The Art Of Diplomacy Has Its Rules

When an American president is meeting a foreign leader, it's important to respect the country's customs. Many countries have an office for that. This week, the chiefs of protocol from 100 countries met in Washington, D.C., for their first annual conference. Guest host David Greene speaks with Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, the chief of protocol of the U.S., about her role in diplomatic efforts.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Some people call it the art of diplomacy. Well, it sure is an art with a lot of rules. When an American president is meeting with a foreign leader, it is so important to respect the country's customs, use proper greetings, serve the right food, above all, avoid mistakes that could make things awkward. You might remember this scene from the TV drama, "The West Wing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WEST WING")

DULE HILL: (as Charlie Young) C.J.?

ALLISON JANNEY: (as C.J.) Hassan Ali is coming?

HILL: (as Charlie Young) Yes, and on the president's ship to Cairo, Ali gave him a gift. A ceramic statue.

JANNEY: (as C.J.) OK.

HILL: (as Charlie Young) And State Department told the Office of Protocol it's important that the gift be displayed when Ali visits.

JANNEY: (as C.J.) Display it.

HILL: (as Charlie Young) Well, the Office of Protocol wasn't able to find it.

GREENE: The Office of Protocol - many countries have one. And over the July 4th holiday, chief protocol officers from around the world converged on Washington. Joining us from her office at the State Department is chief protocol officer for the United States, Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall. Welcome to the program.

CAPRICIA PENAVIC MARSHALL: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be on the show with you.

GREENE: So, I imagine you've seen some of these television portrayals, you know, "West Wing" and other programs when it comes to protocol and presidents, when they're traveling or hosting dignitaries, getting it just right. What's your reaction when you're watching TV shows like that?

MARSHALL: Well, I'm happy that they are showcasing what we do. Because oftentimes, what protocol does is behind the scenes. And we are pleased when it is done, and it is done correctly. A few of our oopsie-doodles are out there publicly, but we have a terrific team here in the U.S. Office of Protocol that can scramble and fix things right away.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Is oopsie-doodle a diplomatic term or...

MARSHALL: It absolutely is. It is officially a diplomatic term.

GREENE: How do you make sure that you get all of these details right? I mean, is most of it studying every last custom in another country or is some of it just instinct on how to be polite in a given situation?

MARSHALL: Well, no. It really is not instinct. We discuss matters of culture with a whole host of individuals who are experts from that country before we have a visiting dignitary come into our country. And then we go over and over a visit in my office to make sure that every moment is well-planned for them and the visit goes as well as possible.

GREENE: When it comes to potential oopsie-doodles, as you term, the British press has made something of a few incidents involving President Obama. One was when the president gave American DVD movies to the British prime minister and they couldn't play on British DVD players. I remember when first lady Michelle Obama, she even hugged and touched the queen at one point. And some said this is a symbol of, you know, how the queen is receiving the first lady. Others said this was sort of a breach of palace protocol. You don't - you never touch the queen. I mean, what was that moment like in your office in your staff?

MARSHALL: Actually, I will tell you that for protocol, everyone follows what Her Majesty states. When you are at Buckingham Palace, when she moves to her watch and says it's time to move on from a meeting, everyone moves on. And I think that, you know, she was welcoming of that very informal relationship and I think it was extremely well-received.

GREENE: OK. So, you've been hosting 80 or so chiefs of protocol from around the world over July 4th. I would imagine this has been a pretty polite gathering.

MARSHALL: It has been an excellent gathering, a real exchange of ideas, best practices. We just affirmed together in the plenary session that the position of honor is to the right, and we were all very happy about that. Because sometimes there can be slight confusion.

GREENE: One of the speakers talking to all of these directors of protocol from around the world is a pretty famous chef, Jose Andres. Why did you bring him in?

MARSHALL: We truly feel that food and service, dining, hospitality, is all a part of how we offer our diplomacy; how we can prepare for the growth of the relationship, the bilateral conversation. All of that needs to take place at the table. And Jose gets that. He understands that you have to make sure that you're taking a hint of someone's culture and you have that within the food presentation. You don't completely envelope it but you take a hint of that. It might be in a spice. It might be in a certain side dish. And then if people feel, again, well-respected, welcomed and, of course, well-fed, diplomacy can take place at its highest form.

GREENE: That's Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall. She's chief of protocol for the United States government. She joined us from her officer at the State Department. Thanks so much for talking to us.

MARSHALL: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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