Setting the stage for diplomacy with Andrew Ciafardini

Former Assistant Chief of Protocol to the Bush administration shares his experiences behind the scenes of US foreign relations

Andrew Ciafardini speaks to a crowded hall at Denver’s Posner Center

Earlier this month, the Posner Center for International Development in Denver hosted a very refreshing talk with Andrew Ciafardini who served as the Assistant Chief of Protocol for the Bush administration. I say refreshing because the whole event had a rather casual and comical atmosphere to it as opposed to some of the more grim sides of world affairs –– i.e. war, terrorism, etc. –– that I study and work with much more regularly.

So what does an Assistant Chief of Protocol do exactly? Despite the intimidating and ambiguous title, all the job really entails is oversight and planning of foreign visits to the United States. This includes arranging ceremonies, formalities, events, and other things of the sort for world leaders and ambassadors as well as ensuring that cultural traditions and practices do not interfere with policymaking with other countries. Ciafardini has traveled to over 30 countries coordinating visits with world leaders and the US both at home and abroad. Essentially, his job involves the parts of diplomacy that are free of all the messy and unsavory bits that you see on the news these days.

What was most striking about Mr. Ciafardini’s remarks is how choreographed and orchestrated meetings between foreign leaders can be. While it is generally understood that most of what world leaders do and say is scripted, rehearsed, and briefed by advisors, I had no idea exactly to what extent that was the case. Believe it or not, visitors, ambassadors, liaisons, and others are given what are essentially pocket-sized play-by-play guide books that explicitly spell out the order of events, the appropriate times to speak and stand, acceptable gestures, and many other things. Everything from how long it takes to get from a landed plane to the taxi to how long a representative is expected to speak to the assembly is meticulously timed carefully planned out in advance.

One such guide book presented to the Prime Minister of India and his wife in 2005

The most interesting part about Mr. Ciafardini’s presentation was learning about the crazy and unusual stories of the things that go on behind the scenes between world leaders. In one particular instance, he told us about the time the President of Bulgaria had presented President Bush with a puppy as a visitation gift. Of course, the State Department has a policy where gifts given to other leaders must not exceed $300 as a token of modesty, and that any gift that is given to the US that exceeds $300 must be accepted on behalf of the whole country. Being that the puppy was a purebred Bulgarian Shepherd, it was worth well over $300. As such, President Bush, who was not briefed prior to this exchange, accepted the dog and let it stay in a secret service room of the White House until he one day decided to purchase it as a gift for a housekeeper who took care of it there.

As a student who is studying foreign affairs, what was also interesting to me was just how effective diplomacy can be even when the conditions of negotiation are seemingly the most arbitrary terms imaginable. On one occasion, for instance, he spoke of a White House official visit from the Chinese. Now, on the hierarchy of different types of visits, the highest is a State Visit which entails a full ceremony complete with a 21-gun salute. The occasion for China’s visit, however, was an official meeting which is not as high ranking, and much more informal. Apparently, during negotiations with the Chinese officials, the US was able to make considerable ground, as one of the Chinese’s only requests was that their informal visit be greeted by as grand and extravagant a ceremony as a State Visit. The US agreed and gave China their grand welcoming on the lawn of the White House and accordingly, the Chinese agreed to our conditions. (The policy in question was purely confidential so he wasn’t able to give us details about it.)

What I mainly took away from this event was how effective the power of diplomacy can often times be. Judging by what he had to say, it is sometimes the small things that may otherwise be dismissed as insignificant that make the largest impressions. The US, given the extensive measures it undergoes to ensure that cultural sensitivities are respected during foreign visits, exhibits a very agreeable and diplomatic position on the world stage to such a degree that even Fidel Castro, during his visits here, has been afforded the same degree of Secret Service protection as many White House officials receive. While these gestures and remarks may seem minuscule, they make a much larger impact than they might allude to, showing the world that our primary interest is upholding diplomacy and cooperation in the international community.