Rash of snubs complicates US diplomacy

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  • Recent presidential trips have made headlines not for lavish receptions but for perceived "snubs"
  • Experts see such putdowns as a way of expressing dissatisfaction, sending diplomatic messages

Washington (CNN)When American presidents and vice presidents travel abroad, they are accustomed to a reception reflecting their status as leaders of the free world.

Often host nations pull out all the stops, with elaborate state dinners, tours of historical sites and military parades. But recent presidential trips have made headlines not for the lavishness of the reception but for the perceived "snubs" that have met the president and vice president upon arrival.
    Just this week in Asia, two rather undiplomatic incidents marred President Barack Obama's trip. They come atop a year in which Turkish, Saudi and Israeli officials have been similarly discourteous while engaging their American counterparts.
    When Obama arrived in China on Saturday, the absence of red-carpeted stairs for Air Force One and open quarreling on the tarmac between Chinese and US officials over press access drew unwanted attention as other leaders arriving for the G20 were greeted with a far grander welcome.
    And after the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, used foul-language in an exchange with a reporter while talking about Obama, the White House called off a scheduled meeting between the two leaders.
    Obama downplayed both incidents, dismissing any hidden meaning in the logistical issue in China. "I wouldn't over-crank the significance of it," Obama told reporters.
    And of Duterte, with whom the White House said Obama did exchange brief "pleasantries" at a conference in Laos later in the week, the US President said, "What I indicated to him is that my team should be meeting with his and determine how we can move forward on a range of issues."
    Experts, however, see such putdowns as potential agents of policy, a way of expressing dissatisfaction and sending a diplomatic message via other means.
    Alan K. Henrikson, a professor of the history of diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told CNN that while the slights often are "accidental snafus ... sometimes they are fully intentional, even instruments of policy."
    Lawrence Dunham, the State Department's assistant chief of protocol from 1989 to 2005, told CNN that snubs can be a way of "telegraphing a message" to a foreign government.
    Dunham added that it "was really the job of the protocol officer to make sure that these type of slights don't happen by accident."
    In the case of the Duterte, the US was "clearly trying to send a signal that they were displeased at what he had to say," Dunham said, referring to the cancelation of the planned meeting.
    And the US and China have plenty to disagree about, from disputes over China's island building and claims in the South China Sea to Beijing's perception that Obama's pivot to Asia is directed against its rise. Some scholars think that Saturday's diplomatic brushoff was one way the host country delivered a message.
    "Sometimes, 'snubs' are quite ordinary, unimaginative, and hardly dramatic," Henrikson said, pointing to being kept waiting in an office, not being met at an airport, not being invited to an event and even not showing up.
    In sum, Henrikson concluded, they can range "from rhetorical insults hurled at UN Security Council meetings to minor etiquette errors."
    Violating the protocol of greeting VIP visitors during a foreign visit is a common tactic.
    US presidents and vice presidents are often welcomed by senior level officials upon their arrival, typically heads of state, government or foreign ministers.
    But during an August visit to Turkey, Vice President Joe Biden was greeted by the deputy mayor of Ankara.
    That visit came amid heightened tensions over Ankara's push for the extradition of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, under suspicion in Turkey for helping plot a failed July coup, as well as US backing for Syrian Kurdish groups fighting ISIS that Turkey considers to be terrorist organizations.
    Similarly, during Obama's April visit to Saudi Arabia, observers noted that the governor of Riyadh, a relatively low-ranking Saudi official, greeted the president at the airport.
    At the time, the Saudis were rankled over the deal the US and world powers inked with Iran over its nuclear program; the emergence of legislation in Congress that could allow Saudi Arabia to face lawsuits connected to 9/11, and an interview in which Obama urged Riyadh to find a way to "share the neighborhood" with bitter rival Tehran.
    A US official at the time, however, said the Saudi king's absence upon arrival was not taken as a snub and noted that Obama rarely greets foreign leaders when they land in the US for meetings.
    Another closely watched relationship, the US-Israel alliance, has also been beset by diplomatic slights.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled his March visit to Washington that included an invitation to meet Obama. Israel didn't inform the White House before announcing the decision to the media.
    White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said "if they weren't able to make the meeting, they should have just told us before they told a reporter."
    A year earlier, Netanyahu had earned the White House's open ire by appearing before the US Congress and blasting the administration's landmark deal with Iran over its nuclear program.
    While the snubs can be symptomatic of more chronic issues, former diplomats said the incidents within themselves don't tend to do lasting damage.
    Henrikson said that efforts like Obama's decision to make light of the significance of the Chinese stairs brouhaha is the best way to respond.
    "In diplomacy, it is often wisest deliberately not to notice what otherwise might be, even accurately, considered a snub," he said.
    But he acknowledged that such a reaction can be difficult given the media's interest in the issue.
    "The press can be itself a major anti-diplomatic factor if (it's) looking for insults," he said.
    Indeed, media interest can give them extended life, often forcing a visiting dignitary to use public appearance to address protocol controversies rather than the policy issues at issue in the trip.
    Obama found himself still being questioned on the stairs incident days later in Laos.
    Obama called all the discussion around his arrival "overblown."
    "If this theory about my reception and my rebalance policy is based on me going down the short stairs in China, yes, I think that is overblown," he said. "Any reasonable person, certainly any person in the region, would be puzzled as to how this somehow became indicative of the work that we've done here."