President John F. Kennedy (right) and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (left) host a State Dinner at the White House in honor of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (second from left) and his daughter Indira Gandhi (center) of India, Nov. 7, 1961. The Office of the Chief of Protocol helps coordinate all such official visits by foreign leaders. Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
By Mahvish S. Khan
On any given day at the Harry S Truman Building (HST), one can find the Office of the Chief of Protocol (Protocol) orchestrating a carefully choreographed ballet of person-to-person diplomacy. Whether greeting and escorting world leaders to their bilateral meetings with the secretary of state, deconflicting the arrivals and departures of representatives from dozens of countries participating in an office-coordinated multilateral summit in HST, or organizing and executing one of the building’s many cultural events in the diplomatic reception rooms, Protocol is at the helm of the diplomacy show.
Protocol is a leader in advancing U.S. foreign policy goals by creating an environment for successful diplomacy for the president and first lady, vice president and second gentleman, and the secretary of state, throughout their foreign engagements. The office serves on the front lines of diplomacy, extending the first hand that welcomes presidents, prime ministers, ruling monarchs, and other world leaders to the United States.
The Department of State first appointed a full-time protocol officer in 1916 and established the Office of the Chief of Protocol, Feb. 4, 1928. In 1946, the president commissioned the Department’s chief of protocol to also carry the title chief of protocol of the White House. Since 1961, the chief of protocol has been commissioned an ambassador, requiring the president’s nominee to be confirmed by the Senate. The Department’s current chief of protocol, Ambassador Rufus Gifford, was sworn in, Jan. 3.
The office maintains a publicly available protocol reference guide that includes instructions for all government officials on formal forms of address for leadership, menus, and guides for planning events, as well as a list of frequently asked questions. There are seven divisions within the office, as well as a diplomatic gifts unit. The seven divisions are: Blair House, Ceremonials, Diplomatic Affairs, Diplomatic Partnerships, Major Events, Management, and Visits. Each division is led by a dedicated assistant chief of protocol.
Blair House is officially known as the president’s guest house. It is located across the street from the White House and its principal use is as a guest house for foreign chiefs of state and heads of government visiting the president. The site is named after the Blair family who owned the residence and lived there from 1836 until 1942. Today, this site is managed by the Office of the Chief of Protocol. It consists of four interconnected townhouses, forming a 120-room complex totaling 70,000 square feet. Blair House has long been associated with important events in America history and, in recent times, world history by hosting global leaders ahead of their meetings with the president during official working visits. The Blair House Restoration Fund page has more information about the site and its history.
The Ceremonials Division plans, executes, and supports a wide range of ceremonial and official functions hosted by the president, vice president, secretary of state, and other high-ranking government officials. The division also organizes the participation of the foreign diplomatic corps members in special events such as the Fourth of July celebration on HST’s 8th floor—where many formal reception rooms are located—and official public events such as joint sessions of Congress, presidential inaugurations, and state funerals. Ceremonials officers advise on flag etiquette, forms of address, event logistics, and maintain the Order of Precedence of the United States of America.
The Diplomatic Affairs Division supports the chief of protocol in their role as the president’s representative and liaison to the Diplomatic Corps. The division engages with diplomatic community leadership, including bilateral ambassadors, heads of delegation, chargés d’affaires, and deputy chiefs of mission. The division also oversees matters relating to associated privileges and immunities for these individuals. It manages the process for accrediting new foreign ambassadors and heads of delegation and their dependents, and maintains Department records for the leadership of bilateral diplomatic missions and delegations. This includes coordinating the multiple phases of the agrément process from the initial request by the sending government, to the arrival of the ambassador-designate in Washington, culminating in the presentation of credentials to the president in the Oval Office. Diplomatic Affairs maintains the foreign diplomatic corps order of precedence, and implements the Department’s oversight program for foreign domestic workers employed by foreign mission personnel. This program includes in-person domestic worker registration meetings with division staff without employers present to review workers’ rights and responsibilities. The program seeks to prevent the mistreatment of these workers and to provide resources for assistance when needed.
The Diplomatic Partnerships Division assists the chief of protocol in managing the office’s overall liaison with chiefs of mission and heads of delegation in the United States. The division seeks to foster international goodwill and deepen bilateral and multilateral relationships while providing the diplomatic corps with greater insight and understanding of the American people, customs, and institutions. The division pursues these goals through a broad range of programs and events designed to build relationships, provide a forum for dialogue, and create opportunities for exchange between chiefs of diplomatic missions and American leaders in a cross-section of fields. Division programs include Experience America, State of the Administration, Issue Roundtables, and the American Heritage Series.
The primary mission of the Major Events Division is to logistically support the president, vice president and secretary of state in hosting major international multilateral summits, peace talks, ministerials, and other international conferences—either in the United States or abroad. The division is responsible for creating, staffing, and executing the infrastructure and logistics platform upon which these types of events take place. It has successfully executed a total of nine summits in 2022 alone, including the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit, Our Oceans Summit in Palau, and the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles—each of which highlighted the administration’s emphasis on multilateral engagement. Major Events is currently working on the Africa Leaders’ Summit being hosted in Washington in December, while also preparing for the year long series of summits that comprise the Asian Pacific Economic Conference which will run until November of 2023.
Additionally, the division manages the Department’s Conference Tracker and Approval System (CTAS) for registration and approval of all conferences hosted by the Department’s bureaus or posts abroad. CTAS is both a regulation of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and a legal mandate. Major Events’ CTAS administrators are responsible for generating annual reports to the OMB and the Department’s Office of Inspector General on the Department’s conference spending. The division manages the conference database and identifies those conferences that warrant review and Department approval. It also advises Department conference organizers on registration and reporting policies; designs and coordinates the technical elements of the registration site with its Information Technology development team; manages the data collected; and updates the Department’s comptroller on conference spending. Major Events can be reached via email.
The Management Division provides administrative support functions for the Office of the Chief of Protocol. These functions include financial management, human resources, information technology, procurement, contracting, and property and records management. The division is led by the executive director and supports approximately 80 employees.
The Visits Division plans, arranges, and executes detailed programs for visiting chiefs of state and heads of government. It works closely with other federal agencies, and takes a lead role in the logistical planning of everything from bilateral meetings with the president, first lady, vice president, and secretary of state to official state visits and large-scale international meetings and summits. The Visits Division assists and accompanies presidential delegations while traveling to events abroad on behalf of the president. Additional programs managed by Visits include the Port Courtesy and the Airport Escort Screening Courtesy programs, where requests for expedited processing for designated foreign dignitaries upon arrival and departure from certain airports in the United States are processed. And the diplomatic gifts unit—which receives and distributes all diplomatic gifts on behalf of the White House and the secretary of state, and maintains records pertaining to diplomatic gifts—is managed by the Visits Division.
“The Office of the Chief of Protocol is at the front lines of diplomacy—from the first handshake to the final farewell; our job is to create the environment in which diplomacy can thrive,” said Gifford.
Mahvish S. Khan is the production editor at State Magazine