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Opinion | Surprise gifts, security details and secret smoking breaks: the art of planning a presidential summit


The United States hosted the meeting, so many elements were under our control. We chose a small space to bring the two executives closer together and create the feeling of a collaborative environment. At the same end, we chose a narrow table to allow for a more intimate discussion and introduced a feeling of warmth with lamps and table arrangements made of green (calming color, no fragrance).

All of these micro-details can make that subtle difference – and in this case, I believe they did. After the two-hour meeting, the leaders came out of the room with handshakes and pats on the back. It was clear that they were exhausted and that major political differences remained, but the meeting was seen as a step in the right direction. Obama and Putin agreed on a joint statement calling for an end to violence in Syria.

Even small deviations from the protocol speak volumes. Putin was late for the meeting, one of his favorite tactics to throw the other side off balance. But two can play the game of the unexpected. We knew that Putin was hoping that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would not be there (she had commented negatively on his election). Obama saw the rift as an opportunity. During the performance, he stepped aside to reveal Clinton’s presence, and for a split second, Putin’s face flickered with surprise. The moment was brief, but it threw off Putin and wired Obama’s determination.

Biden will arrive in Geneva after a long but successful week of diplomatic engagements, each guided by their own intricate protocols. As soon as Air Force One lands on the tarmac, geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia will burn on the front burners. The threat of distrust will shape the discussion, even if both heads of state and government understand the need to seek closer coordination in many global crises, from Covid-19 to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and climate change. Every element, every moment will matter to the protocol team on each side.

Let’s start with the location. A well-chosen venue can help turn rivals into partners or convince nations to stand up for war. In 1985, the magnificent Fleur d’Eau Castle in Geneva was selected for the first meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, which resulted in a thaw in American-Soviet relations. The quiet, comfortable environment gave the two men the opportunity to learn about each other’s private lives.

Geneva is still the host city today. It is important that the location is neutral: the Swiss are experienced hosts and know how to avoid showing themselves to one side or the other. The specific meeting point is Villa La Grange. The historic, centuries-old property is secluded in a lush, dense park (this helps with safety concerns) and now functions as a bibliothèque, a peaceful place to learn.

Once the location is selected, it’s time for weeks of site planning. Several conference calls are held in the Situation Room. The US delegation visits the site about a month in advance. You will have had meetings with the Swiss, and perhaps also with the Russians, to clarify the details of the visit. The chief of protocol will have addressed his colleagues from both countries as well as the ambassadors of Switzerland and Russia out of courtesy. (The current incumbent chief of protocol in the Biden government, Asel Roberts, is a longtime professional diplomat who speaks fluent Russian, a huge asset to this particular bilateral one!)

In the meantime, the team of US protocol officers has searched the villa for all the necessary information: exits / entrances, lounges for staff and leaders, distances from one room to the next, security checks, even the number and location of the toilets. Knowing every aspect of the place prepares the protocol officer for the unknown problems that will inevitably arise and to answer any questions the guides might ask.

Next up is the room staging. You want your leader’s seat to face the door, or at least let you see the door, as this limits surprises and facilitates visual communication (a nod, an eyebrow raise) with the staff entering.

I’m sure the protocol teams are also considering what’s on the table – the centerpieces (maybe a certain item eases or distracts a topic of conversation, like a piece of art sending a message about climate change), colors (they lighten up ?) or dampen the mood?), types of flowers (allergy alarm! And fragrant varieties can distract the front runners). How should the lighting be (bright and cheerful or subdued and intimate)? Security details often screen the windows so that natural light can fall out: the team may need to bring in warm ambient lighting to reinforce a friendlier quality. The details were negotiated and renegotiated. Perfect implementation is the be-all and end-all.

Other considerations: gifts. Gifts are a valuable soft power tool, a means of getting a message across that words cannot. The standard at most summits is to exchange gifts between protocol officers behind the scenes. But, as I found out the hard way, when a leader deviates from expectations, you need a contingency plan. The Russians, who are known for the unexpected, also like to think outside the box in the gift department. In 2010 in Prague, President Dmitry Medvedev pre-empted the protocol by giving Obama his gift (we call it out-gifting) at the end of the meeting of the two heads of state and government. And at the summit between Putin and President Donald Trump in Helsinki, the Russian leader surprised Trump by pulling a soccer ball out of his pocket while speaking on a podium in front of the press. The purpose quickly became clear – to divert attention from issues related to Syria. This time the two presidents have no plans to appear in front of cameras together, so we may never know if Putin pulled something out of his pocket.

Since we are still living in pandemic times, the numerous Covid-19 guidelines that each delegation will negotiate will be supplemented in addition to the normal summit preparations. Are masks worn? Is food served or just drinks? Covid protocols are necessary and should be followed, but they certainly pose challenges for protocol officers as they have the potential to disrupt the respectful social codes of conduct that govern leaders. In addition, diplomacy often depends on the decisions leaders make in fractions of a second based on the facial reactions of their counterparts. Masks can make it difficult for them to estimate in real time where to lead the discussion.

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