How low can you go? This is the question confronting the nation in the aftermath of President Obama's deep bow to the Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko last Saturday.
In contrast to the greeting the president accorded to the King of Saudi Arabia in April, where spooked White House officials dismissed what looked like a full gesture of obeisance as a mere exercise in height adjustment, this time there was no ambiguity. The President executed a clear, full-scale, and unmistakable bow. It was the most transparent act of his presidency--ample, sweeping, and bounteous. Yet contrary to what some malicious bloggers alleged, it was not, by Japanese standards, excessive. For a Japanese person visiting the Emperor, who is the symbol of the state and the highest authority of the Shinto religion, President Obama's dip, for a man his height, was appropriate according to local custom. His only flaw, commented on by Japanese observers, was to have extended simultaneously his hand. The norm is that one must choose: there is no shaking and bowing at the same time, however athletic such a maneuver might appear.
Though largely correct in form, the president's act poses some thorny problems for the future. Just how does one decide when and to whom a president should bow? If the president follows local custom in some cases but not others, will not some feel that they have been gratuitously insulted? What must King Abdullah be thinking this week of the (half) bow (half) disavowed that he received, compared to the full monty extended to emperor? Is the House of Saud inferior to the Japanese imperial family, or Islam less honorable than Shinto? And then there is the queen of England, no insignificant figure, who is not only head of state (and of the Commonwealth), but also a spiritual figure in her own right, as leader of the Church of England. Yet Her Majesty did not merit so much as a presidential curtsy, while Michelle touched her on the back. Does a president in this day and age bow to non-Westerners, but not to a white Christian woman? Whatever the queen's humiliation may have been, one can rest assured she will bear it, in good British fashion, with a stiff upper lip. Besides, she has her presidential ipod, filled with Broadway show tunes, to console her.
It has been widely claimed, although with no confirmation yet by students of the presidency, that Barack Obama is the first American president to have thus lowered himself to a foreign leader. The idea has at least the ring of plausibility. Bowing to a monarch would seem to violate the spirit of the Revolution, which wasn't wildly favorable to displays of rank, as well as to run counter to our proclaimed self-evident truth of all persons being created equality. But then again, this may be just one of our local customs. President Obama has nuanced our notions of universal truths as instances of America's assertions of exceptionalism, when, as he reminds us, "Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." When truth is made relative all that remains is the authority of custom.
Another possibility, less theoretical, is that the president has taken to bowing, because he is still a novice in foreign affairs. Either he does not travel with a protocol officer--the State Department does not seem to count for much in this administration--or, what is more worrisome, he is too confident in his own intelligence to be instructed. His first instinct when dealing with those whom intellectuals deem the "other" has been repeatedly to go the extra mile to display his signs of respect. But what is appropriate for the son of an anthropologist might be wanting for the dignity of "America's first Pacific President."
Of course, change can only go so far. President Obama, like other presidents before him, has already had to take into account certain practical considerations. Before beginning his trip to Asia, the president very unceremoniously refused a meeting with the Dalai Lama, bowing preemptively to the tender feelings of the Chinese. The meeting will be rescheduled. Of necessity, the current Dalai Lama, who has been dispossessed of his country and lives in exile, has had to relax traditional expectations. In good democratic fashion, he is regularly seen shaking hands with foreign dignitaries or, as he seems to prefer, simply folding hands in a prayer-type greeting. Yet by local custom, the Dalai Lama is typically greeted by Tibetans with a deep bow, or, in a more formal setting, such as at his residence in Dharamsala or in the context of a public ritual, with three or more full prostrations to him. For our young prince, another self-inflicted dilemma may soon be in the offing: To bow or not to bow, that is the question.
James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of politics at the University of Virginia.