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The Front Lines of Diplomacy

Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall shares memories of working with President Barack Obama.

As our country’s chief of protocol, I recently attended a state dinner with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in South Africa. The setting was lovely, and it was clear he and President Jacob Zuma were getting along well. When President Zuma got to the podium to welcome our president, he looked down, looked under and looked to every side. We wondered, what is he looking for?

Suddenly, my counterpart seated next to me gasped: She realized President Zuma’s remarks were not on the podium. He loudly acknowledged this fact to the audience, then turned to President Obama and said, “Mr. President may I give yours?”

My advice to her was: “Run!” And she did just that. After an awkward pause, she returned to the room quickly and elegantly with the folder.

My tenure in this position showed me that, even with all the planning, one must always be prepared for curveballs. As a law student at Case Western Reserve in the early 1990s, I certainly never expected to one day accompany the president on his first state visit to the Court of St. James to meet Her Majesty Queen elizabeth, or to form lasting friendships with ambassadors from all over the globe. Four years, 42 countries and more than a quarter-million miles later, I know I could not have predicted just how much the people and the experiences I encountered would teach me.

Since the 13th century, protocol has guided personal engagement between dignitaries. Now those standards apply to many other situations as well. As populations boom, globalization accelerates and social media enables us to connect with others around the world with the click of a button, the art of protocol is ever more important. Protocol sets the stage for diplomacy at the highest levels, which is why we aspire—and sometimes perspire—for excellence.

When President Obama offered me this extraordinary position in 2009, I felt honored and deeply humbled by the opportunity to again—following my years as White House social secretary during the Clinton Administration—stand alongside our nation’s leaders as they played hosts to history. I welcomed the challenge to continue the respected traditional aspects of protocol while also seeking out creative ways within this era of new technology and communication to affect diplomacy. Perhaps most importantly, as a first-generation American and native Clevelander of Mexican and Croatian descent, I felt I had a duty to build bridges of understanding between our nation and others abroad. With this new global landscape in mind, we launched several initiatives during my time as chief of protocol that utilized new instruments in the diplomatic toolbox.

As principal liaison between the U.S. government and foreign chiefs of mission in Washington, D.C., I took advice from my predecessors, who all spoke of the importance of engaging the diplomatic corps. One of my first acts was to formalize what now is called the Diplomatic Partnerships Division (DPD). Designed to enhance the experience of the diplomats posted in Washington, DPD’s programs facilitate cross-cultural exchange, foster goodwill and promote new international partnerships with leaders in business, culture and government.

For example, with the new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, we have showcased America’s talented chefs to visiting foreign dignitaries. In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted a state luncheon for then-Vice President of China Xi Jinping. We invited renowned Chinese- American chef, Ming Tsai, who donated his services to prepare the meal. You could see Xi’s eyes light up when we introduced him to Ming. The revered chef and the powerful leader then spoke in Mandarin about their families, their connection to the U.S. and, of course, the delicious food. On this occasion, among many others, the protocol team created an alternative way for our leaders to engage with their foreign counterparts.

As I depart this position, I will forever cherish this amazing opportunity—to walk in the footsteps of history while being part of the extraordinary protocol team that ensures successful platforms for American diplomacy. I will never be able to thank President Obama and Secretaries Clinton and John Kerry for their support throughout these past years. And, although on occasion they may have questioned, “Why am I on the left and who walks in first?” they always knew: It is protocol. It matters!

Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, chief of protocol of the United States from 2009 to August 2013, served as the primary liaison for visiting dignitaries meeting with the president, vice president, secretary of state and other administration officials. Previously, she worked in a variety of capacities for the Clinton Administration. A native of Cleveland, Marshall holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Purdue University and a law degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Law, where she served as Student Bar Association president.


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