When presidential gaffes go global

President Obama's much-discussed bow in Japan earlier this month is the latest in a long line of awkward moments between world leaders as they adjust to each others' different cultural norms.

Take an elected U.S. President, put him in a room with a hereditary monarch, and what’s the result? Sometimes, social awkwardness.

President Obama’s bow is what brings this to Decoder’s mind. On his recent trip to Asia, Mr. Obama greeted Japanese Emperor Akihito with a deep bend from the waist and dip of the head. At the same time, Obama shook the emperor’s hand, as if he were trying to greet him in two cultures at once.

In the United States, some commentators took umbrage. Democracy’s representative genuflecting before an emperor! Next thing you know, he’ll be walking around holding hands with some Saudi prince.

Oh, right, that was George W. Bush, who was mocked in 2005 for engaging in this traditional Middle Eastern expression of friendship.

The point here is that international diplomacy is difficult enough. Expecting leaders to conduct themselves as if they’re graduates of Miss Manners’s School of Geopolitical Etiquette may be asking too much.

Mistakes occur on both sides. In 1971, Japanese Emperor Hirohito, who had been his nation’s monarch at the time it bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, stopped in Alaska. It was the first visit by a reigning Japanese emperor to any foreign land.

President Nixon greeted Hirohito with – you guessed it – a bow. But Hirohito stumbled coming off the plane, had to have his hat pulled from his hand by his chamberlain as a reminder to begin his remarks, and then had a terrible time getting the paper on which his remarks were written out of his pocket.

Hirohito “was a little shaky,” wrote White House aide H.R. Haldeman in his diary that night.

As president, Dwight Eisenhower apparently bowed to everyone from Pope John XXIII to Charles de Gaulle, if news photos are to be believed. In 1957, Ike invited Saudi Arabia’s King Saud to the US, hoping to persuade the monarch to support his Middle Eastern policies. The king demanded that Eisenhower meet him at the airport – to the US, a clear breach of protocol.

Ike went. “I don’t know how we can get out of it, unless we don’t want him to come at all,” he groaned to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

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