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Former Chief of Protocol Calls for ‘Smart Power’ to Increase Cooperation

June 19, 2020 by Kate Michael
Former Chief of Protocol Calls for ‘Smart Power’ to Increase Cooperation

WASHINGTON – Little gestures can mean a lot, according to Capricia Marshall, ambassador-in-residence at the nonpartisan Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.. 

The one-time presidential social secretary and chief of protocol of the United States shared her views on the role of protocol and diplomacy in light of the global pandemic and other national unrest in a virtual discussion hosted by the non-profit Meridian International Center this week.

She stressed the advantage of human-to-human connection, even as we increase our virtual lifestyle.

Called a “master storyteller” and “one of the most …. glamorous women in Washington,” who “took diplomacy out of its straight jacket” by discussion moderator Claire Shipman, Marshall has had an illustrious career in diplomatic and cultural communications.

“I was very fortunate to grow up in a household rich in culture,” Marshall explained. Her ethnically diverse upbringing — she had a Yugoslavian father and Mexican mother — “stuck in [her] core,” and “when offered extraordinary positions, I felt that [heritage] coming out,” she said. This cultural diversity compelled her toward what she called her “exciting career” in diplomacy.

“The differences we have in unique culture are what knit people together,” said Marshall. And protocol, she said, is the foundation that acknowledges these differences and makes them part of a diplomatic conversation. Marshall insisted that protocol is “a superpower, a secret weapon… and micro moves that have a major impact when implemented correctly.” Hers set the stage for international cooperation and collaboration, especially during the Obama Administration.

Examples of protocols Marshall finessed included greetings, food, gifts, and interpersonal communication. All of these contribute to positive “thin-slicing,” what she calls the first impression. To highlight the thin-slicing concept, she shared stories from her time as chief of protocol. Many are also featured in her new book “Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make it Work for You.”

Gifts are fundamental to Marshall’s theory of diplomatic “smart power,” a take on the concept of soft power promoted by Joseph Nye which was a favorite of Secretaries of State Kerry and Clinton. Smart power, Marshall explained, uses the tools of both soft and hard power (coercive policies) in an integrated strategy. “It advances international engagements and rebuilds American goodwill.” Marshall contends that America should “take smart power seriously because it’s incredibly effective.” 

Marshall believes that smart power will be necessary as we continue to adapt to a more virtual world. With health precautions and rules changing, there is “confusion of ‘What do I do?’ and ‘How do I do it?’, and this is what makes people ill at ease,” Marshall said. Taking cues from her former job, she uses the notion of smart power and a checklist of protocols to detail logistics while also conveying the purpose and reasoning behind them. 

“Diplomacy matters today more than ever, according to Marshall. “In [its] framework, we can build bridges of understanding.” In difficult times, she suggests that everyone engage in conversation, truly listen, commit to learning from new perspectives, and then develop new channels of understanding. “I hope that during these confusing times, people look to these wonderful [diplomacy] tools and understand [their] power.”

And even in today’s new environment, Marshall said “protocol is still the foundation.” Communication must be welcoming, respectful, and promote civility. “When you present your authentic self, people can make that connection with you,” Marshall said. “…You create a bond of trust that comes back to you in abundance.”

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