When Diplomats Meet Face-to-Face
At some point during his April 2010 trip to New Delhi, U.S. secretary of the treasury Timothy Geithner got the order: Head to China for a meeting with Chinese vice prime minister Wang Qishan. Surprised headlines rocked the world—tensions over China’s currency value had strained U.S.-Sino relations—but in the closed circle of diplomats and their aides, there was considerable savvy headshaking. “ There is no diplomacy without face-to-face meetings,” explains a retired senior-level State Department media-relations expert who insists on anonymity. “In this case, the White House, drawing on sources in the National Security Council and the State Department, picked up signs that China was prepared to ease the tensions. Geithner was in the area and, as treasury secretary, he is the senior official on currency issues. I have to assume this detour was signed off by secretary [of state Hillary] Clinton and, ultimately, by President Obama. The order to Geithner came from very high.”
He adds that China did get a tangible payout from the meeting: the opportunity for the U.S. Treasury Department to cite China as a currency manipulator came and went without any such official designation. “They got what they wanted. We got what we wanted,” adds the official, who points to China’s involvement in the White House-supported nuclear nonproliferation summit just days later. “That summit was very important to this administration.”
“That is how diplomacy works,” says the official. Secrecy and insistence on anonymity are also the norm in diplomacy. ”Principals”—the boldface names, such as heads of state and cabinet secretaries—are unavailable for comment about their travels, and when their aides talk, it is under a thick cloak of secrecy. This makes sense. So much of diplomacy revolves around saving face that when details seep into print, egos can be wounded with perilous ease. ”The last thing any diplomat wants is a public failure,” says Trevor Gatty, a longtime British foreign service staffer who also served as a diplomat and a protocol advisor to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
But diplomats do indeed meet. Here is a single day torn from Secretary of State Clinton’s calendar in January 2010. At sunrise, her plane lands in London, where she has traveled to participate in the London Conference on Afghanistan—but in addition to that forum, she has many private meetings. She meets with the foreign minister of Indonesia, then the foreign minister of Turkey, followed by the foreign minister of Russia, with whom she also meets with the foreign minister of Yemen. She attends a reception hosted by Prince Charles, and she meets face-to-face with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. A busy day? Undoubtedly, but not significantly busier than many other days for the U.S. secretary of state—or her counterparts in China, Russia, the U.K. and other leading nations.
“Face-to-face diplomatic meetings go back to the Congress of Vienna and haven’t changed since,” says the anonymous retired expert, in reference to the 1814–1815 meetings that involved France, Austria, the United Kingdom, Russia and Prussia. Following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and Napoleon’s disastrous defeats, a new map of Europe needed to be drawn, and for the first time, many principals from many countries convened. The new Europe was hammered out in a series of in-person meetings where, say diplomacy historians, modern statecraft was defined.
Almost 200 years later, diplomatic meetings do seem remarkably similar. “Every meeting has a goal. It doesn’t happen if it doesn’t,” stresses Daniel Hirsch, state vice president of the American Foreign Service Association and a veteran State Department staffer.
Who travels to whom? This is a key question in diplomacy. Often the answer is that both travel to neutral ground, as in the famous 1986 Reykjavik Summit, where president Ronald Reagan and USSR secretary general Mikhail Gorbachev met to discuss nuclear arms reduction. Disputes between the two sides had grown so bitter that the two leaders decided to meet in Iceland because it split the difference in distance. The other reality: “The one who wants something is the person who travels,” says Sonia Garza-Monarchi, a Houston-based protocol expert and past president of Protocol & Diplomacy International, a national association of protocol officers. Who travels to whom is always closely watched, so principals weigh every travel decision very carefully.
But in this day and age, why meet at all? Why not just send email or pick up the phone? For starters, diplomatic etiquette effectively makes meetings a must-have. There is also a very practical reason: “Nonverbal communication is so important. That is why face-to-face meetings are crucial in diplomacy,” says Fredrik Stanton, author of Great Negotiations: Agreements That Changed the Modern World, which documents in detail eight episodes in diplomacy, including the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“Diplomats prefer face-to-face meetings when trying to build a relationship and further a country’s interest,” says Garza-Monarchi, who notes that particularly in the formative early stages of a relationship, diplomats often set up a flurry of in-person meetings. “Once principals know each other, they may choose to use the phone, particularly to handle routine matters,” she says.
But, as Hirsch notes, “it is very hard to talk on the phone when the principals talk in different languages.” The art of translation is well established for meetings, and the principals frequently like the built-in delays because they get more time to reflect. “Face-to-face often just works much better,” says Hirsch, which is also why he insists that the future of diplomatic meetings will look much like its past. “Face-to-face is preferable for just about all meetings of consequence. You won’t hear otherwise from people involved in diplomacy.”
ROBERT MCGARVEY writes often about technology and travel and how they intersect. He got this year’s biggest client because he flew to Houston to seal the deal face-to-face.