Protocol at the United Nations and at Think Tanks – A Comparative Perspective by Dr Abiodun Williams

This article is part of the new book 'An Expert's Guide to International Protocol' by the former Master of Ceremonies of H.M. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Gilbert Monod de Froideville and the head of protocol of the city of The Hague, Mark Verheul. Order the book now or follow a training by the writers of this book. 


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or follow a training by the writers of this book
To the uninitiated, protocol may sometimes appear an extraneous or outdated aspect of international life. The codes and procedures that are set down in order to guide behaviour are often associated in the popular imagination with unnecessary formality or a preoccupation with tradition at the expense of transacting important business. Given the critical nature of decisions taken at the United Nations, does protocol therefore get in the way of achieving diplomatic breakthroughs? My own experience in the United Nations and international think tanks suggests just the opposite. In fact, the skepticism that some show towards protocol is based on a fundamental lack of understanding of its purpose and, more broadly, of how international politics is conducted. Diplomacy is the essence of the United Nations, and rather than being superfluous, it is protocol that lubricates relations in order to achieve desired political outcomes.

In an organisation of 193 member states, each with its own assumptions, traditions, and sensitivities, the predictability that protocol brings to interstate relations goes a long way towards avoiding the perceived embarrassments or insults which can be so inimical to intercultural understanding and, ultimately, to political progress. Those who claim the obsolescence of protocol are blind to its inherent flexibility. Protocol should not be synonymous with a rigid and complex set of rules that stands still even as empires rise and fall. The modern United Nations might share with the court of Louis XIV the operation of an established set of practices that govern its activities, but the expected behaviour at Turtle Bay, the UN’s Manhattan seat, has little to do with the moeurs of Versailles. As protocol evolves over time, it adapts to fit a given context, as others in this volume have eloquently described.

My own vantage point in this respect has been a privileged one. After serving in UN peacekeeping missions in Macedonia, Haiti, and Bosnia, I spent seven years in the executive office of the UN secretary-general, serving first Kofi Annan and then Ban Ki-moon, as director of strategic planning. From the perspective of the UN’s 38th floor – which is occupied by the secretary-general and his staff – protocol is indispensable. A typical daily schedule for the secretary-general might see him meeting with a visiting head of state or government, corresponding with or addressing diplomats in the UN General Assembly or Security Council, and delivering a speech on a contentious issue to a truly global audience.

Deftly managed, these duties can help the secretary-general perform efffectively, maximising the United Nations’ potential for conflict prevention, the promotion of sustainable development, and the protection of human rights. Missteps in protocol can, however, sour the secretary general’s relations with key states and lead to valuable time being allotted to mending fences rather than building bridges.

Since leaving the United Nations in 2007, I have worked at two international think tanks, the United States Institute for Peace and The Hague Institute for Global Justice. Service in these innovative institutions has given me a new perspective on the ‘networked’ nature of modern diplomacy, as well as new insights into the malleability of protocol, and how its application in less formal contexts than the UN can also serve policy ends. It is this comparative perspective, which evokes the fluid and ‘multi-actor’ nature of contemporary international relations, that this brief chapter will offer.

Protocol at the United Nations: Two Cases

Protocol at the United Nations helps to govern the relationships between its bodies as well as between member states. Its daily importance is evident to anyone who visits the organisation from the moment they apply for their credentials.

Two annual events at the UN demonstrate par excellence its importance; the general debate of the UN General Assembly (known to insiders as ‘UNGA’), which attracts scores of heads of state and government to New York each September, and – less well-known – the annual retreat of the Security Council, organised by the Strategic Planning Unit in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General (EOSG).

Dr Abiodun Williams, 
President of The Hague Institute for Global Justice
he UN General Assembly General Debate

Every autumn, New York is the setting for the largest annual gathering of heads of state and government (in 2015, some 150 world leaders attended). For the United Nations Secretariat, the City of New York, and the government of the United States, this presents a gargantuan organisational undertaking, which is as much about protocol as it is about logistics.

For the host city, and its resigned inhabitants, the annual meeting presents problems of its own. Working closely with local authorities and private businesses, the protocol offfijice of the UN Secretariat must contend with issues as varied as hotel reservations (even in a city as gilded as New York, there are only so many presidential suites), motorcade management, and security.

On the floor of the General Assembly, the speaking order must be decided, and (after speeches by Brazil, awarded this honour in perpetuity in 1947, and the United States, as host country) is subject to considerations around the level of representation, preference, and other criteria such as geographic balance. Nominally limited to fifteen minutes in length, the general debate’s tendency to overrun demonstrates the pragmatic flexibility of protocol. While speakers are encouraged to be concise, in order to enable all the world’s nations to have their say, the imprudence of calling time on a speech by a head of state is keenly appreciated.

It falls to the head of protocol to escort each speaker from an anteroom to the General Assembly’s famous podium (in this respect, the role – whose occupant is privy to many an unguarded moment with a world leader – is one that offfers an unparalleled insight into global politics). Another challenge is the organisation of the lunch that follows the opening of the general debate. In few other circumstances do 150 heads of state and government dine together.

Within the office of the UN secretary-general, there are other issues to consider. With a limited amount of time, decisions must be taken about which world leaders will be afforded the opportunity to meet the secretary-general in person. What should the duration of these meetings be, and what will be on the agenda? It is the EOSG that must manage these thorny questions, arranging meetings with around eighty delegations, and preparing talking points to guide the secretary-general’s discussion with each dignitary (while taking care to ensure that the secretary-general is provided with the correct speaking notes for a given meeting!). These documents are prepared with the assistance of various UN departments, particularly the Department for Political Affairs (DPA) and the Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO).

Protocol is not merely the rules governing precedence and procedure that are published in a widely-circulated manual,4 important as these rubrics are. At the general debate, it is often the meetings on the sidelines of the formal session that allow for serious discussion of key global issues. In this sense, it is the formality of the UN’s official sessions, including the sometimes dry speeches from the General Assembly floor, that creates an environment where seemingly random interactions can occur. It is, of course, the protocol office that makes these ‘chance occurrences’ possible, for example by setting up strategically placed cubicles in which high-level tete-a-tetes might take place.

UN Security Council Retreats
Less celebrated than the general debate, but potentially as consequential, is the annual retreat of the Security Council, hosted by the UN secretary general and organised by the strategic planning unit in his executive office. The relationship between the secretary-general and the Security Council is a delicate and intricate one that must abide by time-honoured traditions while treading new ground.5 The secretary-general must consider how he manages relations with the five permanent members of the Council (any of whom, if he is serving his first term, could use their veto power to scupper his chances of re-election), as well as the ten elected members who are sensitive to any suggestion of hierarchy within the Council. 

The relationship between the secretary-general and the Security Council is generally governed by formal rules, such as those pertaining to communications. The secretary-general is expected, for example, to transmit communications to the president of the Council (a role that rotates on a monthly basis among the body’s members), who will then consult with other missions and report back on behalf of the whole. 

The annual retreat, which has taken place ‘off-campus’ at Greentree or Pocantico near New York City, is an informal event with the dual aim of building rapport and addressing intractable issues outside the more inflexible environment of Turtle Bay. To engender a more relaxed atmosphere, the permanent representatives who serve on the Council are invited to attend the retreat with their spouses (experience suggests that this puts even the most senior diplomats on their best behaviour). This, together with a more casual dress code, creates an informal atmosphere that has proved conducive to productive discussions. 

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that ‘real business’ is not transacted in settings which are informal and, therefore, devoid of protocol. In the organisation of retreats such as that of the Security Council, UN staff must still consider who should sit where at working sessions or dinners, and who should be housed closest to the secretary general. Occasionally, practical considerations override assumptions about precedence. What to do, for example, when the bed in the room adjacent to the secretary-general’s cannot accommodate the impressive dimensions of an ambassador from an important country? A habitual misunderstanding about the application of protocol is the assumption of its rigidity; in reality, protocol is equally about knowing when to break established rules in the name of good sense. In this case, the ambassador was happily housed in a nearby cottage. 

The contrast between traditional communications from the UN secretary-general to the Security Council and the informality of the annual retreat shows how practices evolve in modern diplomacy, but it also evinces a critical aspect of protocol: predictability. Whether formal or informal, predictable rules of expected behaviour avoid confusion and awkwardness, allowing important discussions to take place.

Protocol in Think Tanks

In contrast to the established procedures of an international organisation like the United Nations, think tanks are in a position to make their own rules. As new actors on the international stage, serving decision-makers by producing innovative research, convening experts, and training practitioners, think tanks and other non-governmental organisations are increasingly important players in global politics.

While think tanks need not adopt the protocol practices of established organisations, they are well-served, however, by knowing when these rules are expected to be applied and where creative abandonment of traditional protocol may serve the purposes of innovation. Where think tanks serve a convening role not entirely diffferent from that of the United Nations itself, it would, for example, be imprudent to cast aside aspects of protocol the utility of which has been discussed above.

Innovation may nevertheless be necessary. Often, think tanks are called upon to convene various actors such as government officials, academics, civil society representatives, and businesspeople. Whereas the UN’s understanding on protocol is fundamentally predicated on interaction between diplomats, albeit from very diffferent cultures, think tanks have the added challenge of fostering dialogue between agents of entirely diffferent professions. This carries risks. Many blockages in policy implementation have resulted from civil servants and private sector contractors failing to ‘speak the same language.

Given the multidimensional aspects of most contemporary policy problems, inter-sectoral collaboration is often necessary. It is often think tanks that can provide the neutral space for such discussions to take place, and they must correspondingly facilitate discussions by making clear expected rules of conduct, such as the Chatham House Rule, which allows participants to recount others’ observations from a given meeting without citing particular individuals. 6

Think tanks are often associated with effforts to open new channels for communication between actors whose diplomatic interactions may be stymied. Whereas ‘Track 1’ diplomacy covers formal negotiations between official actors, ‘Track 2’ diplomacy convenes non-official actors such as civil society or religious leaders to build relationships and confidence.

‘Track 1.5’ effforts can combine official and non-official actors. 7 It may be supposed that such initiatives are inherently less formal than traditional processes, for example those convened by the United Nations. In reality, whatever the constellation of actors being convened, predictable rules of behaviour are still required to facilitate meaningful discussion.

Recent dialogues at The Hague Institute for Global Justice illustrate this reality. A mediation between two parties to a conflict over a technical issue still required careful consideration of delegation composition, speaking time, and other such factors. Similarly, two landmark conferences on the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, which brought together contemporary decision-makers to consider lessons learned, may have been ‘informal’ in terms of dress, but the meetings were still necessarily governed by predictable processes pertaining to agendas and speaking rights.

Where think tanks interact with established institutions, they can certainly promote innovation. At the same time, established rules of protocol – such as the greetings offfered to a visiting dignitary who may be speaking from a think tank’s stage – ought not to be overlooked. The challenge for think tanks is to demonstrate their added value and flexibility while also adapting to the requirements intrinsic to international politics.

The world today is a networked one in which various actors collaborate to achieve desired outcomes. These actors may communicate horizontally across national boundaries, and it can often seem that communities such as lawyers, diplomats, or aid workers have more in common with each other than with those in diffferent sectors, even within their own countries (these connections are deemed ‘epistemic’ in the literature 8).

It is the role of think tanks to bring such actors together and to help them understand one another. Whereas ‘speaking the same language’ was once the job of UN interpreters, today it is equally about forging mutual understanding between representatives of diffferent kinds of organisations.


The diversification and decentralisation of international relations have created new challenges for those charged with implementing protocol, but they have also presented an opportunity to reveal its natural flexibility. Diplomacy is increasingly conducted by representatives of different sectors and communities, but this does not negate the need for predictability in their interactions. If anything, the need for clear ‘rules of the game’ for interaction between individuals has never been greater.

It would also be wrong to assume that new actors on the world stage are innovators whereas traditional institutions are rigid, and therefore irrelevant. The retreats of the Security Council show that old organisations can develop new ways of achieving their aims, just as the application of traditional diplomatic protocol by think tanks and NGOs shows that they are adopting successful practices at the same time as they blaze a new path.

That conventional rules of international politics have not been jettisoned underlines that these expected codes of behaviour are not about tradition for its own sake. Instead, they enable diplomats to show respect to each other and to anticipate the way in which others will behave. Far from inhibiting fruitful dialogue, it is protocol that allows it to take place.

Dr Abiodun Williams 
Dr Abiodun Williams is the President of The Hague Institute for Global Justice and a noted academic in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and conflict management. From 2008 to 2012 he served at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, fijirst as vice president of the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, and later as senior vice president of the Center for Conflict Management. Prior to joining USIP, Williams served as director of strategic planning for United Nations Secretaries-General Ban Ki-moon and Kofiji Annan. From 1994 to 2000 he served in three peacekeeping operations in Macedonia, Haiti, and Bosnia-Herzegovina as special assistant to the special representative of the secretary-general, and political and humanitarian affairs officer. He has held faculty appointments at Georgetown, Rochester, and Tufts Universities.

4 See
5 See Manuel Frohlich and Abi Williams (eds.), The UN Secretary-General and the Security
Council: A Dynamic Relationship (Oxford: forthcoming, 2016).
8 See, for example, Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton: 2004)

This article is part of the new book 'An Expert's Guide to International Protocol' by the former Master of Ceremonies of H.M. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Gilbert Monod de Froideville and the head of protocol of the city of The Hague, Mark Verheul. 
Order the book now or follow a training by the writers of this book. 


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