Monthly Archives: October 2013

What is up with American presidents bowing to foreign heads of state??

Our last two presidents, G.W. Bush and Barack Obama, have exhibited a remarkable habit of bowing to foreign heads of state, including leaders of countries unfriendly toward the US. We know that presidential behavior is scripted and that nothing they do is without meaning. What does this recent bowing trend mean? Obama apologists say that he is just being polite, and that every head of state does it, but that does not appear to be true. Some other US presidents have made a practice of bowing; Eisenhower is a frequently cited example, Reagan bowed to Queen Elizabeth, Nixon bowed to Emperor Hirohito of Japan and Chairman Mao of China, and Clinton bowed to Emperor Akihito of Japan but others apparently never did, for example Google searches for “Kennedy bowing” or “Kennedy bows” come up with nothing, and I can’t find any evidence that Poppy Bush ever bowed to a living person, although he took some heat for bowing to the coffin of Emperor Hirohito at his funeral. Jimmy Carter, despite his wimpy reputation, does not appear to have ever bowed during his presidency, nor did famously clumsy Gerald Ford. The interesting thing about these bows is that they are clearly not (as defenders claim) mutual expressions of respect between heads of state. In all of them, the American president bows while the other head of state stands ramrod-straight and looks down at him. All of these bows clearly express submission by the US president to the foreign head of state while the foreign leader expresses dominance by standing up straight and looking down at our bowing president (or up in the case of Queen Elizabeth who is 5’4″).

Outside the US it is not easy to find examples of  heads of state bowing to other heads of state. It is said that the presidents of Australia and Canada (and other “subject” nations) bow to the queen of England based on their historical relationship but I was not able to find any recent photos or news stories describing such bows. It is extremely easy to find examples of heads of state meeting, shaking hands, etc., without bowing. Why do some US presidents bow? I don’t have an answer for this but it is clearly not a normal practice among heads of state, and Obama and Bush seem to be huge fans of it. Here are some photos of Obama and G.W. Bush bowing to various heads of state:

Obama bowing:

Japanese Emperor Akihito:

Saudi Arabian King Abdullah:

Chinese President Hu Jintao:

British Monarch Queen Elizabeth:

Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko:

Mexican President Felipe Calderon:

Bush bowing:

Saudi Arabian King Abdullah:

Catholic Pope Benedict XVI:

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao

For contrast, here are photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin greeting some of the same heads of state. I’m not a fan of Putin, but his body language clearly expresses dominance or at least equal status. He does not bow; he looks them right in the eye. A Google search for “Putin bowing” does not bring up any images of him bowing.

Japanese Emperor Akihito:

Saudi Arabian King Abdullah:
Chinese President Hu Jintao:
Here’s a Russian website with numerous pictures of Putin greeting foreign heads of state. He is not bowing to anyone. Putin is nothing special; it is similarly difficult to find pictures of other heads of state bowing. Even in Asian countries where bowing is a custom, the heads of state do not bow.
It is obviously not customary for heads of state to bow to each other, and it appears to be extremely rare, even when a “subject” relationship exists, but our last two US presidents have bowed repeatedly. What does this mean?
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