Page last updated at 09:21 GMT, Thursday, 14 January 2010

Snubs - part of the diplomatic game

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website

Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940)
Charlie Chaplin at his satirical best in The Great Dictator (1940)

Turkey has been infuriated by a diplomatic snub in which its ambassador to Israel was deliberately seated lower than the Israeli deputy foreign minister during a meeting.

Perhaps someone in the Israeli foreign ministry had seen The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's great 1940 film mocking Hitler and Mussolini.

Chaplin, playing Dictator Adenoid Hynkel of Tomania, prepares for a meeting with Dictator Napolini of Bacteria.

He is told by his scheming aide, Garbitsch: "This interview is solely to impress upon him the force of your personality, to make him feel inferior."

To that end, Garbitsch says that "applied psychology" will be used. Napolini will be made to walk across the long hall to Hynkel's desk, will be seated dramatically lower than Hynkel and will have a bust of Hynkel annoyingly placed by him.

Needless to say, Napolini, outrageously played by Jack Oakie, steals the show by entering suddenly from behind, by sitting on the desk and by striking a match on the bust.

The moral is perhaps that these ploys sometimes backfire and Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon has found that out.

He was forced to make a semi-apology for his devices - no smiles, no Turkish flag, and the classic lower seat.

He removed any style from his gesture by pointing them out to the camera crews present, who naturally broadcast his comment.

Mr Ayalon later apologised fully, which Turkey accepted.

Queen at RAF Cranwell, 28 May 2009
The snub that wasn't? France and the Queen at 2009 D-Day celebrations

The snub is an accepted part of the delicate diplomatic life, and done deftly, can make a point.

They are often signs of an underlying problem. In 2007, US ships were denied refuge in Hong Kong, attributed by observers to a Chinese snub in response to an American award to the Dalai Lama.

They can be used as a diplomatic tool. China knows how to play this game well. During the recent climate talks in Copenhagen it sent a vice-foreign minister, instead of its prime minister, to a critical heads of government meeting.

Some snubs seem rather petty. In 2006, President Venetiaan of Suriname refused to meet a visiting Dutch minister because a (woman) minister from Suriname had been body-searched at Schiphol airport near Amsterdam.

Others appear petulant. In 2009, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe refused the normal courtesy of a meeting with the outgoing US ambassador James McGee, described by Zimbabwean state media as a "house negro".

Some probably do not really exist. When France failed to invite the Queen to D-Day celebrations last year, it was probably a faux pas, not a snub. Not that the British press saw it that way.

Ballroom protocol

Snubs were probably even more common in the old days, when protocol mattered more.

The New York Times reported in 1910 on an incident in Vienna unlikely to be witnessed today.

As far as I can tell, it was caused by the absence of Mrs Francis, wife of the US ambassador who was the dean of the diplomatic corps.

The Austrian foreign minister asked the Papal Nuncio to escort the next senior wife, that of the German ambassador, into the ballroom behind the royal family.

The minister himself then "stole" Lady Cartwright, wife of the British ambassador, who was talking to the German ambassador and took her in himself.

Apparently, the German ambassador's wife considered that she should have had the foreign minister as an escort, not the Papal Nuncio, as she was next in seniority.

The paper referred to the "gravity of the incident" but whether any diplomatic heads rolled is not recorded.

Napoleon Bonaparte (file)
A snub proved to be the undoing of Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew

Some incidents, though, do turn out to be rather serious - and none more so than that of the Ems Dispatch.

Put simply, this led to the 1870 war between Prussia and France.

What happened was that France had objected to a proposal that a German prince should be placed on the vacant throne of Spain.

The French ambassador, Count Vincent Benedetti, intercepted the Prussian King Wilhelm on his morning stroll in the spa town of Ems.

The ambassador tried to get the king's assurance that never again would Prussia support a German prince for the Spanish throne.

The king refused and allowed his secretary to send an account of the incident to Chancellor Bismarck with the suggestion that the press be told (leaks are nothing new).

Bismarck chose to go further and make this into a diplomatic incident.

He did inform the press, but added to his version of the king's dispatch the fact that the king had decided not to receive the French ambassador again.

This public snub angered Napoleon III, who declared war - unwisely as it turned out, as he lost the war, was captured and ended his days in exile in England.

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