White House

Pomp of state dinners fading even before Brazil canceled over spying

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive for a State Dinner with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Mrs. Gursharan Kaur at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 24, 2009. (Olivier Douliery /Abaca Press/MCT)
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive for a State Dinner with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Mrs. Gursharan Kaur at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 24, 2009. (Olivier Douliery /Abaca Press/MCT) MCT

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s decision to snub President Barack Obama over a state visit to the United States is the latest blow to a ceremonial event that’s becoming increasingly rare.

Irked by revelations of U.S. spying on her government and her, Rousseff last month became the first world leader to postpone a state visit and state dinner, the highest invite a U.S. president can bestow on a foreign leader, an august if infrequent event that’s happened even less often under Obama and his predecessor.

The number of state dinners has dropped in recent years, and “official” dinners with world leaders, which aren’t as protocol-laden, are more common.

Obama’s critics say he doesn’t do enough fraternizing with Congress. He hasn’t done much high-status dining with world leaders either, holding just six state dinners since he took office in 2009, the same number as his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was said to prefer private dining with leaders rather than tuxedo dinners. The gregarious Bill Clinton hosted 23 state dinners, George H.W. Bush gave 21 and Ronald Reagan held 35, according to State Department records.

Some peg the drop-off to the expense of the events, which is wholly borne by the U.S. government.

“State visits take time, they absorb a lot of energy, therefore presidents don’t do many of them,” said Erik Goldstein, a professor of international relations and history at Boston University who’s written about the politics of state visits. He notes that the British queen, who doesn’t have the responsibility of running government, hosts only two state visits a year.

Lawrence Dunham, an assistant chief of protocol at the State Department from 1989 to 2005, attributes the decline in the number of such visits to practicality among world leaders.

“I think the real thing is people want to come in and do their business,” Dunham said. “We’ve become much more businesslike in the way we do things.”

Rousseff’s postponement of the trip may be unprecedented, but it’s not the first time that something unexpected has marked the pomp and flourish of a state visit.

In 1970, an otherwise well-choreographed visit by French President Georges Pompidou was marred when demonstrators protesting the sale of French warplanes to Libya jostled Pompidou and his wife on a side trip to Chicago.

“Pompidou was put off by that,” Goldstein said. “He didn’t make an official protest, but it’s clear after that that his feelings about the U.S. were pretty diminished and it affected the rest of his time in office about France’s attitude toward the United States.”

That’s a step above the reception accorded Haitian President Louis Borno, who was told in 1926 – before state visits existed in the U.S. government lexicon – that he could have an official visit, “but only at his own expense,” Goldstein said.

The first visit to the United States officially classified as a state visit in modern times was that of President Syngman Rhee of Korea in 1954, Goldstein said. The chief executive decides on whom to bestow a state visit, and most are designed to showcase a solid relationship between the countries, mark the end of a period of distance between them or symbolize a rising new status for a country.

Most state visits involve an elegant dinner, a stay at Blair House – near the White House – and a meeting between the leaders, all preceded by a red carpet reception at the White House. The president of the Republic of Ireland got a green carpet welcome in 1959.

But even the receptions have been subject to misunderstanding, Goldstein said.

President Dwight Eisenhower was convinced in 1957 to move the greeting ceremony to the White House from the airport. The next visitor, King Saud of Saudi Arabia, was offended and canceled.

“In the end,” Goldstein said, “Eisenhower had to agree to go to the airport to meet him.”

It’s unlikely that Obama will hold another state dinner this year. The first lady’s office – which oversees the invitation list and planning of the dinner – said that no other Obama-hosted state dinners had been announced.

The government doesn’t divulge the precise cost of state dinners, which are funded by the State Department’s Office of the Chief of Protocol. But various news reports have put the bill at as much as half a million dollars.

That’s likely a bargain compared with earlier visits. Before President George H.W. Bush took office, the U.S. government provided transportation and accommodations for the leaders’ entourages as they visited other U.S. cities. In 1976, Turkish President Cevdet Sunay spent 11 days in the U.S., stopping in 11 cities including Palm Springs, Calif., and Los Angeles.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., pressed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to justify a lavish state dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderon after news reports put the cost for the 2010 event – featuring entertainment by Beyonce – at nearly $1 million.

Given the federal government shutdown and the conflict in Syria, the U.S. may have been relieved by Brazil’s postponement, Rubens Barbosa, Brazil’s former ambassador to the U.S., said at a briefing hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue, a research center in Washington.

“Perhaps the administration was happy to not worry about another visit in the middle of this dysfunctionality in the system here,” Barbosa said. He said the decision to postpone was the best course of action given the rift.

“The visit was important, but it was ceremonial,” he said. “After the state visit Brazil would remain in the same place.”

The U.S.-Brazilian relationship has endured bigger bumps and will recover, added Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy based in New York.

“Canceling the state visit wasn’t absurd,” he said. State visits, he added, involve a “lot of pomp, a lot of flags,” and for the presidents “just to point fingers at each other, who would benefit from this?”

Outraged Brazilians were calling on Rousseff to go further, including pulling their ambassador to the U.S., said Paulo Sotero Marques, the director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

He thinks Rousseff canceled “more out of sorrow than anger,” adding that the surveillance issue would have overshadowed the event.

The fallout, he said, “could be minimal if the two work to keep the lines of communication open and reach some sort of understanding satisfactory to both.” But that has yet to happen: Rousseff used a United Nations address to continue to criticize the U.S. surveillance, saying it wasn’t acceptable.

“Tampering in such a manner in the lives and affairs of other countries is a breach of international law and, as such, it is an affront to the principles that should otherwise govern relations among countries, especially among friendly nations,” Rousseff said.

Obama has already filled in his calendar for Oct. 23, the day the state dinner was to have been held: The White House has announced that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will meet with Obama that day.

The visit, the White House said, “will highlight the importance and resilience of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.”