Nina Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs and associate dean for academic affairs at the New Schoolat, and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.
"Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl, but she doesn't have a lot to say," Paul McCartney sang nearly a half-century ago. Now, the 90-year-old Queen seems determined to put the lie to that idea.
At a garden party on the grounds of Buckingham Palace earlier this month, she laid into the entourage that accompanied Chinese President Xi Jinping to London on his 2015 state visit. In a recorded conversation with Metropolitan Police Commander Lucy D'Orsi, the Queen called the Chinese officials "very rude," and expressed sympathy for Cdr. D'Orsi's "bad luck" in having to deal with them.
For one thing, according to the commander, Chinese officials walked out of one meeting in London with her and the British ambassador to China, threatening to call off the entire visit. And the Queen's joint ride down London's Mall with Mr. Xi in a horse-drawn carriage was apparently nearly crashed by a Chinese security official posing as an official translator.
Cultural clashes during high-level international visits are not out of the ordinary. In 2009, when U.S. first lady Michelle Obama briefly placed her hand on the Queen's back during a reception, the British media snorted that one must never touch the sovereign unless she extends her hand.
There are far more egregious examples of bad manners at state functions. Russian President Vladimir Putin notoriously allowed his large black Labrador into the room to nuzzle the famously dog-shy German Chancellor Angel Merkel at their first meeting. Photographs of the incident show Mr. Putin grinning like a schoolyard bully at this act of intimidation.
Discourtesies are not always about etiquette. U.S. president George H.W. Bush became ill at a state banquet in Japan, vomiting into the lap of prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa before slumping into a stupor. Clearly, even when there is no malicious intent, bringing world leaders together can court diplomatic disaster.
Having world leaders live under the same roof for an extended period of time may be the most dangerous approach of all, though it seemed to work for Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The U.S. and British leaders appear to have forged the closest of political friendships during Churchill's 24-day stay in the White House in 1941.
That visit provided the occasion for one of Churchill's most famous quips. While he was taking a bath, FDR suddenly wheeled into the room to discuss a semi-urgent matter. Realizing his mistake, the president tried to get out quickly. Before he could, Churchill stood up, naked, and proclaimed: "The prime minister of Britain has nothing to hide from the president of the United States!"
When it comes to diplomatic offhandedness, the Chinese have long had what British gamblers would call "form." Yet, Chinese officials' deportment in London on their latest visit demonstrated a particular kind of arrogance, offering insight into the way China's leaders regard their country's position in the world today. They seem to believe that China has once again become the Middle Kingdom, occupying a central position in the world that demands global deference – and vassalage for its immediate neighbours.
China's hierarchical conception of world order has deep roots, which Yan Xuetong, perhaps the country's leading contemporary strategic thinker, explores in his books The Transition of World Power and Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power. According to Mr. Yan, China's actions are always considered moral, because they reflect the proper "order" of the international system. Anyone failing to recognize this hierarchy is in the wrong.
That attitude can be seen in the statement of a former Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, now a member of the central State Council. At the ASEAN summit in 2011, he rebuked his Vietnamese hosts and other ASEAN members for refusing to accept China's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, saying, "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact."
So it's no surprise that Chinese officials in Britain did not give the Queen the courtesy one might expect. In their view, Britain's sovereign received the treatment a second-rate power merits.