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Personal Prestige and National Reputation: Louis XIV, Berlusconi and the Queen

November 9, 2011

The origins of contemporary public diplomacy lie in the at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in the expansion of national governments  and the rise of national sentiments.  Yet the concern with reputation and prestige as elements of  influence  were permanent aspects of international politics, see for instance Machiavelli’s The Prince, Hans Morgenthau’s discussion of the ‘policy of prestige’ in Politics Among Nation  or Peter Burke’s  The Fabrication of Louis XIV.  Burke documents in meticulous detail Louis’s efforts use spectacle, public art, support for artists and intellectuals, architecture to construct his own image and secure his power domestically and project it internationally.  He shows how the model of the court at Versailles was copied by other monarchs.

While today shaping the image of national leaders is normally thought of as an aspect of domestic politics for some countries the image of the leader is an important part of their international reputation. The rise in international opinion of the United States with the election of Barack Obama and this morning’s news that Far Eastern financial markets are rising on the news that Silvio Berlusconi is going to resign as Italy’s prime minister.  For many countries who leads them will have little significance while for others the reputation of the leader may significantly help or hinder the image of the nation.

What initially stimulated this line of thought was the meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government at the end of October. The Commonwealth is the organization of former British colonies and today is committed to the promotion of good governance and development.  From a UK point of view it provides an additional set of opportunities to promote policies and build relationships.  Also a significant number of these countries have the British monarch as their head of state, for instance Canada and Australia.  The question that occurred to me is the extent to which these post-imperial relationships are actually tied to the person of Queen Elizabeth the Second rather than to the institutions of the British Monarchy or state. The vast majority of citizens of the Commonwealth have known no other Monarch (it’s not the Olympics that is the big event in the UK next year it’s the anniversary of Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne).  Prince Charles lacks the personal prestige of Elizabeth (of course this may be because he’s not the king) and there are recurrent stories that it is the personal respect for Elizabeth that maintains the position of the monarchy in Australia and Canada, it’s Elizabeth that actually reigned over the independence of most British colonies.

While the Royal Family is usually identified as an important component of how people outside the UK think about the country there are actually interesting questions to be asked around the role of the Royal Family and the Queen as a diplomatic resource.  Asking the question marks a continuity in the role of leadership in building the image of the state.

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