On the surface, it is a solemn and apolitical event being watched by millions. But Queen Elizabeth’s funeral is also a geopolitical phenomenon in which most of the world’s presidents and prime ministers are gathered in close proximity, promising to make it an international diplomatic event on the scale of a major summit meeting.
Funerals of monarchs and other major heads of state have often become scenes of important international deal-making and alliance-building. Elizabeth’s is the first in decades to hold this potential: bigger and more prominent than any this century, occurring at a moment of multiple international crises, and taking place the day before the United Nations General Assembly is due to begin its annual session in New York, with the same national leaders in attendance.
That means that for many of them, Monday’s solemn ceremony will be, in a phrase coined by the late British prime minister Harold Wilson, “a good working funeral.” It falls in a long tradition of head-of-state funerals that have served as de facto summits.
“These events are of important diplomatic value because they afford heads of government and heads of state a kind of stealth opportunity to speak with their counterparts, well away from the public,” says Louise Blais, the veteran diplomat who was Canada’s ambassador to the UN from 2017 to 2021. “There isn’t a table with a delegation on each side, it’s just the principal actors being able to talk with one another directly. That usually goes a long way in terms of developing rapport and trust between the parties.”
Officially, national delegations have been asked not to schedule bilateral meetings or other diplomatic events on the day of the funeral. But the national leaders will spend long hours squeezed next to one another, including on buses that all of them (except U.S. President Joe Biden, who will ride in his limousine) must take together to the funeral.
And the days leading up to it have turned London into a diplomatic barn dance. Like a number of other leaders, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived three days before the funeral and used the weekend for meetings – in his case, officially with new British Prime Minister Liz Truss, with King Charles and with the prime ministers of Australia and Ukraine.
According to Ralph Goodale, Canada’s high commissioner to Britain, those meetings were expected to cover a long list of pressing topics.
“Undoubtedly Ukraine will be at the very top of that list, undoubtedly they will talk about their collective plans on issues like climate change … we’ve got a free-trade negotiation that’s under way.” And, Mr. Goodale said, Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Truss would attempt to strengthen agreements made this year between Canada and Britain around security, intelligence and defence, including strengthening defences against Russian disinformation.
But the more important meetings may be those that are not announced or made known until long after the funeral. In recent decades, head-of-state funerals have seen informal agreements made between leaders that have later become major agreements. For example, the 1999 funeral of King Hussein of Jordan saw informal meetings between then-British prime minister Tony Blair and then-U.S. president Bill Clinton over how to make the Northern Ireland peace process work after the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement was said by some to have had its roots at a meeting between the British and Irish prime ministers at the 1979 funeral of Louis Mountbatten, a relative of Queen Elizabeth’s who was murdered by the Irish Republican Army.
The 2013 funeral of Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid hero and former president, was a similar venue for behind-the-scenes diplomacy – for example, a quick meeting between then-U.S. president Barack Obama and then-Cuban leader Raul Castro, which would not have been possible in normal diplomatic circumstances, led to an opening between the two countries.
Queen Elizabeth’s funeral has inserted itself into what was already going to be the biggest diplomatic week of the year. It has disrupted – or, in the eyes of many diplomats, augmented – the UN General Assembly meeting, which was due to begin on Tuesday morning.
President Biden announced this weekend that he wouldn’t be able to make the traditional U.S. President’s opening-morning speech – usually a major event that sets the tone for the rest of the assembly – which will be moved to Wednesday. A number of major summits and international meetings at the UN, scheduled on Monday and Tuesday, have been cancelled.
Among the few heads of state or governments whose countries have not been invited to the Queen’s funeral are leaders whose rule is widely opposed by their people or who have committed atrocities: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. However, both North Korea and China have been invited to send delegations; neither is expected to send its head of state.
On Sunday, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, announced that he would not be attending, instead sending Prince Turki bin Mohammed al Saud. That followed days of criticism about the invitation of the Crown Prince, who is accused of having ordered the murder of U.S. journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
With those exceptions, the funeral will bring together an exceptionally diverse group of leaders. It provides an unusual chance for informal meetings between leaders of countries that normally do not speak to one another. And it is occurring immediately after another major gathering of international leaders, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Uzbekistan, which has become something akin to a G20 summit for authoritarian states.
That summit saw Russia, China and other states with anti-Western leaders attempt to reach agreements, often with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan serving as an intermediary – as he has in efforts to support Ukraine, to impose sanctions upon Russia and expand NATO’s membership in recent months. Diplomats said that Mr. Erdogan, who is otherwise not on good terms with major Western powers these days, could be a key figure at the funeral.
“Because he’s been close with Xi Jinping and with Putin in the last few days, I think there’ll be a lot of leaders who will want to talk with Erdogan,” said Ms. Blais, who is currently diplomat-in-residence at Laval University. “He’s easier to talk to informally than Xi Jinping, so I think Erdogan is going to be the person to speak to. … He’s definitely playing the statesmanship role to great advantage.”
Because it is occurring between the two international gatherings, the funeral could set the agenda for important discussions taking place in and around the General Assembly on such subjects as international responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, how to address the resulting energy crisis, stabilizing the world economy, the effort to strike a nuclear-peace deal with Iran, efforts to reach a better international climate agreement and other headline global concerns.
“Any time that you have such a gathering of heads of state, there’s bound to be opportunities for diplomatic engagement,” says Mark Leon Goldberg, editor of the newsletter UN Dispatch. “To the extent that this gathering provides that kind of forum, there is that opportunity to put things on the agenda, and then the real meat will come in New York in the following days.”