Public Diplomacy and POTUS Visits
Wednesday, April 18th 2012
The current flap over misbehaving Secret Service agents in Cartagena is worth not much more than an amused “tsk-tsk” to most Americans.
But, in fact, this incident underlines a problem faced by public diplomacy officers every time and every place the President travels. There are simply too many people involved in Presidential travel. And many of them have not much real work to do, which leaves them lots of time to get into mischief.
When the White House begins to plan a Presidential foray into a foreign land, every agency in Washington, not to mention many USG regional offices and military geographic commands, all begin to plan their share of the visit. And the rule is, if it is worth doing, it is worth overdoing!
The White House sends out experienced advance staff to plan the actual visit, arrange the press coverage, map out vehicle and aircraft movements, and manage protocol aspects. The Secret Service sends a small army of agents to think through the President’s every possible physical move. White House Communication Agency technicians ensure that phones and radios, as well as microphones, will work. Military advance teams arrange for Air Force One and other planes and helicopters that may be needed. (They love London because the Ambassador’s residence, Winfield House, is one of the few government-owned properties in the middle of a major city capable of landing and parking Marine One and eight other helicopters in the garden—simultaneously!)
Many of these tasks and people are actually necessary to a successful visit. But, no one in Washington limits the numbers. So a kind of “staff inflation” takes place. Agency after agency adds extra people “to be safe,” or “just in case,” or “to provide backup,” or to observe or learn the ropes. Some are there, like moths around a flame, just to be close to the President.
Any attempt to limit staff numbers is met with an offended, “What? Is anything more important than the President’s visit?” It is as if to question your patriotism, if not your sanity? Wouldn’t you expend every dollar and make every effort to ensure the visit’s success?
And so the numbers keep growing. And growing.
The major task that falls on the embassy is visitor management, that is, reserving hotel rooms and transportation needs, as well as paying the bills, on behalf of all these staff from different agencies and departments. The second task, no less difficult, is to explain this tremendous influx of official Americans to the host government and people.
Three weeks before the President’s arrival the embassy will book some thirty to fifty rooms for advance staff. This number will grow and grow into the hundreds as the days count down. By the time the President arrives, the embassy will have booked almost a thousand hotel rooms in a city where the President will overnight. Even a Presidential stopover of a few hours, with no overnight, will require several hundred hotel rooms.
Neither this nor any previous White House will release firm figures for the cost or numbers of people involved in Presidential visits. But, according to Politico, about a decade ago, the General Accounting Office released “two fairly detailed reports on President Bill Clinton's foreign travels (view them here and here). Secret Service costs were omitted as classified, but other government expenses were tallied up. Government agencies paid for about 1300 people on the Clinton Africa trip, excluding Secret Service personnel. When Clinton went to Chile, the government picked up the tab for 600 people. And there were 500 paid travelers in connection with the Clinton China trip.”
These numbers do not count the traveling press corps, or corporate and NGO representatives who are often invited “to accompany the President.” But, the embassy will be responsible for finding lodging, transport and security for them too.
If the President’s travel is part of an international meeting, the U.S. contingent will outnumber all the other national delegations combined. If it is a simple bilateral visit, the size and intrusiveness of the American preparations will astound local citizens. (I remember standing on a hillside in Kampala watching President Clinton’sl motorcade, all 48 vehicles, as they wound their way out of the city to an event in a nearby town.)
Not only does the public diplomacy officer have to explain why the White House can’t depend on local services and supplies (as other nations do when their valuable national leaders visit), but they often have to apologize for major inconveniences caused by U.S.-demanded security measures and traffic-snarling motorcades. (Most of our European allies have learned from hard experience to insist—firmly—that the U.S. President’s motorcade consist of no more than a dozen vehicles.) Some cities have found it easier to give the entire population a day off from work and school in order to accommodate a U.S. Presidential visit.
Don’t get me wrong. Every Foreign Service officer is delighted to be able to deploy America’s number one public diplomacy asset – the President – in country where they are working.
But, many also recognize that a POTUS visit inflicts a lot of friction on the bilateral relationship. Those wounds take a long time to patch over after the visit. (Maybe that’s why the President rarely stays more than one night in any single foreign city?)
The Secret Service problem in Colombia, however, is simply the result of too many people being sent to a foreign country without enough actual work to do. Idle hands do the devil’s work.
Presidential visits abroad should be planned and carried out efficiently and with a low profile. Instead, for many, they are a chance to prove the importance of an agency’s mission, an ego-boosting opportunity for “proximity to power,” and a lark for favored employees.
Too often Air Force One leaves an indelible impression of American excess in its wake.
It is time for someone in Washington to take responsibility for Presidential visits.