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Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford provides a concise but lively account of the pitfalls of arranging diplomatic visits

Diplomats posted away  from home have a love-hate relationship with senior visits and senior visitors. On the one hand, they mean a lot of extra work. On the other hand, the very fact the visit is happening demonstrates HQ cares somewhat about the country or organisation where you’re posted. Maybe they care about you too?

I give webinars on protocol to UN family colleagues. Here are five key points from my session on Organising Visits.

1. Why visits?

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.

2. Where to start?

You’re at post, tasked with organising a senior visit. Where to start?

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.

3. What happens on the day?

You have your programme, agreed in some detail with the host government. What exactly will happen at each stage of the visit?

The point here is that 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.

One of my favourite examples of messing-up came from Finland. A top Finnish official was visiting Paris to take part in a key conference. In the scramble to get in the waiting cars, his accompanying delegation left him at the airport as he went off for a pit-stop. Only when they reached the conference hall did they realise their ghastly mistake.

The senior visitor took a taxi and reached the conference. He sat down, and made an existential statement about diplomacy:

“Mr Chairman, when plan and reality do not meet, we follow the plan!”

Then there was the 2009 visit by President Obama to Dublin. One of the heavy USarmoured presidential cars got stuck on a ramp to a resounding clunk as it attempted to leave the US Embassy. There was, however, general satisfaction among the nearby crowds and the global YouTube audience.

4. What do senior visitors need from you?

Another tip. Put yourself in the mind of the senior visitor. Where does the visit fit into his/her life?

Here it’s vital to bear in mind that, amazing as it may seem, most senior visitors are human. They have practical needs: comfort breaks, a change of clothes, a chance to catch up on family WhatsApp chats.

Back in the mists of British diplomacy a senior official visited Myanmar, when such visits were rare. The visitor arrived after the long, wearying flight to be greeted by a keen young Embassy officer racing across the tarmac carrying a plump bundle of vital briefing documents. No! I don’t need briefs and policies. I need a long shower and an even longer drink, not necessarily in that order.

The best way an ambassador can help a senior visitor is to confidentially and frankly set the scene, in terms the senior visitor can manage and use. Explain what’s going on in the country concerned: who’s up and who’s down. Remind the visitor of the tone of the visit – what level of formality will be needed at each stage, and what basic mistakes to avoid, for example how people are addressed.

This seems to apply above all in India, where ‘protocol’ is taken very seriously. British diplomats shed a silent tear when they recall the 2009 visit to India by then UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband. He annoyed his much older host, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, by addressing him by his first name in faux-matey New Labour style. Miliband subsequently (and disgracefully) suggested that the UK High Commissioner in New Delhi had not briefed him properly.

Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Warsaw in 2007 to discuss with Poland’s leadership the forthcoming EU Summit that aimed to agree a new EU ‘constitution’. This visit was going to be unusual: Mr Blair was to meet separately Poland’s Prime Minister and President, who at that time were the almost identical twins Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński.

Before he set off, Whitehall served up a fat brief full of detail about the many legal and political issues and Poland’s views thereon. What he in fact read on the plane were my two FCO telegrams and a personal email. One telegram gave a simple account of Poland’s current political scene: what the Kaczyński tendency represented and their polling prospects. The second telegram explained in the simplest, starkest terms what Poland wanted from the EU negotiations, and where they would dig in their heels. My email gave some tips when meeting the Kaczyńskis as people: Formal, but friendly and positive. Don’t make jokes about twins!

All went well. The visit helped London and Warsaw build top-level trust that that contributed to  both sides securing key objectives at the Summit itself.

5. Core protocol quality for visits?


Never assume. You either know, or you don’t.

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.



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