animals, but also about changes in diplomatic practices themselves. It seems that animals are an inexhaustible source of inspiration when it comes to diplomacy and the expansion of soft power. They can and are used in many different manners, not just gifts (traditional diplomacy is so last season).

The practice of animal diplomacy continues at present and will continue in future.


News from Berlin