How Important are Breaches of Diplomatic Etiquette?

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July 6 2012 3:47 PM

Shrimp Fork Diplomacy

Do breaches of etiquette ever cause international crises?

The family photo at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, on November 13, 2011 in Honolulu, Hawaii.
World leaders at the 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. How important is the observation of cross-cultural manners at diplomatic events?

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

More than 100 chiefs of protocol from 77 countries gathered in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. Their summit is intended to prevent embarrassing gaffes by diplomats and heads of state. Has a breach of etiquette or diplomatic protocol ever caused an international crisis? 

Not exactly. History is littered with breaches of diplomatic etiquette, from the impulsive (England’s Prince Charles appearing unannounced and incognito in Madrid to woo Princess Maria Anna in 1623) to the grotesque (President George H.W. Bush vomiting into the lap of Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in 1992). One-off gaffes like these don’t alter the course of history, however, because governments are more interested in economic and political relationships than whether a foreign guest such as President Obama bowed appropriately.

Breaches of etiquette cause so few international incidents partially because governments go to such lengths to prevent them. For example, several staffers preparing for Nixon’s landmark 1972 visit to China came home with rashes on their backsides. Government officials became concerned that the president would suffer the same fate, forcing him to scratch himself inappropriately during meetings with Chairman Mao. The crisis was averted when a Navy physician deduced that the lacquer on some Chinese toilets was causing the problem and advised the president to put a toilet-paper barrier between himself and the seats.

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Breaches of protocol can have more of an impact when they play into a larger narrative. When Franklin D. Roosevelt hosted King Saud of Saudi Arabia on an American warship in 1945, the chain-smoking president refrained from lighting up in front of the anti-smoking king. (Roosevelt did, however, push an elevator emergency stop button to give himself enough time to smoke two cigarettes between meetings.) The pair got along so well that Saud declared them twin brothers. Winston Churchill took a different approach. When told that Saud opposed vices such as strong drink on religious grounds, Churchill replied, “My religion prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and drinking alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and the intervals between them.” Churchill’s smoking and drinking probably didn’t significantly damage Anglo-Saudi relations—Saudi Arabia was already looking to FDR to counterbalance British influence in the region—but his imperiousness reinforced Saud’s low opinion of the fading colonial power.

Mistreatment by ordinary citizens can also have an impact on foreign relations. During the 1950s and early 1960s, diplomats from newly independent African nations suffered a series of indignities as they traveled through segregated Maryland on their way from the United Nations to the White House. Whenever a diplomat was ejected from a “whites only” hotel or restaurant, newspaper writers in his home country railed against American racism. The problem became so severe that the State Department established an agency just to deal with discrimination against black diplomats. Administration officials argued that ending segregation was crucial to winning the Cold War—a point that helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Governments sometimes deliberately breach diplomatic protocol to send a message. In such cases, the breach is more an effect of the crisis than the cause. The United States, for example, sent a junior diplomat to discuss a proposed U.N. resolution condemning Israel in 2008, in a move the Chinese ambassador considered an insult. More pointedly, Harry Truman severely upbraided Soviet Ambassador Vyacheslav Molotov during their first meeting in 1945. Molotov was miffed, complaining that no one had ever spoken to him that way, but Truman had carefully calibrated his tone to notify the Soviets that he was unafraid of a confrontation over Eastern Europe.

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Explainer thanks Mary L. Dudziak of Emory University, author of Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, Kenneth Osgood of the Colorado School of Mines, author of Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad, and Thomas Zeiler of the University of Colorado, author of Annihilation: A Global Military History of World War II.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.