The Least Essential Diplomatic Spats of 2021

Sometimes the slights are… slight.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Sotheby’s technicians position a silver wine cistern holding bottles of Champagne.
Sotheby’s technicians position a silver wine cistern holding bottles of Champagne.
Sotheby’s technicians position a silver wine cistern holding bottles of Champagne as part of the Ballyedmond Collection at Sotheby’s in London on May 19, 2017. Michael Bowles/Getty Images for Sotheby's

2021

As Patrick Kavanagh warned in his poem “Epic” (while channeling the ghost of Homer), local rows don’t always have to involve great leaders and heroic sacrifice to raise the blood pressure of those involved. Even though one should be careful in assigning weight to a diplomatic dispute, sometimes, the slights are, well, slight.

In a year of compiling Morning Brief, FP’s daily newsletter, I balance the news of the day with the weird, wonderful, and curious in our “Odds and Ends” section. There, you will find which large bird has bitten Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (most recently, a rhea) or who is the winner of New Zealand’s bird of the year competition (a bat).

But it’s not all animal hijinks and unusual Brexit shortages—sometimes borders are inadvertently threatened, national pride is put to the test, and alcohol branding becomes a pressing interstate concern.

As Patrick Kavanagh warned in his poem “Epic” (while channeling the ghost of Homer), local rows don’t always have to involve great leaders and heroic sacrifice to raise the blood pressure of those involved. Even though one should be careful in assigning weight to a diplomatic dispute, sometimes, the slights are, well, slight.

In a year of compiling Morning Brief, FP’s daily newsletter, I balance the news of the day with the weird, wonderful, and curious in our “Odds and Ends” section. There, you will find which large bird has bitten Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (most recently, a rhea) or who is the winner of New Zealand’s bird of the year competition (a bat).

But it’s not all animal hijinks and unusual Brexit shortages—sometimes borders are inadvertently threatened, national pride is put to the test, and alcohol branding becomes a pressing interstate concern.

Here are the five least essential diplomatic spats of 2021.


1. France and Russia bubble up over Shampanskoye

In July, France’s Champagne industry denounced a new Russian law forcing foreign importers to describe their products as “sparkling wine.” The law was introduced to ensure the term “Shampanskoye” refers to Russian producers only.

The Champagne Committee, the group representing the French champagne industry, urged its members to halt Russian shipments in protest and said it “deplores the fact that this legislation does not ensure that Russian consumers have clear and transparent information about the origins and characteristics of wine.” (The law required that French bottles only change their back labels.)

The boycott threat was moderately successful, with Russian authorities suspending the new law until Dec. 31—a big day for sparkling wine, whatever you call it.


2. The restaurant that stoked Japan-Korea tensions

In October, North Korea and South Korea united in anger over a controversial bowl of Japanese seafood curry after reports surfaced online of the dish’s subversive attempts to lay claim to a disputed group of islets between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. According to the Guardian, the meal—served by a restaurant on the Japanese island of Okinoshima—includes two rice clumps shaped into the disputed islands known in Japan as Takeshima (which Koreans refer to as Dokdo) with a miniature Japanese flag placed on top.

A North Korean news site said the dish was surely meant as a sign that Japan plans to “capture” the islands, while a South Korean newspaper reported the move was a “typical cheap trick” by the Japanese.

South Korea’s small military garrison on the islands make any surprise attack, beyond the culinary variety, unlikely.


3. Britain and Ukraine fall out over Chernobyl-made liquor

 In May, the makers of a craft liquor made from radioactive apples grown in the Chernobyl exclusion zone began a battle with the Ukrainian government, after authorities seized all 1,500 bottles of the product before it could be exported.

The drink, called Atomik, fell afoul of Ukrainian Security Service agents, who said the company used forged excise stamps, a claim the company’s founder, United Kingdom-based academic Jim Smith, disputed and eventually proved false in court.


4. Croatia and Italy butt heads over prosecco

A late and unresolved addition to the list, as Italian and Croatian winemakers spar over an impending European Union decision on whether to bestow a protected designation of origin label to a Croatian dessert wine. The disagreement is over branding, with the Croatian wine prosek considered too close to the Italian prosecco.

Luca Zaia, governor of prosecco-producing Veneto in Italy, has called the EU’s decision to consider the Croatian request “shameful” and said it risked destroying the “history and identity of a territory.”


5. The Belgian farmer who broke the Treaty of Kortrijk

A classic of the genre (and an FP Morning Brief English-language exclusive) arrived in May when Belgium inadvertently made a territorial gain over its neighbor after a local farmer moved a centuries-old stone marker delineating the Franco-Belgian border.

The farmer, from the Walloon municipality of Erquelinnes, moved the boundary stone roughly 6.5 feet to give his tractor easier passage, thereby breaking the Treaty of Kortrijk signed in 1820.

After good-natured talks with his French counterpart in the neighboring town of Bousignies-sur-Roc, Erquelinnes Mayor David Lavaux solved the diplomatic firestorm by asking the farmer to put the stone back where he found it. “He enlarged Belgium. He reduced France. It wasn’t a good idea. But I was happy that my town got bigger,” Lavaux joked.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.