Reviews | Surprise gifts, safety details and secret smoke breaks: the art of planning a presidential summit
The United States was hosting the meeting, so much was under our control. We chose a small room, to bring the two leaders together and create the feeling of a collaborative environment. Along the same lines, we chose a narrow table to allow for a more intimate discussion and introduced a feeling of warmth with lamps and table settings of greenery (soothing color, no scent).
All of those micro details can make this subtle difference, and in this case, I believe they did. After the two-hour meeting, the leaders walked out of the room with handshakes and slaps on the back. It was clear they were exhausted and major political differences remained, but the meeting was seen as a step in the right direction, with Obama and Putin agreeing on a joint statement calling for an end to the violence by Syria.
Small deviations from the protocol also say a lot. Putin arrived late for the meeting, one of his favorite tactics to unbalance the other side. But together, we can play the game of the unexpected. We knew Putin hoped Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would not be present (she had commented unfavorably on her election). Obama recognized the loophole as an opportunity. During the introductions, he pulled back to reveal Clinton’s presence, and surprise crossed Putin’s face for a split second. The moment was brief, but it baffled Putin and telegraphed Obama’s determination.
Biden will arrive in Geneva after a long but successful week of diplomatic engagements, each guided by their own complex sets of protocols. As Air Force One lands on the tarmac, geopolitical tensions between the United States and Russia will be in the foreground. Looming mistrust will color the discussion, even as both leaders understand the need to seek closer alignment on many global crises, from Covid-19 to nuclear proliferation to climate change. For each party’s protocol team, every element, every moment will count.
Let’s start with the location. A well-chosen location can help turn rivals into partners or persuade nations to support a war effort. In 1985, the great Geneva castle Fleur d’Eau was chosen for the first meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev, which helped thaw US-Soviet relations. The serene and comfortable environment offered the two men an opening to learn more about the personal life of the other.
Even today, Geneva is the host city. Above all, it is a neutral place: the Swiss are seasoned hosts, and know how to avoid being favorable on one side or the other. The specific meeting place is Villa La Grange. Steeped in history, the century-old estate is isolated in a lush and dense park (which contributes to security concerns) and functions today as a library, a place of peaceful learning.
Once the site is chosen, it’s time for weeks of site planning. Several conference calls take place in the situation room. The US delegation visits the site about a month in advance. They will have had talks with the Swiss and, perhaps, with the Russians, to iron out the details of the visit. The chief of protocol will have contacted his counterparts from the two countries, as well as the ambassadors of Switzerland and Russia as a courtesy. (The current acting chief of protocol of the Biden administration, Asel Roberts, is a longtime diplomat who speaks fluent Russian, a huge advantage for this particular bilateral!)
At the moment, the forward team of US protocol officers have searched the villa for all the necessary information: exits / entrances, waiting rooms for staff and leaders, distances from one room to another, security checkpoints, even the number and location of toilets. Knowing all aspects of the location prepares the Protocol Officer for the unknown issues that are sure to arise and to answer any questions leaders may have.
Then, the staging of the room. You want your leader’s seat to face the door, or at least keep their eyes on the door, as this limits surprises and facilitates visual communication (a nod, a raised eyebrow) with the staff who Between.
I’m sure the protocol teams are also thinking about what’s on the table: the centerpieces (maybe a particular element makes it easier or harder for a topic of discussion, like a piece of art that sends a message on climate change), colors (do they brighten or cool the mood?), flower types (allergy alert! and fragrant varieties can distract leaders). What should the lighting look like (bright and happy or dim and intimate)? Security details often protect windows, so natural light may be absent: the team may need to bring in warm ambient lighting to reinforce a more user-friendly quality. Details have been negotiated and renegotiated. Perfect implementation is the key.
Other considerations: Gifts. Gifts are a precious tool of soft power, a way to convey a message that words cannot. The norm at most summits is to exchange gifts between protocol officers behind the scenes. Yet, as I discovered the hard way, you need a contingency plan when a leader deviates from expectations. Russians, known for the unexpected, also like to color outside the lines in the gift department. In Prague in 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev anticipated the protocol by presenting his gift to Obama after the meeting of the two leaders (this is called out-gifting). And during the Helsinki summit between Putin and President Donald Trump, the Russian leader surprised Trump by pulling a soccer ball out of his bag while addressing the press on a podium. The goal quickly became clear: to divert attention from questions on Syria. This time around, the two presidents have no plans to appear in front of the cameras together, so we may never know if Putin has pulled something out of his bag.
Because we are still living in a period of a pandemic, in addition to the normal preparations for the summit, the multiple Covid-19 directives that each delegation will negotiate are added. Will masks be worn? Will food be served or drinks only? Covid protocols are necessary and must be followed, but they certainly present challenges for protocol officers as they have the potential to disrupt the respectful social codes of conduct that guide leaders. Moreover, diplomacy often depends on split-second decisions made by leaders based on the facial reactions of their counterparts. Masks can make it more difficult for them to determine in real time where to conduct the discussion.