Foreign Policy Digital

Royal Weddings Are a Fairy Tale. They Used to Be High-Stakes Diplomacy.

Once upon a time, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle would have been instruments of foreign-policy ambition.

Millions around the world will be glued to their televisions on May 19 as Britain’s Prince Harry, grandson of Queen Elizabeth II, weds Meghan Markle, an American actress. Royal weddings are designed to be heartwarming fairytales that invite us to forget our everyday trials and tribulations, and this will be no exception. The couple met two years ago on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend and, by official accounts, fell in love almost immediately.

Royal weddings are also showcases of tradition. The British royal family represents ideals of continuity and stability, reflecting a present moment solidly rooted in the past and reassuring us that some things are enduring. In preparation for the event, Markle has already started the process of becoming a British citizen and been received into the Church of England.

But in observing the traditions that are being upheld, it’s also worth remarking upon those that have been discarded. The royal wedding is a national cultural event. There was a time, however, when it would have also been naturally understood as an expression of national interest and international ambition. If the British public hasn’t been thinking of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as diplomatic actors involved in a venture of international relations, that is a sign of their present roles — but also of how much Western diplomacy has changed since the days when royal marriages were major political events.

Consider the function of Europe’s royal marriages in the 16th and 17th centuries. At that time, the state belonged to the monarch, and marriage was understood as a way of adding to his territory and cementing crucial alliances with other powers. Marriages have always been a method of securing control over family possessions — it’s just that these possessions used to include the states themselves.

Often monarchs planned these events long in advance. Take for instance the deal

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