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The Washington Diplomat


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The Power of Protocol

by Anna Gawel

Diplomacy is not an off-the-cuff endeavor. It is a deliberate, carefully crafted world of negotiation, persuasion, strategy and tact.

And if, as the old adage goes, “diplomacy is the art of letting someone have your way,” then protocol sets the stage for the artists to do their work.

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U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall convenes the inaugural Global Chiefs of Protocol Conference at the State Department, where nearly 100 representatives from nations and organizations on five continents gathered to exchange knowledge and strengthen the role of protocol in diplomacy. The day earlier, Marshall presided over the State Department's annual Independence Day celebration for the diplomatic community that also featured an apple pie contest among more than a dozen foreign embassies to the United States.

 

“Good protocol is the framework. It sets the tone, it creates the atmosphere for effective diplomacy,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides told nearly 100 representatives from around the world who gathered at the State Department on July 5 for the inaugural Global Chiefs of Protocol Conference.

America’s protocol chief, Capricia Penavic Marshall, convened the conference to discuss ways to strengthen the role of protocol, which she described as an art in and of itself — one that has evolved over time. “We are here today to begin a conversation about that art” and exchange ideas on what she proudly termed “the best job in the world.

“We are at the footsteps of history and in the frontlines of diplomacy,” she told her colleagues, who hailed from nations and organizations spanning five continents.

And true to protocol form, right after Marshall’s introduction, the name of every single nation participating in the conference was duly called out, from Albania to Peru to Yemen.

The protocol officials were joined by speakers such as Jill Dougherty, foreign affairs correspondent for CNN; José Andrés, a James Beard Award-winning chef; Katty Kay, anchor of “BBC World News America”; and Bryan Rafanelli, CEO of Rafanelli Events.

The individual plenary sessions focused on a range of topics such as hosting international conferences and summits, engaging the diplomatic corps, media and messaging, and ceremonies and traditions. All sessions were off the record and closed to the press — perhaps so there’d be less need for diplomatic niceties.

The on-the-record introductory remarks were peppered with the usual feel-good diplomatic euphemisms — engagement, exchange, cultural understanding, bridge building, etc.

But what exactly does a protocol officer do?

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Belgium took top honors in the State Department’s inaugural apple pie contest, as Ambassador Jan Matthysen, right, accepts a prize from Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, who was one of the contest judges, alongside Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema and Alli Blakely of Pie Sisters in Georgetown.

 

Officially, the Protocol Office in the State Department serves as the primary liaison for visiting dignitaries meeting with the U.S. president, secretary of state and other administration officials, and it helps to coordinate the president’s travels abroad.

In effect, it handles the nitty gritty details of niceness — making sure high-level encounters go smoothly and no one commits an embarrassing offense.

But it’s not all rules and customs. The Protocol Office is also a vital point of contact for all foreign ambassadors in Washington throughout their postings, from the initial credentialing ceremony to helping them build relationships so that their American experience is a fruitful one.

So for instance, a week after the Global Chiefs of Protocol Conference, Marshall and her team took nearly two dozen ambassadors and their spouses to Wyoming to learn about the state and meet with its public and private sector leaders — part of the “Experience America” program that connects diplomats with various U.S. cities and states to boost trade and investment.

Protocol officers also give diplomats a taste of American life. The day before the conference, hundreds of diplomats gathered at the State Department for its annual July 4th Independence Day celebration. This year, in addition to watching the fireworks display over the National Mall, guests were treated to a first-ever apple pie contest, in which local embassies put their own twist on the classic American dessert.

For Marshall, it’s part of her efforts to infuse some creativity into the formality of protocol, which she said performs a vital diplomatic function — whether it’s finding the right gift to impress a head of state or simply welcoming a new diplomatic family to town.

“Diplomacy can take many shapes and forms, and it must in order to be successful,” she said. “These times of engagements are at the heart of what Secretary Clinton has termed ‘smart power’ — using every tool in the diplomatic toolbox to strengthen our own country’s relationships with others around the world.”

For her part, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called protocol officers “the unsung heroes of diplomacy.”

“You help shape our bilateral and multilateral meetings and encourage greater understanding and more productive negotiations,” she said in a video at the conference.

“But I know your work extends beyond the meetings and events you put on so efficiently,” she added. “You are building new bridges of understanding between and among nations, and after all, that is what diplomacy is all about.”

Yoon Yeocheol, chief of protocol for the United Nations, agreed that protocol can be a “thankless job.”

“There is rarely a moment for compliments, but so many critics are out there waiting for our mistakes. Only when there is no complaint, we whisper among ourselves, with a sigh of relief, that we were perfect,” he told colleagues at the State Department conference.

“I believe that we should take pride in that we are the glue that holds all the different parts together … we orchestrate the whole symphony,” Yeocheol added, noting that his boss, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, served as a protocol chief in South Korea in the 1980s and ’90s.

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From left, Ukrainian Chief of Protocol Yurii Ladnyi, Ambassador of Uzbekistan Ilhomjon Tuychievich Nematov, Ambassador of Ukraine Olexander Motsyk, Ambassador of Moldova Igor Munteanu, and Polish Chief of Protocol Krzysztof Krajewski attend an Independence Day celebration at the State Department, which was followed the next day by a Global Chiefs of Protocol Conference.

 

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides admitted that he didn’t always fully appreciate the importance of protocol.

“Most people who know me probably wouldn’t expect me to be a great champion of protocols,” he told conference participants. “After all, I come from a small city in Minnesota and I have a habit of saying what’s on my mind. And I have sense of mischief that sometimes gets me in trouble. In other words, if I had one of your jobs, I’d be fired in two weeks — tops,” he joked.

“But I see the transformational power of what you do. Traveling as a deputy secretary of state, I have seen your work firsthand from Canada to South Africa to Pakistan. And I see how you bring together people, and how you set the stage for important negotiations, how you tie the ordinary grays of diplomacy into remarkable moving color.”

Nides added that in a rapidly changing world, many of the old-fashioned tenants of protocol are still as relevant as ever.

“These days, we spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how we use technology and websites and video conferences and the like,” he said. “Still, though, as someone who has negotiated a few high-stakes deals on Wall Street and in Washington and around the world, I ensure you cannot overstate the importance of face-to-face meetings. Looking someone in the eye, shaking their hand — these things really matter.

“These relationships … drive everything. And bad relationships, or missteps, really do matter,” he said. “There are so many unspoken and sometimes incomprehensible cultural rules.”

And so despite the formalities that will always go hand in hand with protocol — knowing how to properly address a head of state or when to play a nation’s anthem during a visit — it all boils down to respect.

“By honoring and respecting foreign visitors in ceremonial events like State lunches, meals and other social events, we’re building the friendships and the trust and mutual respect that will hold our relations together when our policies, unfortunately, sometimes put us at odds,” Nides said. “And at the core, I’m a relationships guy. In personal and in professional life, being a friendly, respectful person is the right thing to do. And to be honest, it’s the smart thing to do. It’s the same for governments.”



About the Author

Anna Gawel is the managing editor and columnist for The Washington Diplomat.

 

 

 

 

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