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Queen Elizabeth II was Britain’s lead ambassador

She traveled to 117 countries and hosted countless high-level visitors

- September 9, 2022

When Queen Elizabeth II passed away on Thursday, many in Britain and elsewhere had a hard time imagining a world without the long-reigning monarch. She worked with 15 British prime ministers — from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss, whom she invited to form a government only two days earlier.

Many around the world, not just in Britain and the other 14 countries in which the queen was head of state, are mourning. Others are voicing their criticisms of an archaic institution with a problematic colonial and imperial legacy. But what is the role of the monarch, exactly? In Britain and in the other constitutional monarchies that exist today, the monarch’s role remains a mystery to many.

Royal powers are limited, but significant

Constitutionally, the British monarch has a highly circumscribed role. The monarch is the head of state and, in that capacity, embodies the unity and traditions (for better or worse) of Britain. The monarch also retains prerogative powers — powers specifically reserved for the sovereign — including the power to appoint a new prime minister, dissolve Parliament and give royal assent to bills.

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Domestically, the queen’s role in day-to-day politics was probably minimal and was certainly private, as will presumably be the case for the new King Charles III. But as historian Antony Best wrote in 2016: “To ignore the role of the monarchy in foreign policy is always a mistake.”

In global politics, power matters. As political scientist Joseph S. Nye famously articulated, soft power, or the power of attraction, is an important foreign policy tool. “The Queen and the Royal Family have been pivotal in maintaining the nation’s relevance,” Brand Finance wrote in their 2020 Global Soft Power Index.

And while the monarchy is known for the mystique that accompanies it, the soft power and outsized relevance of Britain as a major player in global affairs is in no small part due to the remarkable service of Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, which I detail in a forthcoming piece in the Royal Studies Journal.

The power of a state visit

However, relatively few scholars pay much attention to the political effects of the monarchy. To take a closer look at the broader role and influence of constitutional monarchs on international politics, I compiled data on official visits to/by constitutional monarchs in eight countries. I use this data to examine the effects of constitutional monarchs on their countries’ foreign policies.

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During her reign, Elizabeth traveled to 117 countries, including nearly all 56 Commonwealth states. She was undoubtedly the most widely traveled world leader. Until her later years, she was known for undertaking grueling international tours, including the 1952 tour during which she became monarch. By 2019, she had also hosted 112 state visits, plus many other high-level diplomatic visits. As a growing literature shows, rather than being purely ceremonial fluff, state visits have real political and economic effects. This type of public diplomacy can influence public opinion, extend the tenure of other leaders and improve bilateral trade flows.

While British foreign policy officials take the lead in planning state visits, Elizabeth also played a meaningful role in shaping these visits. In the 1970s, for instance, British officials had to navigate the desire of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to host Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev for a state visit to Britain — and the queen’s reluctance to visit the Soviet Union. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1994, several years after the Cold War ended, that the queen visited Russia. That visit was seen as a great success for British foreign policy, and the effectiveness of the trip was in no small part due to the queen’s efforts to develop a warm rapport with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Another notable state visit took place in South Africa in 1995. The queen played a key role in arranging the visit, which took place just a year after elections launched South Africa’s new democratic government. According to biographer Robert Hardman, quoting former commander of the Royal Yacht Britannia, Sir Robert Woodard, “The Foreign Secretary was worried [about the visit] and the Queen overruled him. She said: ‘Mr. Mandela is getting advice from lots of people but no one’s giving him any help. He needs physical assistance and he needs a show.’ ”

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And in 2011, the queen made a previously unimaginable state visit to Ireland. Former British prime minister David Cameron later wrote that his own government’s efforts in improving relations with Ireland “were nothing compared to the brave gesture that was the Queen’s breakthrough visit to the Republic in 2011.” Cameron’s memoirs also note that his ability to work with the United States during his own time as prime minister was in part due to the queen:

Anecdotes like these provide ample evidence that the queen’s role as Britain’s head of state was by no means merely symbolic. While a full accounting of the role played by Elizabeth on the political, economic and social affairs of Britain will not be realized for many years to come, the country has lost its most significant statesperson and stabilizing force of the post-World War II era.

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Brandy Jolliff Scott is an instructor in the political science department at Texas Christian University and is the managing editor of International Studies Perspectives.