The flags are raised, the tables are set, the policy notes are drafted. The Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, now awaits Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin. While all eyes will be on the leaders, the details that go unseen will have a significant impact on this highly awaited summit. From the seating to the greetings to the centerpieces, these elements of protocol—the rules that govern diplomatic interactions—have been in the works for months. Very little happens by accident in diplomacy. Everything is precisely choreographed, and every decision by the protocol team of each country has been carefully made to further specific policy goals.
“Protocol, shmotocol!” I heard this a million times when I entered my post as chief of protocol for the Obama administration. But many of these skeptics soon witnessed how the tools of protocol—location selection, arrival rituals, gift exchanges and more—allow leaders to connect from a starting point of mutual respect and broach difficult conversations without alienating each other. Protocol—whose ancient Greek etymology is a reference to the first sheet of papyrus that came at the beginning of an official missive—offers a shared blueprint everyone can follow, minimizing the possibility of disruptive surprises or missteps. When the building of diplomacy becomes wobbly, protocol is often the scaffolding that holds things together.