The annual statement on the government wine cellar, published each year by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is a curious document. Detailing the precise number of bottles of wines and spirits consumed at government events over the past year (35,632), the estimated market values of those bottles (£3,135,000 [€4m]) and the precise number of each vintage drunk (the Chateau Beaumont cru bourgeois Haut-Médoc from 1996 was particularly popular), the document manages to be both proud and meek. Here is our wonderful wine cellar, it proclaims, but don’t worry: we’re counting the pennies.
Such a delicate balancing act has become an ever-increasing challenge for foreign ministries and embassies in democracies around the world. As a combination of economic crises, budget cuts and a demand for transparency have forced governments to reassess how they entertain. “It doesn’t have to be very expensive,” says Nicola Clase, Sweden’s ambassador to the UK. “You have to be creative and open to new ideas.”
It helps if you have a decent building to host parties in. Clase’s residence, on a quiet street just north of Regent Street, is a throwback to the grandeur and opulence of 18th-century London, designed and built by the Edinburgh-born brothers and architects Robert and James Adam. Guests enter through the main door and find themselves in an atrium – all marble tiles and neoclassical columns – that is dominated by a huge sweeping staircase leading up to the first floor. Here there are two rooms either side of an airy reception room: one a dining room, the other more of a living room. Waiters hired for the night hand out drinks and Swedish canapés on silver platters as Clase and her staff work the room. “Soft power is a huge part of my role,” she says. “I listened to Joseph Nye a lot while I was at Harvard and I think he made an impression on me.”
A short walk away, the Polish embassy is holding its own party. The venue is similarly impressive. Waiting staff in starched shirts, black bow ties and white gloves sweep through the hall’s grand double doors and place silver trays of canapés onto the crisp tablecloth. Others are installed behind the bar filling flutes with champagne and glasses with Tyskie, a traditional Polish lager. The guests are predominantly business leaders and fellow diplomats. “It’s about networking,” says ambassador Witold Sobków, “and about trying to show people things they didn’t know about Poland.” But this doesn’t stop him – once the room is full and he is in the middle of his welcome speech – from making a pointed remark about wider foreign-policy issues. “This is a symbolic year for Poland as it is 25 years since we first had free elections,” he declares. “But today our thoughts are also with Ukraine and those who are still fighting for freedom there one year on from Maidan.” This statement is accompanied by a quick nod in the direction of the Ukrainian delegation.
Over the following days and nights, Brazil hosts a piano recital, Denmark organises a drinks reception and the French put on a small lunch. They all look grand, they all show off their countries’ cuisine and culture and they all come at a price. But they all play a role in promoting a nation. Even those who don’t drink the champagne or eat the chocolates eventually benefit from an ambassador’s reception noted in society for its host’s exquisite taste that captivates the guests.