Coded Diplomacy: the Political Rituals in Ceremonies and Protocols

Dr. Yasser Abdel Hussein – An Iraqi academic researcher and diplomat

Today, the diplomatic protocol rituals are no longer just a traditional ceremony related to the etiquette of the rules of diplomatic work, and the state’s foreign affairs that are represented by the rules, patterns and customs of conducting international relations with international personalities and representatives. Rather, it has turned into a civilized and cultural device that sends coded messages. It carries the DNA of the political leader, the identity and spirit of the country, and all the fragrance of the country’s diplomatic heritage.The velvet glove is due to its soft power through the indirect signals sent by that device. It is no longer those movements contained in that old book whose papers yellowed in the hallways of foreign affairs and diplomatic missions. Coded diplomacy is based on the customs, cultures and civilized pulse of peoples, and is reflected in the reception ceremonies, food, greetings and others.  Therefore, it is today more than an international blog to send elegant and polite messages of respect to all parties, in times of peace and war. The French diplomat (Jules Cambon) says that the protocol does not define the winning countries and the losing nations, even for two warring countries, mutual respect is a must, regardless of the balance of power. Otto von Bismarck advises (Be polite and diplomatic, even in declaring war one should abide by the rules of etiquette).

Events in the Diplomatic Theatre

Why did the Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron sit separately at a four-meter long table in their last meeting in Moscow? Why did former US President Donald Trump violate royal protocol in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II? Why did the Elysee Palace cancel breakfast for former Iranian President Hassan  Rouhani? Why was there no seat for European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during the meeting she and the President of the European Council held with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara? Why did Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian stand in an unallocated place at the Baghdad Conference for Partnership and Cooperation? And why did President Putin present his Egyptian counterpart President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi an AK-47 rifle?

Dealing with the situations mentioned above within the framework of a deliberate human act or a lapse comes in different contexts. However, in general in our time, these situations are dealt with in a different way, sometimes the focus of public opinion and the media with passion, eagerness, anticipation and a lots of political analyzes to explain these rituals in the context of being indirect political messages, while on the other hand, there is another point of view that believes that these rituals do not have a significant impact on the foreign political behavior of states, and that they are merely events sent more often to internal public opinion to prove the strength and character of leaders. The general situation is that all international actors respect those rituals. This is why talking about the subject of protocol is the subject of least interest in diplomatic work. The natural case is that every foreign ministry has a guide to its ceremonies, built according to the Westphalian system. However, when diplomacy is at stake, mistakes, regardless of whether they are unintended, can lead to crises, but in most cases the result of these slips and lapses is white hair on the protocol officials. When the body of the Queen of Britain is touched by the American president, as happened during the era of President Trump, it is a dangerous violation of British royal protocol. However, it did not put the American and British armies against each other, but the media put the incident at the forefront of its priorities, so that it overshadowed the main objective of the visit.

What is the use of a smooth tongue without sharp teeth?

These situations and events may seem to be formal, simple and uninteresting issues in the world of international relations compared to the successive world events of conflicts, wars and new epidemics. However, these behavioral traditions have become eminently influential, and are subject to an analysis microscope that may understand from the sociological angles the identity of the state or the vision of the decision-maker to send certain political messages or interpretations, and it has become not devoid of purposes in political psychology and goals that have hidden dimensions that do not rise to be just a passing event. According to some specialists in evolutionary psychology, they believe that there are voluntary and involuntary motives that motivate sending special messages in cases of receiving guests and leaders. However, This is more prominent in eastern societies.

Historically, it can be noted that the protocol rituals planned by diplomacy in ancient Iraq carried political messages, and were not just a customary ritual practiced in the traditional manner. The Sumerians in the middle of the third millennium BC achieved civilized progress in the field of foreign policy and its diplomatic tools, in addition to the fact that the Akkadian language is the first language of diplomacy in the world. Even the red carpet ceremonies dedicated to receiving kings and leaders around the world are of Iraqi origin, as the beginning was in Babylon in ancient Iraq about 550 BC with the reception ceremonies of the Greek king Agamemnon, where the Babylonians spread a carpet made of red sea sponge that extended from the Babylon Gate to the palace gate for the purpose of receiving the Greek king on one of the diplomatic visits, as Margaret Rotten mentions in his book on the history of Babylon.

It is enough to show an important protocol incident reported by fellow Iraqi diplomat Thaer Taher Fadel in his published paper on (the historical roots of diplomacy of science, technology and innovation in Mesopotamia and its impact on global civilization), which occurred between the ambassador of the Kingdom of Mary, and the official in charge of protocol and ceremonies at the palace of King Hammurabi of Babylon, where ancient Babylon had a diplomatic relationship with the Kingdom of Mary and its ruler Zimri Lim. In one of the diplomatic receptions for representatives of the Kingdom of Mary, and the Kingdom of Yamkhed, which was set up by Hammurabi Palace, the ambassador of the Kingdom of Mary was invited, and the diplomatic protocol required that in the event of appearing before the king, the ambassadors wear specific clothes that are provided to them by the diplomatic protocol official in the palace. The narration indicates that the staff of the Yamkhad embassy received the clothes, while the staff of the Mary embassy did not receive all the clothes except for the ambassador and two of his assistants, but the rest of the embassy members did not receive the clothes. Thud, their representation was limited to three people without the presents’ carriers, so they refrained from entering the ceremony and demanded an official clarification from the protocol department. The official’s excuse was that the ceremony was only for the higher positions in the embassy, ​​but in return, the embassy staff of Yamkhad were fully dressed. As a result, the ambassador of Mary refused what happened, considering it an insult and bad faith towards the Kingdom of Mary, so an argument occurs and the representatives of Mary’s embassy leave, so later it comes to Hammurabi’s hearing, then ordering to send clothes and receive the entire embassy staff, so after they attend the palace, Hammurabi tells them that they have caused trouble and harassed those in the palace, and that he is only who determines whom to see and when. From this case we see that the administration of the protocol was aware in advance of the directions and doctrine of Hammurabi in foreign policy, which sees that the Kingdom of Mary became more dangerous than being an ally, so he sent them this protocol message, and this situation ended with the Kingdom of Mary breaking its relations with Babylon.

Protocol and rules of respect

 Over centuries of diplomatic practice, protocol apparatus had to not only demonstrate mutual respect, but also had to be a political instrument, a form of soft state power and the image of the state abroad against its competitors. In ancient Europe the lack of such rules led to serious conflicts, such as the violent dispute over the place in a meeting with the Swedish ambassador in London in 1661 which occurred between the retinue of the Spanish ambassador Vateville and the retinue of the French ambassador d’Estaing, where the King of France ordered Louis XIV to punish the Spanish ambassador and made other ambassadors of Spain make way for future French ambassadors, otherwise he threatened to declare war. At first glance, it seems that the dispute between a retinue and two ambassadors is not comparable to the danger of war between countries. However, France wanted to exploit this protocol dispute in order to send its vision and symbolic leadership to other European countries. Political activity is impossible without rules, because politics becomes messy without it.

That is why the official of the protocol or ceremony is no longer just a preserver of the state’s traditions and its law stipulated by the ABCs of the protocol and ceremonies to receive leaders or deal at summit conferences, but rather preserves the country’s spirit, history, identity and the pattern of political messages that their country wants to convey through it, or vice versa, preserving those values ​​that are intended to be rooted and others are required to preserve its spirit.

With the development of diplomacy and its multiple paths throughout the history record, its tools and special apparatus have developed. This development includes ceremonies and protocols that today simulate the societal standards or the identity spirit of the state or the decision-maker and their personality, ambition or their own political messages. Political anthropologists believe that performing rituals is an important matter.  The importance of producing power, and sometimes these cultural rituals reflect a silent dialogue with the other party, and therefore have become expressions of what can be called heritage diplomacy, which is mobilizing the common cultural and national past in those rituals and exporting cultural and symbolic expressions of national identity to the outside through the inside as sources of soft power with the use of historical narratives, cultural and religious affiliations, and other relationships rooted in the real and imagined past. Thus, we are facing a new concept of protocol closer to coded diplomacy. It is enough that the 16 guards in Erdogan’s official palace represent the countries founded by the Turks and their ancestors to express the concept of neo-Ottomanism, also the Madeleine Albright’s expressive pins when she was asked by the Russian Foreign Minister Igor IPhanov, pointing to a pin she wore like an arrow: Is this one of your missile interceptors? Yes, and as you can see, we can make it very small, so you better be ready to negotiate, said Albright.

Today, creative methods of protocol are often used for specific purposes to express solidarity or send a message of preference, such as what happened in the funeral ceremony of Emperor Hirohito of Japan, which is a major international event with the participation of leaders from all over the world, when former US President George Bush announced that he would attend. The problem of the traditional protocol was raised that heads of state should have precedence by the date they take office, and since Bush has just taken office, he will be the youngest in the seating arrangements, while Japan wanted to consolidate their relations in Washington, so the solution that was reached is to treat the funeral as a celebration of the life of the Emperor of Japan and not as an official event. Therefore, it was announced that heads of state will be treated primarily in the order of the countries visited by Hirohito during his life, as a result of which the US President was placed in the first row of the heads of state present. Thus, the message of the protocol became a message of preference.

Or, it is an opposite message, such as the scene of the diplomatic handshake, which is one of the very important phenomena in the diplomatic theater. The hand presented symbolizes good faith and willingness to cooperate, and refusing to do so is seen as the opposite, and ignoring the hand presented is a great diplomatic insult, as happened in the Algiers Agreement in 1975 between the Shah’s Iran and Iraq, where a story was told by Dr. Fakhri Qaddouri in his memoirs that after the signing, when Saddam Hussein left his seat, heading to shake hands with the Shah, thinking that the Shah would do the same, they met in the middle of a protocol congratulatory exchange, but the Shah remained standing in front of his chair and did not move one step, and Saddam was forced to complete the distance alone until he reached the Shah and the handshake took place. Saddam considered the Shah’s behavior a kind of insult, and he did not forget this personal and official wound throughout the years that followed, which ended in the eight-year war.

This coded diplomacy has become more than just a symbolic function, but rather a sensor linked to the eyes, thoughts and vision of the decision-maker, taking into account the accuracy and success of the protocol arrangements, which make it suitable for strengthening relations and making the guest feel of their importance and status, and the status of their state in the host country, as well as the appreciative character of the relationship. There are still so many tools that make foreign policy work successfully and effectively. Diplomatic protocol is one of the most important of them. It is simply impossible to imagine any diplomatic activity without the work of that apparatus.