In addition to the resplendent uniforms, the solemn salutes and the meticulously choreographed ceremonies, something else is occurring in London: Some 500 world leaders and dignitaries are coming to England to pay their respects — but also to see and be seen at what is certain to be one of the largest gatherings of its kind in the history of the world.
Like any assembly of world leaders, much goes on behind the scenes, beyond the official events. The funeral provides a unique opportunity to hold conversations on pressing matters. At a time like this, with global crises playing out, it’s a chance to strategize and cajole on the sidelines.
So many have been invited that the most remarkable, scant list is the one of those who were pointedly left out. Heading that small group, according to CNN sources, is Russian President Vladimir Putin, a global pariah since his invasion of Ukraine. Also shunned is Putin ally, Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, as well as representatives of Myanmar, ruled by a military junta since the 2021 coup that derailed the march to democracy.
Invited but not expected to attend, according to reporting from Chinese media outlets, is China’s President Xi Jinping, another highly controversial leader. Xi had not traveled outside of China since the start of the pandemic until this week — when he met Putin in Uzbekistan. China’s vice president is expected to attend. The Chinese delegation, according to the BBC, was banned from viewing the casket at Westminster Hall.
For the kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers in attendance, the event is a chance to burnish their place in history in what, for a few hours, will be the focal point of the planet. When films of the funeral are viewed decades from now, they will be there.
But it’s not just the future. The present will also occupy their minds.
For some, it’s a chance to try to bathe in the grandeur of the moment, and perhaps capture some of the magic for themselves. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, for example, struggling in the polls just ahead of a bitter presidential contest, surely wouldn’t mind if voters at home see him in the solemn setting alongside global leaders. Not only is he attending, he has been playing up the British drama.
Between bows, curtsies and handshakes, dignitaries will have a chance to talk. The leaders of NATO and the European Union, for example, all concerned about Russian aggression, will find themselves in the same place with a chance to exchange views face to face.
Among those reported by various media outlets to be attending will be the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, countries that have lived in Moscow’s shadow, and have urged the world to hold firm against Putin.
Also at the state funeral will be French President Emmanuel Macron — who movedly declared “The Queen of 16 kingdoms loved France, which loved her back.” Macron has been speaking to Putin regularly, seeking a way — sometimes controversially — to end the war. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, often a difficult ally for NATO, may or may not attend the funeral, based on conflicting reports. Alongside leaders of other NATO nations, including US President Joe Biden, the gathering could create an opportunity to iron out some differences, especially as winter approaches and Europe prepares to face the cold without Russia’s heating gas.
For the rest of us watching the day’s events, the official guests will provide striking scenes. Not only will the ceremonies take us back in time to centuries-old rituals, but the presence of royals and dignitaries from around the world, many from former British colonies, should offer unforgettable images, even more travel in time to days when much of the world was ruled by unelected hereditary monarchs.
We will see more kings and queens than we ever have. Even an emperor, Japan’s Naruhito, will attend with his wife, Empress Masako, according to Japan Times. Royals from Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Jordan and Tonga
among others, will be there, according to reports.
So will King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands, along with his Argentinian wife, Queen Maxima, and his mother, Princess Beatrix, the former queen. Perhaps King Charles, who had to wait until he turned 73 to inherit the throne, will glance at him with envy. Beatrix, unlike Elizabeth, abdicated to make way for her then-46-year-old son nine years ago. At the time, she declared, “I am convinced that the responsibility for our country should now move to the next generation.”
Speaking of moving, the way the dignitaries reach Westminster Abbey will garner attention. Moving so many important (and self-important) figures through city streets filled with well-wishers and onlookers is a mammoth logistical and security challenge. Last week, British officials told world leaders that they would not allowed
to use private planes, private cars or helicopters. Instead, they informed them, they would have to take a bus in groups to reach the Abbey, according to reporting from Politico.
The backlash was almost immediate. The prime minister’s spokesman backtracked, claiming the plan was just for “guidance,” not a mandate. The instructions were apparently never meant for Biden, for example, who in the grand American tradition will ply the streets in that massive bulletproof vehicle, “The Beast.”
The rule is still hazy.
The issue could prove consequential. Those watching from former British colonies — especially those with second thoughts about having the British monarch as their head of state — will take note if leaders from their countries are not treated with deference in London.
The day will be filled with poignancy and pageantry, tears and smiles. But there will also be drama and, behind the scenes, even substance. With what is expected to be the most watched broadcast of all time, it’s no wonder the chance to witness it in person is the hottest ticket on Earth.