While it doesn't happen every year, it's not exactly rare for a foreign head of state or of government to be awarded the US Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award.
Why is Israeli President Shimon Peres receiving the US Presidential Medal of Freedom? In asking this, we’re not questioning whether Mr. Peres deserves accolades for his lengthy Mideast career. He’s already won the Nobel Peace Prize, after all. We’re wondering about the propriety of giving America’s highest civilian award to a foreign leader. Is that a common occurrence?
Well, it turns out it doesn’t happen every year, but it’s not exactly a rare thing. American presidents have bestowed the Medal of Freedom on at least 16 foreign heads of state or of government. Past notable winners include Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat (awarded posthumously in 1984), Britain’s Margaret Thatcher (1991), South Africa’s Nelson Mandela (2002), Czech leader Vaclav Havel (2003), and Germany’s Angela Merkel (2011).
The US Presidential Medal of Freedom is not meant to recognize service to the US, per se. Under an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, those eligible for the Medal of Freedom include “any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”