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The resonance of bell diplomacy

When selecting a gift, world leaders look for resonating symbols of shared values between their nations. Bells are often a perfect fit. Occasions when the diplomatic giving of a bell would be most appropriate include:

  • Memorializing a special event or anniversary, like a bicentennial commemoration
  • Thanking a nation for their aid or support
  • Celebrating the artistic or cultural heritage of a people
  • Promoting peace and prosperity or marking the end of hostilities
  • Returning a bell long held because of war, looting, or wrongful acquisition

The giving of a bell might include a ceremonial first ring by the recipient, creating a meaningful, memorable, and photo-worthy occasion. In more solemn bell exchanges, the toll might be preceded by an observed moment of silence.

Prince of Wales receives a Swiss cowbell as a diplomatic gift

Image: The Prince of Wales, left, receives an alpine cowbell as a gift, while Swiss President Adolf Ogi holds an umbrella against the rain in Kandersteg, Switzerland, on November 2, 2000.

Bells gifted between dignitaries might end up in presidential libraries, cultural museums, national collections, or public parks. Bells are one of the few diplomatic gifts that can be employed for the good of a community, ringing out to announce the hour or tolling at moments of distinct importance.

Section image: U.S. President Harry S. Truman greets Queen Juliana of the Netherlands at Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C., for a ceremonial presentation of a carillon to the people of the United States from the people of the Netherlands in recognition for American aid received during and after World War II. Courtesy: Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

Bells as the antithesis of war

When nations go to war, bells go to work – announcing the movement of troops, signaling threats, tolling for the dead, and pealing in victory. Often, bells are the first to be sacrificed and smelted into raw materials to quench the insatiable thirst for rearmament. They are also tempting targets for invading forces, who pluck bells like fruit in a foreign land. The repatriation of these bells after the cessation of hostilities is a wonderful chance for nations to rebuild trust.

Section image: Jose Manuel Romualdez, Philippine Ambassador to the United States, and U.S. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, stand for a photo in front of the bells of Balangiga on F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, on Nov. 14, 2018. During the visit, the bells were officially presented to the Philippine government. Courtesy: Airman 1st Class Braydon Williams, U.S. Air Force.*

Striking the right tone with the right bell

The provenance and history of a bell are important considerations when selecting a diplomatic gift. A bell is often rich in stories. Perhaps it was cast in a meaningful year or gave service during an important battle. Maybe it survived a bomb or was recovered from a shipwreck. The bell should not only be an expression of the shared values between two nations, it should also tie-in to their shared experiences.

Theresa May Presents SS Mendi Bell to Cyril Ramaphosa as Diplomatic Gift

Image: British Prime Minister Theresa May presents the SS Mendi bell to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in a ceremony at Cape Town's presidential office on August 28, 2018. The World War I troop carrier sank in the English Channel in early 1917, claiming the lives of 616 South Africans.

Heads of state generally select from national collections and archives for their diplomatic gifts, but they might also choose to cast new bells or source special bells from private collectors. A bell of friendship given to a budding or established ally is of far more use to a nation than a bell sitting in dusty storage. Exemplifying craftsmanship and culture while evoking a shared experience, bells can be a significant contributor to open and honest diplomatic dialogue.

Section image: United States Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday reveals the USS Osprey ship's bell during a dedication ceremony held at the U.S. Embassy in London, England, on Aug. 18, 2022. Courtesy: Chief Mass Communication Specialist Amanda R. Gray, U.S. Navy.*

*The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.