South Africa

Protocol: Why are we in the state we’re in about it?

By J Brooks Spector 3 May 2013

Protocol has suddenly become the newest “four letter word” in the South African lexicon. And the man responsible for managing it in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation – Bruce Koloane, previously South Africa’s ambassador to Spain – seems to be the officially designated fall guy in a metastasising scandal in the South African government in the wake of its amazingly deferential treatment of almost 200 wedding guests who flew in from India the other day, landing at one of the country’s major military air bases. But what is this mysterious thing called “protocol” and why does it matter? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

One dictionary definition for diplomatic protocol calls it a “set of international courtesy rules. These well-established and time-honoured rules have made it easier for nations and people to live and work together.” Part of protocol has always been the acknowledgment of the hierarchical standing of all present even as protocol rules are also based on the principles of formal civility. A second dictionary defines protocol as “the official procedure or system of rules governing affairs of state or diplomatic occasions” as in the phrase, “protocol forbids the prince from making any public statement in his defence”.

Beyond this standard use of the word protocol, there are two other common use meanings. One is to use it for a form of diplomatic agreement or an amendment to such an agreement, as in – “the US and Canada signed a new trade protocol on auto parts”. The other meaning, of course, comes from its usage in the IT world, meaning the specific way a communications linkup must take place so that the system will do what it is supposed to do. But in this diplomatic ramble, we shall stay with the first meaning because this is where this week’s trouble is located.

At its heart, to function effectively, diplomatic protocol depends on several features: reciprocity; seniority; predictability; and a formal civility. The first of these, reciprocity, means that, at least in a formal sense, every government is treated equivalently in international forums – and that any two representatives get the same official respect, even if one represents the United States and the other one is attending on behalf of the tiny nations of Nauru or Djibouti. Much of this behaviour stems from the gradual codification of international sovereignty and a growing agreement on the formal equivalence of every independent state, no matter how small, and the inviolability of diplomatic personnel. These arose out of the Treaty of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years War, as well as the later Vienna and Geneva conventions.

Flowing from this body of tradition, a visiting president or prime minister would generally receive the total package of ceremonial treatment on arrival at a foreign capital. This would probably include a military guard of honour, a bustle of functionaries to supervise luggage, transportation, shepherd the media, probably a live band to play the two national anthems, a cute young child to deliver a bouquet of flowers and all the rest. Further down the totem pole, at lower levels, say for a visiting parliamentarian or two, a cabinet or a sub-cabinet official, or a regional official, they would get lesser but still respectful treatment on arrival, departure and during any official duties, visits and negotiations. But that would be nothing like what will be accorded a king, a prime minister or a president.

Seniority, of course, is another one of those sacred diplomatic protocol virtues. In any capital, all ambassadors and high commissioners are formally ranked by how long they have been at their post in that particular country. The longest serving ambassador is called the dean of the diplomatic corps within that country.

As a result, when the host government wishes to communicate to the entire foreign diplomatic establishment assigned to that nation, traditionally it would send a note to the dean of the diplomatic corps and ask him (or her) to inform the rest. Seniority is the way the system works – finish and klaar – so that, as happened in Washington for years, the dean of the diplomatic corps ended up being a very long-serving representative of a sleazy dictatorship of a little banana republic of a country. But that nation’s ambassador was the dean of the corps and everyone – the Chinese ambassador, the Soviet ambassador and everybody else – formally deferred to this little, roly-poly, cigar chomping, 30-year veteran of Washington’s intrigues.

And so, in all those Victorian-era period films that have a scene where there is a gaggle of tunic-clad, medal-bedecked, sword-wearing ambassadors at some royal audience, the scene usually showed the various diplomats standing in rank order. All the ambassadors would be clustered closest to the sovereign, lower ranking ministers are further away from the locus of power, and the lowly, newly-arrived vice consuls from tiny, insignificant princedoms are positioned still further away, barely within the film’s frame. The system is a bit looser now, true, but seniority and rank still matter.

Predictability is a similarly important norm. Senior official visitors and diplomatic personnel assigned to a country are supposed to be treated in ways that do not deviate from the normally expected, regular patterns, even if the two nations are becoming increasingly grumpy towards each other – unless they actually go to war, of course. Among other things, that is one of the reasons Americans were so incensed about the forced confinement of their diplomats in Tehran 30-some years ago – aside from all those more direct violations of international law.

And then there is the value of a kind of formal civility. With this in mind, this is why the usual diplomatic note between two countries usually begins with the phrase, “The Government of the Kingdom of Ruritania presents its compliments to the Government of the Principality of Zenda…” And a note will begin that way even if the two sovereigns have been having an increasingly angry snit fight over cattle grazing rights for a generation.

And so what is the role of a country’s top protocol official in all of this? Rather than a behind-the-scenes diplomat stamping out international relations fires, think of a country’s protocol head as a kind of special maître ‘d in the fancy restaurant of international diplomacy. That person takes care that the diplomatic equivalent of the tables are set just right, the flowers are in order, the waitresses are ready to go, the wine steward knows his stuff, the string quartet has started playing and the kitchen is ready to roll when he opens the dining room entrance door.

Some readers may recall the diplomatic dance that took place in Paris 40 years ago as North Vietnamese and American negotiators wrangled politely but very forcefully over the shape of the negotiating table. In this case the arguments about the right protocol were a reflection of the power relationships between the warring sides as both wanted to enforce their view about the nature of the eventual resolution of the negotiations. The Americans wanted a four-sided table to encompass the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, the Americans and the South Vietnamese while Hanoi wanted a two-sided format arguing that that was what the war was really about. More recently, the film, Hyde Park on Hudson, depicted the vivid cultural clashes over protocol during the unprecedented visit of England’s king, George VI to Franklin Roosevelt’s family home on the Hudson River above New York City, just as World War II was breaking out. The crux of the story was how for once protocol was abandoned in favour of an informal hot dog picnic to help forge an alliance between the two nations.

Generally speaking, the protocol chief is the crucial official in the middle who must coordinate with many other government offices to make sure airport arrival and departure arrangements are ready and that all the venues for every bit of an official schedule are set. But each separate government department must also coordinate its respective arrangements to make sure there are no embarrassing mix-ups such as the confusion that put Indian Prime Minister Singh some 65km out of town in a country lodge during the Brics summit in Durban two months ago, throwing many of the bilateral meetings off schedule and getting some important noses out of joint in the process.

When military facilities and personnel are involved, things get even more complicated. As a result, protocol arrangements need to be even more carefully monitored and controlled. In the US, for example, Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland is sometimes used for the arrivals and departures of foreign heads of state precisely because of its convenience to downtown Washington and because it is a facility that can be thoroughly controlled in terms of access and crowd control. Similarly, if the US president, vice president or secretary of state (or a similar leader from another nation) were making an official visit to South Africa, it is quite possible that they would similarly land at Waterkloof Air Force Base – especially if they were arriving on a military aircraft. It would become a military-to-military thing in terms of ground support and security as well.

For this activity, the major coordination issues become military-to-military, and the foreign affairs protocol official becomes the coordinating official for the rest. The key point in this, of course, is that in virtually every government around the world, a protocol official is not a senior substantive official for negotiations or on the thematic issues to be discussed during a visit. Rather, that official’s task is to set the table for other officials so that a visit goes forward successfully and people in charge do what they hope to do during their meetings.

At this moment, it remains unclear who actually gave the approvals – and the orders – for the wedding party’s charter aircraft to land at Waterkloof Air Force Base, and on what basis such a determination was made – even if many are speculating about it. One thing is clear. Significant coordination and consultation must have occurred before the plane actually touched down. At the very least, this would have included officials at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (assuming that there was an initial approach from the Indian High Commission), the country’s air traffic controllers, the Department of Defence, the base command structure, the police and Home Affairs – so that all of the complex systems were in place for that charter craft to land with its passengers and wedding gifts. Even so, customs officials ended up being left out of the equation.

What has to happen now? At the minimum, South Africa will need to take aggressive steps to repair the damage to the nation’s diplomatic reputation – re-establishing administrative and policy controls to prevent anyone from bending the nation’s government and diplomatic structures for private benefit. And painting a target on one diplomatic official is not the way to make that happen. DM

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Photo: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (L) poses for a photo with South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma (2nd L), Mrs Tobeka Madiba Zuma (2nd R) and the Duke of Edinburgh on their way to the state banquet in Mr Zuma’s honour at Buckingham Palace, in London, March 3, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Winning


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