Interview with Professor Jaap G. de Hoop Scheffer, former Secretary-General of NATO

Guest Blogger - Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Ultimately, protocol is there not to be a burden, but rather to minimize conflicts and awkward situations" -- Professor Jaap G. de Hoop Scheffer. PSOW is pleased to, once again, share another excerpt from An Expert’s Guide to International Protocol: Best Practices in Diplomatic and Corporate Relations co-authored by our friends Gilbert Monod de Froideville and Mark Verheul.

Mr. De Hoop Scheffer, to begin with, we would like to say how much we appreciate the opportunity to interview you on the subject of international protocol. You can look back on a fascinating career in which you served in many roles in the diplomatic and political worlds, with your ministerial appointment and ultimately your role as secretary-general of NATO as high points. Given that you are now professor of international relations and diplomacy at the University of Leiden Campus in The Hague, you are clearly still very active in the field. We should start where your career in the Foreign Service began – at the Dutch Embassy in Accra, Ghana. 

Can you remember what aspects of protocol you came into contact with in connection with your work?

Yes, that was in a way that we Dutch rarely think about, given that we associate high temperatures with casual clothing – something that was absolutely not done in terms of protocol. Everyone had to be impeccably dressed, regardless of how high the temperature and humidity were. My wife and I also observed that in diplomatic relations and foreign affairs, as well as on national days, people attached a great deal of importance to protocol and correct etiquette.




After that and many other postings, you returned to The Hague, first in the political field and later as minister of Foreign Affairs. In your final days as minister you hosted the OSCE summit of 2003 in Maastricht. Can you tell us how, in your view, protocol played an important role in the smooth running of that conference, bearing in mind the part played by all the delegations in  attendance?



At international conferences every aspect of protocol plays an essential role. When your role at foreign-minister level is that of chairperson-in-office, the situation is slightly different than when you are operating at the heads-of-state and heads-of-government level. I will return to that later. In this case we were dealing with representatives at ministerial level. An important aspect there was to keep everyone happy about the speaking order. There are of course countries with a desire to be placed high on the speakers’ list, because with so many countries taking part they want to avoid being cut short after waiting three hours to speak. As chairman, with the help of your staff, you have to try to prepare this as carefully as possible, discuss it with the participating countries, and agree on how long the interventions may last. The goal is to avoid an interminable meeting that results in an unworkable situation. Because protocol does not dictate in advance what the order should be. It is necessary however to take into account the key positions held by countries like the United States and Russia in the OSCE, which should certainly not be overlooked at a conference of that nature. There are countries that prefer to speak later because they want to hear the other countries’ position and tone first. In such cases it is quite possible that the Russians first want to hear what the Americans have to say, or vice versa. At the NATO-Russia Council that was sometimes a dilemma too. I should mention here that experience as chairman plays an important part in making sure everything runs smoothly, particularly knowing when to be flexible and when to be firm. Protocol also plays a role in the allotting of accommodation that sometimes may be affected by what is available in a country, as well as the desired distance from the conference location, for example. On top of this are the motorcades, the number of cars per delegation and the order. This is all the more important for heads of state and government in that seniority is extremely important in terms of order of arrival. Sometimes there are heads of government who deliberately delay leaving their hotel in order to arrive last and therefore more prominently. As the host of the conference, there is little you can do about that at the time.




During your time as secretary-general of NATO, the partnership expanded from nineteen to twenty-eight countries, with Albania and Croatia among them. We assume that such an accession is accompanied by ceremonial aspects. What stands out most for you and what was your role in this as secretary-general?



The ceremonial aspects are apparent at various stages, from the moment that the political green light is given until the accession itself at a NATO summit. At these meetings solemn statements are made by the secretary-general and the incumbent honorary ministerial chairman of the North Atlantic Council. The more visible part takes place outside in front of the main entrance with a flag ceremony, where the flags of the acceded countries are formally raised. These were often emotional events. For me, growing up on this side of the Iron Curtain, I had underestimated this, and it was only at such moments that I realized what this accession meant to these countries, with representatives often moved to tears, especially when their national anthem was played. The secretary-general naturally has a significant role in such ceremonies.




The flags are generally always raised in alphabetical order in English, although I should mention that NATO is bilingual, and uses both French and English. Something which is quite handy if you encounter a protocol problem, as you can always switch to the French alphabet and thus overcome a possible sensitivity concerning a seating plan, for example. Such sensitivities can be quite strong, as I experienced. On one occasion a certain president categorically stated that he did not wish to be seated next to another particular president. By changing the language the problem could be resolved without further ado. Ultimately, protocol is there not to be a burden, but rather to minimize conflicts and awkward situations. The meeting table, for example, is oval in order to give no one a more important position, and the English alphabet is used. For me as secretary-general this meant that Albania was seated to my left, with the United States to my right. This had the added benefit that the president of the United States was next to me at summits which sometimes provided an opportunity to be able to briefly discuss something directly.



You mentioned avoiding conflicts. We can imagine that during your time as secretary-general of NATO you often had to communicate with non-allies on politically sensitive matters. Can you give us one or two examples where you could use protocol to support you in formal and informal meetings in order to communicate such matters in a way that was both congenial and effective?



I think that your question pinpoints a crucial aspect of diplomacy. Your mission is actually from your first conversation to try to build a connection with your discussion partner, one that to some extent goes beyond the professional. What I mean by that is if I need to tell someone something less pleasing, I want to know exactly who he or she is, their life story, their background, and of course the politics of the country in question. As the English say, ‘what makes someone tick?’ Hobbies, for example, may offer a useful avenue. I remember a president from a particular country that actually had nothing to do with NATO, but we had one thing in common, we both owned a Labrador dog. Opening a conversation by talking about dogs, you show that you are interested in that person. You know he loves his dog as much as you do yours. If you have something difficult to communicate – this was not just in my NATO days, but when I was a minister too – for example, when a Dutch citizen was taken hostage in Russia and I had to ask President Putin if he was willing to do his utmost to secure the freedom of my countryman as quickly as possible, then it is best to follow protocol and diplomatic procedure given that we Dutch can be somewhat direct at times. In this case it wasn’t so much a difficult communication but more a request for help, but here too, despite the often difficult relations between the two countries, you try to mellow the other party with the personal attention you give them. I also built up an extremely positive relationship with former President George W. Bush, and not just me, but my wife too, who exchanged books with his wife, where my wife sent books translated from Dutch which she thought Mrs.Bush might be interested in, and Mrs. Bush sent books in return that she thought my wife would like to read. The President would certainly be aware of something like that, and this helps to create a good relationship. Indeed, I tell my students just how important the personal aspect is and how protocol can also be used in this way to good effect. It goes beyond simply showing respect for the culture, tradition and religion, such as not showing the soles of one’s feet and avoiding use of the left hand in the Arab world, for example.




In your position you have travelled widely and seen a lot of the world. Can you tell us which countries seemed extremely formal and which were less formal in terms of protocol?



There are indeed differences. A country like Turkey attaches great importance to protocol and during my visits as SG of NATO, I was always received at the same level as a prime minister. This meant that there was always a Guard of Honour. The Turkish national anthem was played, as well as the NATO anthem, which incidentally few people even know exists. As SG, you are then invited to inspect the Guard of Honour standing to attention. You stop at the flag and pay your respects by making a slight bow. There are also many well-known pictures of the Bundeskanzleramt where German Chancellor Angela Merkel receives her guests and joins them in the inspection of the Guard of Honour, and because the procedure is complicated she tries to coach them in what to do. I always made sure I was properly briefed by my military advisor. Thus Turkey is an example, but it is certainly not the only one, of a country where protocol and military ceremony play an important role. That is less so in the United States, in the sense that when you are received at the White House there is no military ceremony, at least not during a working visit. The protocol takes a different form there, where the head of protocol is expected to select your delegation on the basis of seniority, in accordance with protocol. If you visit the Pentagon, however, the ceremony becomes more visible and a modest Guard of Honour is presented to you. In general, you can say that for my position as SG almost every country observes some form of protocol, including at the airplane steps. I remember a time when I alighted an aircraft but the red carpet had been rolled out to the wrong door. The Guard of Honour however was in the right place. As I recall, the East European countries and Baltic States are not generally very protocol oriented. In that respect, they are relatively young, independent countries still searching for the best form for international diplomatic discourse. Countries like New Zealand and Australia I also perceived as less concerned with protocol, unlike Japan and China that put much more emphasis on protocol.




You mentioned several times the use of flags in ceremonies. Have you ever seen flags raised incorrectly?



Oh yes, indeed. Once a flag was raised upside down, and once the wrong flag was raised. The Dutch flag is sometimes confused with the Luxembourg flag. A flag was once blown off the flagpole while being raised. Those are awkward moments. Luckily, they don’t happen too often. It shows that with international protocol you can never be too careful.



In your view, how did protocol differ most between your role as secretary-general at NATO and as the Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs?



Actually, there was a big difference. As minister of Foreign Affairs, you are constantly making brief working visits, with a meeting, lunch or dinner, while as secretary-general you are received at a higher level, as a head of government, so official protocol then plays a much bigger role. As a minister, you fly to and from the various countries and there is no time for ceremony or anything of that nature; it is just a working visit. The exception to this is an OSCE conference, for example, where ministers meet in a more formal setting around the table, with receptions and delegations and so on. It also makes a difference whether you are visiting a country as the prime minister, when all the stops will be pulled out to highlight the visit for the purpose of building international relations between the two countries.




You have been a professor at the University of Leiden Campus The Hague since 2009, where you teach international relations and diplomacy. Can you tell us the most important piece of advice you give to students about protocol and managing relations?



There are two mainly. When you work with other countries, before you say or do anything, first learn something about the history, culture, traditions, geography, and religion of the country concerned. If you don’t do that, you cannot pretend to understand a country like Afghanistan, or even a country closer to home, like Belgium. Look at the traditions, the culture, in Europe it may be so that religious faith is a private matter, but Europe is by far the most secular continent in the world. There are countless other countries where that is completely different. Even in the United States, the president ends speeches with the words ‘God bless you, God bless the United States of America.’ It would be unthinkable for the Dutch prime minister to end a speech in that way. If you don’t know why the Sunnis and Shiites are in conflict with one another, you cannot understand the Middle East. A second important lesson is that when you go abroad and you are professionally involved with international relations, find out about the life of the person or people you will be talking to. As I mentioned earlier, do they have hobbies, what makes them tick? Because they are all human beings, even at the highest level, just like the rest of us, all with their own domestic concerns, children who might be doing well at school or not, and so on. You will need to know about that if you want to be a good diplomat. In my opinion, this is a major part of protocol and managing relations. The mission is ‘to create a good climate.’ Those are the two basic principles. Have respect for your discussion partner and his or her culture. You will never be a successful diplomat unless you have that understanding and respect.



To continue on from that idea of respect being so important in society, this brings us to another position that you’ve held since 2014, chairman of the Civil Honours Advisory Commission. To many this might sound formal and ceremonial, but it is an important institution that bestows recognition on as many people as possible who have made an outstanding contribution to Dutch society. How do you perceive this formal and ceremonial image?



Everyone is familiar with the birthday honours list, or ‘lintjesregen’ as we call it in Dutch. The vast majority of people are rightly proud if a royal honour is conferred on them or a family member. The basic principle is that for someone to qualify for an honour they must be of impeccable character. It is, after all, a royal honour bestowed by the king. It is something special. The commission advises the minister. There are of course those honours that can be awarded without discussion, but there are also matters that need to be considered, including the ‘grade’ at which the honour should be awarded. Every two weeks the Advisory Commission, along with the chancellor of the Netherlands Orders of Knighthood, meet to discuss these matters. As I mentioned, we advise the minister, and our role is to protect the integrity of the system and its proceedings.




Do you see the exchange of honours during a state visit as a way of strengthening the bond between two countries and showing respect for one another?



Definitely, the exchange of honours plays an important role during state visits. The ‘high grades’ that are often awarded are sometimes criticized, but people should remember that this is where the idea of ‘reciprocity’ comes into play, which is extremely important in international diplomacy. When country x uses the occasion of a state visit to present the equivalent of a Grand Cross of the Order of Orange-Nassau to someone in the Dutch entourage, then reciprocity requires that the Netherlands does the same. There are those who say that the level of the award should be reduced slightly, and some countries do that; some countries are ready to discuss it, but there needs to be a clear understanding. However, reciprocity remains the key principle.




When you look back on all the positions you have held where protocol and ceremony played an important role, did you feel it was essential to have people around you with expertise that you could draw on, and what was it like to have such an outstanding head of protocol in both your top functions?



In my time at NATO a Dutch lieutenant colonel together with the NATO director of protocol was responsible for this. In this role it is important to have someone who is highly familiar with military protocol and ceremonial matters. And not just these aspects, but gifts too, so that the other party should feel that the gift was chosen with thought. A good example was when then Secretary of State Colin Powell retired from the NATO Council. He has a fairly unusual hobby in that he collects old Volvos and has numerous vintage Volvos in his garage that he likes to tinker with at the weekend. When someone of his standing retires, you scour the world to find a unique miniature, and eventually I was able to give him one. But you need to know that about a person of course. You need to have someone in the head of protocol role who knows your preferences too. There are the unwritten rules, such as the fact that I find it not fitting to inspect a Guard of Honour wearing an overcoat. This is something that a head of protocol needs to be aware of and point out to me before the inspection begins, and take my coat from me. Even if it is wet and windy, you should take your coat off as a mark of respect for the Guard of Honour standing to attention for you. It is also important that a head of protocol can inform you at the last moment of anything that may have happened that you need to know about. That last little piece of information can help you perform even better in your meetings. I attach great importance to being able to do just that little bit more when you sit together as two professionals.




Before we turn to the last question, this interview will be included in a book we are publishing on international protocol with contributions from the international community, government, and industry, as well as the cultural and sport sectors that will underline the importance of international protocol. To whom would you recommend the book? Do you think it has more to offer because, unlike books that have been published in various countries about their own protocol, this one takes a more comprehensive approach?



Yes, I think that the many aspects covered will be useful for people in both the public and private sectors. CEOs also travel halfway around the world to do business these days and are received with due formality. They do not have to inspect a Guard of Honour, but on many fronts showing respect and the attendant protocol are still important. As I said before, they also need to know about the history, culture, traditions, geography, and religion of the country concerned, and they will be faced with the same questions and circumstances as someone in the public sector. So I can see the value of such a book for anyone who operates in the international arena and certainly not just in the public sector. I think that this book will be very useful. It has great value which will extend far beyond national borders. We were just talking about the Baltic States, but there are many other instances too where people may be searching for suitable forms of protocol like those so clearly presented in your book. I would therefore heartily recommend this volume to everyone working in an international corporate or diplomatic environment and for any country looking for the best way to apply international protocol. My wife once gave lessons in France to a number of diplomats, and she mentioned that when you are hosting a dinner at home for a number of international guests, you must select a seating arrangement that will cause as few social difficulties as possible. You must bear in mind the languages spoken by your guests and not seat people next to each other who cannot speak to one another for the whole evening. In these sorts of situations, practicality must prevail. Everything must be geared towards making everyone feel comfortable. In a situation where the spouse of a leader does not speak any foreign languages, then you must ensure that an interpreter is seated between you and her, so that you can still have a conversation. In the same way, you also need to bear in mind your guests’ political backgrounds. When you host a dinner at home you need to avoid situations that could lead to difficulties later. Thus, even the ‘lesser’ protocol which might seem unimportant is actually just as important. Nor should you forget to mention specific guests in your speech. If you remember the names of eight out of ten people, and forget two, that can be very embarrassing.



To end our interview, would you share an anecdote or something else with us? Something interesting and useful for the reader?



I have a nice example. As secretary-general of NATO you have constant protection, no matter what you are doing, which is quite special. When you travel with your wife, she should be taken care of as well. When you are driven around in armoured cars weighing thousands of kilos with doors that you can’t even get open yourself, you need to make sure that someone is taking care of your wife, too. This wasn’t really a problem for my predecessors as their wives did not get involved. My wife, I am glad to say, came with me to Brussels. The first time we arrived in one of our member states, we stopped in front of the hotel in our armoured car and the right rear passenger door, where I was seated, was opened. As an aside, you might wonder whether the proper etiquette should be followed here, where normally in a left-hand drive car your spouse would be seated to the right of you; or whether you should follow the protocol, where the most important person on the visit is seated on the right. Thus, I sat on the right, and my wife was to my left. She sat there and could not possibly open her door herself. I made the mistake of just stepping out of the car and shaking hands, surrounded by television cameras, in a country that I had come to for a summit with everyone in attendance. My poor wife was entirely forgotten. From that moment on I always asked for someone on the left door, and remained seated in the car until the left door had been opened and my wife had left the car and come around the back of the vehicle to join me on the right. Only then would I step out, and we could be greeted together. You have to learn quickly when you are in a new position.




We would very much like to thank you for this interesting interview.



An Expert’s Guide to International Protocol Best Practices in Diplomatic and Corporate Relations (2016) by Gilbert Monod de Froideville and Mark Verheul, Amsterdam University Press, 300 pp., ISBN: 978-94-6298-105-8.



Available to order now with a 20% discount and free shipping! Use discount code “Protocol2016” and order here



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