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Author: Erik Goldstein

Developments in protocol


As times change so do customs generally. In diplomacy protocol too changes and develops, mirroring broader societal norms. This paper discusses developments in protocol and how it provides the commonly accepted norms of behaviour for the conduct of relations between states.


Protocol may not be the most exciting area of international relations, but every foreign ministry maintains a protocol department. Protocol goes as far back as there have been contacts between states, with evidence of diplomatic protocol being found in reliefs at Persopolis. The twentieth century has witnessed a growing informality in the practice of diplomacy, though there is always the underlying necessity, in the existing Westphalian system based on the sovereign equality of states, that states must see that they are being treated equally.(1) 

The trend towards informality in the treatment of individuals as representatives of their state is underpinned by the evolution of formulas which assure that all states are, and are seen to be, treated as equals. Protocol concerning permanent diplomatic missions between states is now well established, but the area which is seeing the most innovation is that involving meetings between leaders.(2)  Historically, personal meetings between rulers of states were infrequent before the nineteenth century, the logistics of travel making such meetings difficult.(3) 

Developments in technology and transport have made meetings easier and safer to arrange, and there has been a vertical rise in summitry since 1960. Little changed in the protocol of meetings between leaders until the twentieth century boom in summitry, when protocol has had to evolve in order to facilitate political leaders’ desire to meet. The result has been, for the most part, a further relaxation in protocol.


The problem of where to hold meetings is often caused by the implied prestige conferred upon the host, as well as the opportunities provided by the host to utilize this role. The problems of venue are not new. Initially, neutral areas were used because of the mutual suspicion of leaders. The fifteenth-century meeting between Edward IV of England and Louis XI of France on a bridge is symptomatic of the problems surrounding such meetings. Leaders were reluctant to travel through potentially hostile territory. Even in 1807 Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I met on a raft in the middle of the Niemen at Tilsit.

The nineteenth century, however, saw an increasing frequency of meetings between leaders of states, and by the early twentieth century a shift in protocol was beginning to emerge. One important turning point came at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, convened to settle the events of the First World War. France insisted that the peace conference be held at Paris, supposedly as a tribute to France’s role in the conflict. By custom, the head of the host state chairs the conference, and therefore has a greater degree of control over the agenda. Both Britain and the United States were unhappy with this arrangement, and advocated neutral Geneva. Indeed, one reason why Switzerland was originally such a favourite venue for meetings is not only its oft cited neutrality but the advantages of it unique head of state, the Federal Council in corpore, which meant Switzerland was unlikely to interfere in this way.

French plans almost came unstuck, however, when the American president, Woodrow Wilson, announced his intention of attending in person. He hoped to play the leading role in the negotiations and therefore wanted to chair the conference. As the only head of state present (the others being heads of government) he would have precedence, and as he observed, “I assume also that I shall be selected to preside.”(4)  The French were flabbergasted, as no American president had previously travelled abroad, much less personally participated in a conference. French complaints were so great that Wilson agreed not to press his claims for precedence, a solution which confirmed the drift to greater informality at these gatherings. Wilson observed that “no point of dignity must prevent our obtaining the results we have set our hearts upon and must have.”(5)  This was an important breakthrough, establishing a precedent that, for working purposes, there would be no difference between heads of state and heads of government. The practice has now become general, for example with ASEAN agreeing that at its meetings no difference will be applied between heads of state and heads of government, confirming this break with traditional formality.(6)

During the Second World War, Stalin, in his three summit meetings with his fellow allied leaders refused to travel to any destination which would force him to leave territory he controlled. There was no willingness to rotate the venue among the allies. The postwar era, however, has seen the principle of rotation become the norm. The EU rotates the now semi-annual EU Council summits.

While the first EC/EU summits were held in the capital cities, it has become more common to hold the sessions in provincial settings, allowing for a more informal atmosphere. The principle of rotating the venue according to a principle established in advance has eased the convening of summits. ASEAN has agreed that its triennial summits will rotate through member states in alphabetical order.

The growing appreciation of the value of informality in facilitating discussion is noticeable. The G-7’s original ethos was minimal formality in order to allow the broadest scope for discussion, starting originally as the “Library Group” in the White House Library, and though now institutionalised, many of its most successful sessions have been held in resort venues. The ASEAN leaders meet formally every three years, but have also (formally) agreed to meet at least once informally in between. This is not to suggest that diplomatic meetings are becoming free-form events. ASEAN provides detailed rules, e.g., all heads of state/heads of government are to be accorded accommodation of two bedrooms and a chauffeur driven car, and so on, with a descending order for other officials. This is clearly intended to ensure that there is seen to be equality of treatment.

An increasingly favoured way of meeting, again the by-product of modern travel, is the “unarranged” holiday drop-in. Tony Blair, at the beginning of his 1997 summer holiday in France did admit that he knew Premier Lionel Jospin “lives nearby. We will see one another,” which almost had the feel that he expected to bump into him in the local hypermarché. In fact, Jospin dashed from a papal visit to Paris, hundreds of miles away, to “drop-in on” Blair.(7)  The aim was to have as informal an atmosphere as possible. As it was a “drop-in” visit Jospin could justify not meeting the British prime minister along with President Chirac, which would be the normal practice in a period of cohabitation in French political life.

The 1997 Anglo-French summit in London was not held at 10 Downing St., or any government building, but in a previously vacant office suite, specially furnished for the day, in the newly developed London docklands. The hope was to create as informal an atmosphere as possible, away from the formalities that would inevitably surround any meeting at a traditional venue.

Another indicator of the move away from status based protocol is the increasing use of other formulas. At the 1818 Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle it was agreed that states would sign treaties in alphabetical order. Many International Organizations now use this principle for seating representatives, rather than working out precedence as one still does with ambassadors accredited to states. While alphabetization is popular, there are several forms in use. The UN seats delegations alphabetically by the state’s name in English, with the first letter of the alphabet being determined annually by lot. NATO’s permanent representatives are seated alphabetically.(8)  The Council of Europe uses a mixed system, with the Committee of Ministers being arranged by their date of taking office, the Assembly by age, and at Official Meetings of the Council by alphabetical order in French. Alphabetization can raise issues of language politics, and the EU Council resolved this issue by seating states in alphabetical order following the state’s own language, while the EU Commissioners sit by date of appointment. The OAS draws countries by lot each time it meets.

Creative approaches to protocol are often resorted to for particular purposes. The funeral of Japan’s emperor Hirohito became a major international event, with leaders from around the world attending. The Japanese were delighted when the United States president, George Bush, announced that he would attend. A problem was posed by traditional protocol, which dictates that heads of state be accorded precedence by the date on which they assumed their position. As Bush had only just taken office he would be the most junior in the seating arrangements. Japan, however, wanted to make the most of having the world’s most powerful leader present at the funeral of its emperor. The solution hit upon was to treat the funeral as a celebration of Hirohito’s life and not as a state event, and it was thus announced that heads of states would be treated in the first instance in the order of countries Hirohito had visited during his life. This resulted in placing the American president at the centre of the front row of attendant heads of state.

The Diplomatic Handshake

One recent phenomenon is the increasing importance of handshakes as part of diplomatic practice. The proffered hand is now taken as an signal of good faith and willingness to cooperate, the refusal to do so is seen as the opposite, and ignoring a proffered hand a significant diplomatic insult and a clear signal of disapproval. Prince Charles pointedly ignored Idi Amin’s proffered hand at Jomo Kenyatta’s funeral (1978). The question of whether or not Yitzak Rabin would shake Yasser Arafat’s hand was focused on to such an extent that President Clinton virtually threw the two together on the lawn of the White House. Symbolic as this was seen at the time, this tepid handshake was a far cry from Begin and Sadat’s embrace when Sadat visited Jerusalem. Perhaps embraces will be the next development. British Prime Minister Tony Blair in meeting Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams temporized, shaking hands with him, but out of public sight. There is, of course, the issue of paranoia amongst leaders. Nicolae Ceacescu feared assassination from poison made to be absorbed through the palm and so kept his hand to himself.(9)  President de Gaulle was a master at ignoring proffered hands.

Diplomatic Insults

Some diplomatic practices do not change. The diplomatic insult has existed since the origins of diplomacy. In the Bible there is an account of the king of the Ammonites shaving off half of the beards of the envoys sent by King David.(10)  The diplomatic insult today can be a carefully crafted instrument of statecraft used as a way of communicating extreme displeasure when all other efforts at communication have failed. France in particular is a consummate user of the diplomatic insult. Napoleon “insulted the British ambassador in 1803, the Austrian in 1808 and the Russian in 1811 – a sign that war with each power was imminent.”(11)  The French signalled their displeasure with a number of American policies, including their differences over the UN secretary-generalship and the command of the NATO southern command, through just such a gesture. At United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s last NATO dinner the secretary-general of NATO (Javier Solana) proposed a toast to Christopher, whereupon the French foreign minister Hervé de Charette abruptly left the room. To make the gesture clear, the French ambassador to NATO (Gerard Errara) took Charette’s place and ostentatiously turned his back on the room while the toast was conducted.(12)

Such gestures are not the preserve of France. During the November 1997 visit of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to Washington the White House announced the “scheduling difficulties” prevented a meeting being arranged, a snub clearly intended to convey American displeasure at what was seen to be Netanyahu’s lack of cooperation over the Middle East peace process.


As times change so do customs generally. In diplomacy protocol too changes and develops, mirroring broader societal norms. Protocol is often considered to be synonymous with formality, but for diplomacy protocol provides the commonly accepted norms of behaviour for the conduct of relations between states. As informality becomes the norm in diplomacy, so diplomatic protocol will help systematize and therefore stabilize these new forms in the communication and negotiation between states.


1. Richard Langhorne, “The Decline of Diplomatic Protocol” (paper delivered at the inaugural meeting of the British International History Group, Bristol, September 1988).

2. John R. Wood and Jean Serres, Diplomatic Ceremonial and Protocol: principles, procedures and practices (New York: 1970).

3. Erik Goldstein, “The Origins of Summit Diplomacy,” in Diplomacy at the Highest Level: the evolution of international summitry, David Dunn, ed. (London: Macmillan, 1996), and The Politics of the State Visit (Leicester: Centre for the Study of Diplomacy, 1997).

4. Wilson to House, 13 November 1918, Arthur S. Link, ed. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 53, November 9, 1918 – January 11, 1919 (Princeton: 1986), p. 66.

5. Ibid.,Wilson to House, 16 Nov. 1918, pp. 108-9.

6. Handbook on ASEAN Protocol and Practices (Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat).

7. The Independent, 21 Aug. 1997.

8. I.M. Radlovic, Etiquette and Protocol (New York: 1956).

9. Cal McCrystal, “What’s in a handshake,” The Observer, 19 Oct. 1997.

10. 2 Samuel 10.

11. Philip Mansel, The Court of France, 1789-1830 (Cambridge: 1988), p. 74.

12. Daily Telegraph, 13 Dec. 1996.

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