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Do the Obama People Have a Protocol Problem?

By March 18, 2009

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Marine One in front of the White House
Marine One in front
of the White House
White House Photo
Diplomatic protocol can be very tricky. Should you seat the ambassador of India ahead of the ambassador from China? Do you greet Roman Catholic cardinals before or after the governor of Guam? These things often seem silly to Americans who have spent many years perfecting the art of informality. But for much of the world, improper protocol signals disrespect. And the Obama Administration has recently been caught in some foreign relations protocol gaffes.

First was President Obama's meeting with United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The schedule was shuffled in a way that made the British feel they were being slighted. Then there was an awkward exchange of gifts where Prime Minister Brown brought some very impressive historical pieces and President Obama presented an uninspired group of 25 Hollywood DVDs. The Browns reportedly also brought nice clothes for the Obama children, while the Obamas sent a much less expensive model of Marine One to the Brown household.

Now when this happened, I was inclined to believe it was either a rookie mistake by the new White House or a calculated effort to distance the president from Prime Minister Brown since Brown is widely believed to be on his way out of office in Britain. But now a couple of other incidents make me worried that the problem is truly a lack of attention.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had her first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, she presented him with what was supposed to be a funny gift with a big message. She gave him a "reset" button because the United States has said it wants to "reset" the U.S.-Russian relationship. The button had the English word "reset" printed on it beside what was supposed to be the Russian word for reset. But it was the wrong Russian word.

Most recently, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also received some slipshod treatment. Keep in mind that Brazil is one of the fastest growing economies in the world with growing clout on the world stage. And President Lula (as he is know) is personally well-liked by world leaders across the board. But the White House bungled his schedule and then spelled his name wrong.

Writing for Foreign Policy.com about the Lula visit, Joshua Keating wrote:

I'm sure he'll feel better when he gets his DVDs. I know Obama's got bigger things to worry about, but there is a whole office of protocol that's supposed to take care of these things. If they can put together a Stevie Wonder concert, they should be able to arrange White House visits from the world's most important leaders with a little more class than this.

Comments

March 18, 2009 at 1:08 pm
(1) Joe says:

And it doesn’t occur to you that career civil servants wouldn’t deliberately undermine a new president?

March 21, 2009 at 3:13 am
(2) Mario says:

There is an error. It should read President OBAMA

…where Prime Minister Brown brought some very impressive historical pieces and President Bush presented an uninspired group of 25 Hollywood DVDs…

March 21, 2009 at 9:33 am
(3) usforeignpolicy says:

Thanks very much for catching that mistake. It has been corrected.

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