My piece at DIPLOMAT magazine on the trials and tribulations of organising diplomatic visits appears. Thus:
Visits come in all shapes and sizes.
Sometimes they’re largely symbolic– a senior gesture to show that the bilateral relationship is warm and alive, but not much more than that. Sometimes there’s serious diplomatic business to be done: to clinch a deal, or discuss a crisis and find shared ground.
A visit might show support (for example, visiting a leadership grappling with a painful insurgency, or a new democratic government after a despot has fallen). A visit can raise awareness (a film-star visiting a refugee camp). A visit can have a specific task that itself has wider significance (eg the opening of a new embassy building).
The best visits cleverly combine all of these and more. When I was UK Ambassador in Warsaw HRH The Princess Royal visited Poland. The immediate aim of her visit was to launch a new ship being built in Gdansk for Scotland’s coastguard. As it happened, the visit came soon after the election of Lech Kaczyński as Polish President, so we included a meeting between Princess Anne and new First Lady Maria Kaczyńska.
On the eve of the visit there was a ghastly accident in Poland, when a supermarket roof collapsed under heavy snow and many Poles died. At short notice we arranged for Princess Anne’s first official act during the visit to be signing the condolence book.
An important point here. Sometimes you want or need to change the programme at very short notice to accommodate a new development that is worth accommodating. That might mean disappointing or annoying some close contacts, and creating weary new work for your team. So be it. That’s the discipline.
I recall how we made a major effort to set up a visit by a visiting group of MPs to Durban as part of their South Africa visit in 1990 or so. The Ambassador at short notice jettisoned that whole leg of their visit when he managed to secure a meeting with newly released Nelson Mandela.
Quite right too. Key objective: visitors leave utterly gruntled.
Think about what the visitor wants to achieve by the visit. But think too about what the host government wants to achieve. It’s not just about you – it’s about the relationship.
What if the visitor and host don’t agree on what the visit is to achieve, or have quite different thoughts on how to present it? Do you know the key message(s) the visit is intended to convey and to whom? If not, why have the visit?
Above all, remember that the visitor is a guest in the host’s house. It’s not for your side alone haughtily to decide the message, substance and tone of the visit. Or to assert the right to decide the sequences and venues of any official lunches or dinners. Any attempt to do so will backfire.
Ah. You’re a guest in someone else’s house. See also Assange, passim.
Here’s a vital psychological/practical point:
The loneliest person in the world is the senior visitor getting out of the car.
S/he may be in an unfamiliar country and about to meet people whom s/he has never met before, who do not speak her/his language. As the car door opens, media cameras and passing smartphones all start clicking. The slightest slip or uncertainty can be splashed over the internet! In seconds!
What I had not realised until I became an Ambassador is that the second loneliest person in the world at that moment is the accompanying Ambassador. All the work has been done. Everything has been checked and rechecked. But despite all that, has someone messed up?
Has the car arrived at the right door at the right time? Will someone sensible be there as agreed to do the greeting and escorting? Is the interpreter ready?
If there is an embarrassing mess, the senior visitor will not blame the hosts. The senior visitor will blame you…
Core protocol quality for visits?
Getting off the plane. Gifts. Interpreters. Cars. Ramps. Flags. National anthems. Speeches. Microphones. Clothes. Food. Drink. After weeks if not months of painstaking preparation, anything awry can cause an unwelcome problem or a footling scandal or both.
Someone once gave me good advice.
When planning a visit with your team, get them to opine on (a) what might go wrong and (b) how likely it is to go wrong.
If they all agree that something is unimportant and really unlikely to go wrong, focus on that! Because people will already be focussed on everything else.