by Ambassador James Rosenthal
Diplomacy is more than high-level foreign policy-making and execution, formal negotiation of treaties and other agreements, carefully-crafted representations to foreign governments, and fancy parties and ceremonies. The mundane day-to-day issues a diplomat at a foreign post deals with can also be compelling. And sometimes a little goes a long way….
The Central African Republic, with its capital at Bangui, did not weigh heavily in U.S. foreign policy in the 1970’s. Our instructions were essentially to maintain a modest official presence at minimum cost and worry to Washington, perhaps most aptly summed up as “Don’t just do something—stand there”. We had little at our disposal—a few thousand dollars in aid, 7 doughty Peace Corps Volunteers, and a small embassy staffed by a handful of Americans and local personnel.
So when the ruling dictator, the mercurial President for Life and Field Marshal Jean Bedel Bokassa, announced the “official” joint wedding of his two adopted daughters, we did not expect to figure in it prominently. The rest of the diplomatic corps, however, was in a tizzy over just what an official wedding meant and what their official participation and—most importantly—what their official wedding gifts (if any) might be.
We had not planned on any such gifts. However, our remarkable desk officer back in Washington somehow unearthed a couple of them at the White House—two large, hand-made porcelain plates left over from President Nixon’s historic trip to China a few months before—that she proposed as suitable offerings. We readily accepted, and soon the gifts arrived, impressively wrapped in gold ribbon prominently affixed with the presidential seal.
The Central African Foreign Office had directed that all gifts should be left off at their protocol office, from whence they would be forwarded to His Excellency the President for Life and the two brides-to-be. But I argued to the Director of Protocol that these were personal gifts from my sovereign leader to his and that I would like to present them directly to the President myself. The Director agreed, and a few days later I received a call saying that I should come to the presidential palace with my gifts the next afternoon.
At the appointed time my administrative officer and I, each bearing one of the precious packages, entered the palace reception room, where we found the Soviet and the Romanian ambassadors already waiting. They asked what we were there for, and they were clearly uncomfortable when I responded “To present President Nixon’s wedding gifts to President Bokassa personally, of course. Why are you here?” The Soviet ambassador replied “To present Comrade Brezhnev’s best wishes to the President”. I inquired whether he had any gifts to present, and he rather glumly replied that he had dropped them off at the Protocol Office a few days earlier. The Romanian was there to offer Comrade Ceaucescu’s congratulations and did not mention any gifts at all. I quietly savored this small Cold War victory, which was further enhanced when I was called in ahead of either of them to see the President.
Bokassa greeted me effusively and marveled that President Nixon had found time from his busy schedule to think of him and his family on this joyous occasion. He was clearly pleased with the gifts we presented, and he insisted on a quick toast to the amicable, longstanding, and everlasting ties between our two countries. Responding to him in kind, I privately wondered just how everlasting those ties really were. However, for the moment we were in his good graces and U.S.-Central African relations were riding high.
(How high I found out later at the wedding banquet when I was seated at the table much closer to Bokassa and the wedding party than was the French Ambassador, who was Dean of the Bangui diplomatic corps and much senior to me, a lowly Charge d’Affaires. His government had inexplicably refused to recognize the wedding as “official” and had sent no gifts, and I was personally rather embarrassed at being used by Bokassa in this obvious retaliatory snub.)
I had no illusions that things would last, and in fact we went slowly downhill from there in the ensuing months. But with very modest means—it probably cost the U.S. Government no more than a few hundred dollars—we were able to keep relations on an even keel and “…just… stand there” a while longer. And considering that the Soviet and other Eastern European presence in Bangui had always far exceeded ours, that tiny Cold War triumph in the waiting room was an added bonus!
Ambassador Rosenthal graduated from Stanford with a degree in International Relations. He taught International Relations and Political Science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he served as a State Department faculty member. He is also a graduate of the National War College. After retirement from the Foreign Service, he became Executive Director of the Commonwealth Club of California and is the Past President of the San Francisco International Diplomacy Council. He travels extensively and speaks and writes on foreign affairs.