Articles - December 2015

America's Official Receiver of Nations: Rolling Out the Red Carpet

An Interview With Ambassador Peter A. Selfridge, U.S. Chief of Protocol
By Roland Flamini

The State Department website describes Ambassador Peter A. Selfridge, the U.S. chief of protocol, as “the first hand that welcomes presidents, prime ministers, ruling monarchs and other leaders to our country.” He is also the last hand — in that he is on hand to say goodbye, too. But Selfridge, 44, is more than the official greeter at airports. He is the principal choreographer of bi-lateral ceremonials and meetings involving high-level visitors to both the White House and the State Department; he accompanies the president on his foreign travel, keeps in touch with Washington’s large population of foreign heads of mission, runs Blair House (the government’s top-level guest house), oversees such State Department outreach projects as its culinary diplomacy program and its familiarization tours for foreign diplomats to different parts of the country.

To say that Ambassador Selfridge is an Obama administration insider is an understatement. He has at various times worked as advance man for President Obama, Vice-President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry, with stops along the way working for the Clintons and Al Gore. He was President Obama’s campaign advance man and latterly headed the White House advance and operations team. In 2014, he was nominated to succeed Capricia Marshall as chief of protocol of the United States.

Interviewed by Diplomatic Connections in his State Department office, he confessed to finding the transition hard from key, but relatively low-profile, advance work to the high visibility of shaking hands with history on a more or less daily basis. In one day in September, for example, he was on hand to bid farewell to departing Pope Francis in the morning and later in the day greeted China’s President Xi Jinping on his arrival in Washington. Following his interview with Diplomatic Connections, Ambassador Selfridge rushed to Andrews Air Base to shake the hand of the departing President Joko Widodo of Indonesia. When it came to anecdotes to illustrate his point, he was necessarily reticent. Maybe, in the fullness of time, he will write his book. Pressed to suggest a title he came up with “The Fly on the Wall Has a Tuxedo.”

Diplomatic Connections: What exactly is the chief of protocol’s role?

Ambassador Selfridge: I’m the first hand to greet distinguished visitors. In some ways I extend the president’s and the administration’s reach in that they can’t be at the airport to greet every leader who comes in. That’s the traditional definition. But the role is actually a lot more malleable than I thought it would be. You can approach it from a logistical viewpoint. You can approach it from a completely ceremonial standpoint. I’ve taken kind of a workman’s approach to it.

Diplomatic Connections: Why do you say that?

Ambassador Selfridge: Well, without excluding the greeting and the ceremonial aspects, which are the essence of it, I involve myself in the functioning of this office and how it relates to the rest of government, how it relates to the State Department and how we can better support [the people in] this building and the White House and the principals that we serve. My staff are sick of me telling them, “Remember, we’re the experts. Voice your opinions when you think something’s out of place that potentially puts a bump in the road for a visiting delegation or would make it more difficult for our leaders to convey whatever message they have.”

Diplomatic Connections: How does protocol relate to policy?

Ambassador Selfridge: The best way to explain it is with a real life analogy. Take a soccer game. Protocol is the playing field, the pitch itself, which has specific dimensions — the rules on the field and the governing body. Without all those things, the game couldn’t be played as it is supposed to be played. Which is a big difference from a mediator or arbitrator. We have a specific role that allows the game to be played.

Diplomatic Connections: So does the protocol approach change depending on the state of bi-lateral relations?

Ambassador Selfridge: It shouldn’t.

Diplomatic Connections: I was also thinking whether a leader gets treated differently at the protocol level if his country’s relations with the United States were strained or going through a bad phase.

Ambassador Selfridge: I wish I could give you some instances — maybe when I’m out of office. I see it as my role to make sure that the reception is the same, the approach is the same. That’s aside from the different levels we assign to a visit. The policymakers decide on the level of the visit — for example, whether it’s a state visit or an official visit. But when it comes to us to execute that decision, we use our template.

Diplomatic Connections: Since the main focus of your work is the president, why is your office at the State Department and not at the White House?

Ambassador Selfridge: You should also talk to former chiefs of protocol because they all have very strong opinions about this, and I think we would fit quite well at the White House. However, the bulk of work is here, in the State Department. Even with a president as prolific as he is, he sees a leader on average every 10 days. The secretary [of state] probably sees 10 leaders in 10 days, so it wouldn’t make much sense to be there rather than here. I would say I’m probably at the White House one day a week anyway, but the rest of my time spent here is full because of the number of foreign visitors we have to this building, and the number of events held. The White House social secretary, who is a strong partner of this office, handles a lot of occasions.

Diplomatic Connections: How do you interact with the White House social secretary?

Ambassador Selfridge: Very well. It helps that I was in the same office as her in the White House.

Diplomatic Connections: Where does your job end and hers begin? Isn’t there a certain amount of overlap?

Ambassador Selfridge: It’s very collaborative. She wants to make sure all her visiting guests are taken care of, but her main focus is on the first family. There is a lot of overlap, and a lot of collaboration. My focus is the same except that I concentrate on the foreign visitors having a great experience at the White House.

Diplomatic Connections: Why do you also travel overseas with the president? Isn’t protocol on such visits the responsibility of the host government?

Ambassador Selfridge: There are some trips when I don’t have a lot to do, but sometimes I am fully engaged. Maybe the flag’s facing the wrong way, or a preference of the president isn’t quite met or there’s a potentially awkward situation that I can see coming I can help to head off.

Diplomatic Connections: How does President Obama react to protocol requirements?

Ambassador Selfridge: For the most part the president is acutely aware of the ceremonial, the protocol and the logistics. When I was advance director at the White House, he knew exactly what I did. You don’t always find that with a lot of presidents or principals. They show up in a room that’s set up the way it is and, rightly so, they don’t give a lot of thought to it. [President Obama] knows exactly what goes into that set-up and what’s involved in the ceremonial aspects of that event. My job is to make sure that it’s all set up properly, that he’s not going to get embarrassed on the platform and that he knows what to expect when he gets there. For instance, the queen may be already seated, and “You’re going to greet before you speak.” That kind of thing.

Diplomatic Connections: Don’t all presidents at one point or another get used to being guided by the protocol specialists?

Ambassador Selfridge: I think so. The two presidents I have worked for obviously have enormous mental capacity to pick up a lot of things to do with ceremony. The spectrum on which you judge them is how much they’re willing to be led versus how much they want to just carry themselves through. A lot of that has to do with how much time they’ve had to be briefed and to familiarize themselves with the event. A lot of these things are fairly predictable. We’re not putting them through obstacle courses.

Diplomatic Connections: As advance man you worked pretty much behind the scenes; as a chief of protocol you’re quite visible. Was the transition hard?

Ambassador Selfridge: It was pretty hard for me — the fact that people are actually interested in what I do. The advance team is rarely noted, so that the scrutiny and the “publicness” of this job came as a surprise.

Diplomatic Connections: What other aspects of this job surprised you?

Ambassador Selfridge: The biggest surprise for me was just how public it was, but the volume of work was quite surprising. It’s six days a week on average, and very full days. It’s surprising how often I’m asked to speak, or how often I’m asked to represent the leaders because they can’t get to the airport, they can’t get to the room to entertain the visitor or I’m asked to keep the foreign minister company, “We’re running 15 minutes late. Make sure he’s comfortable.”

Diplomatic Connections: The flow of visitors is continuous, isn’t it?

Ambassador Selfridge: Yes. Yesterday we had the Qatari foreign minister and economics minister [at the State Department] in the morning where they had an economic dialogue. From there I went to the White House for the Indonesian president’s visit with President Obama, and then went to a diplomatic reception. They’re very full days.

Diplomatic Connections: Do you know every foreign ambassador?

Ambassador Selfridge: By face. Another surprise was how frequently I had to learn to identify new ambassadors coming to take their post. With 180 diplomatic missions you expect turnover. I remember thinking I had mastered the roster of names last fall, and all of a sudden 20 new faces come in and I had to start all over.

Diplomatic Connections: How do you think the diplomatic corps has changed in the past decade?

Ambassador Selfridge: Social media has had an effect. The fact that communications are now so powerful, U.S. officials here can pick up the phone or their keyboard and shoot off a message to the foreign ministry, whereas in the past the only avenue used to be the foreign ambassador. I don’t think their work is any less important. They now focus more on economic issues, constituency issues as well as the geopolitical issues. The most active ambassadors are very effective at developing relationships, not only with this building and the White House, but also with the Department of Commerce, with USAID, with members of Congress. I think what also surprised me was how active some of these ambassadors are on the state and local levels and not just because of their diasporas — they see an economic opportunity there.

Diplomatic Connections: When you eventually leave —

Ambassador Selfridge: On January 17…

Diplomatic Connections: That’s when you offer your resignation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will leave.

Ambassador Selfridge: I expect to leave at that point because I’m tied to this president.

Diplomatic Connections: Assuming that he or she asks you, what advice do you have for your successor?

Ambassador Selfridge: I guess it would depend on who they serve, but I think you need to adapt to the personality of the bosses that you work for. There is a base line of what is required in this job and that remains constant. The rules of protocol don’t change. If you draw a chart of protocol, manners are on one side and ceremonial on the other. But you really need to be ready to understand the persona of your boss or bosses [because we have several] and to learn how to work best for them. Ultimately, you need to adopt their style so they’re comfortable with their engagements with foreign governments.

Diplomatic Connections: When you say to visiting leaders as they get off the plane, “Welcome to the United States,” what do they usually reply?

Ambassador Selfridge: I would say that almost without exception they all seem pleased or excited to be here, so they smile and thank me. A few might have questions about what’s coming when they get to the White House the next day. There’s a spectrum of how pleased they might be. Some are here on emergency visits. But the U.S. is an important partner to a lot of countries in different corners of the world. I think that for the most part they’re here for important business, and they’re excited to get to that business.

Diplomatic Connections: What was it like meeting Pope Francis?

Ambassador Selfridge: I disappoint everyone with my answer to this because I’m so focused on what happens next, making sure the program unfolds as we laid it out, that I don’t get a chance to stop to soak up the moment. But I am very, very impressed with the pope. I love the issues that he’s focused on. He was an exceedingly generous, thoughtful and kind person.

Diplomatic Connections: This book that you are presumably going to write, Selwa [Lucky] Roosevelt [chief of protocol in the Reagan presidency] has pre-empted one title. She called her book “Keeper of the Gate.” If it was still available, would you have considered that title?

Ambassador Selfridge: Not necessarily.

Diplomatic Connections: What do you do in your spare time, presuming you have any?

Ambassador Selfridge: I don’t have much any more. Once a week there’s a basketball game that pulls in people from all over the administration that started in the second week of the Obama administration. I join that when I can. It’s actually really competitive, but it’s fun. And we have an old house that I spend a lot of time trying to work on…

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