03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Peace Prize Presents Protocol Puzzle

The Nobel Prizes, awarded this week, offer a confusing geography of merit. Named in honor of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, and presented on his birthday, the prizes recognize the most prestigious contributions in several sciences and economics. The Swedes choose the winners, who receive their awards in Stockholm. But, strangely, the Nobel Peace Prize, the most exclusive of all, is chosen by Norwegians and presented in Oslo. So the record number of American Nobel laureates this year will be celebrated in a different Scandinavian capital than their president, Barack Obama.

President Obama will face an intriguing dilemma in international protocol during his Oslo trip. Immediately before the Nobel ceremony, he will have an audience with King Harald V, the king of Norway. Traditionally, a head of state does not bow to another head of state, especially when one is a monarch and the other is a democratically elected leader. But Obama has been following his own protocol this year. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, he has bowed to every monarch he meets, following local custom.

It began with his curt head nod to Queen Elizabeth in April, after shaking hands, which hardly seemed a bow at all. Yet this gesture is exactly what is suggested for men by traditional English etiquette. (That women still curtsy seems odd, and Michelle didn't.) What really blew me away on that same trip was Obama's deep and almost subservient bow to the King of Saudi Arabia. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denied there was a bow at all, arguing that the tall president was merely trying to establish eye contact with the much shorter king, but news cameras showed otherwise.

Perhaps the brouhaha would have died out, had not President Obama offered yet another deep bow to the Emperor of Japan in November. (The Empress received a shorter bow, the depth of the bow reflecting rank in Japanese society.) Was this supposed to be a cover-up bow after the flap about the Saudi king? Whatever the reason, it now appears that President Obama will have to bow to every monarch he meets or insult somebody -- which was a big reason not to bow in the first place.

Official protocol, like its common cousin, etiquette, is designed to let everybody know what is expected of them, so nobody risks hurt feelings or international incidents. Normally, the Chief of Protocol, an ambassador-level position in the State Department, travels with the President to make sure all the steps of the official dance of statehood are followed on both sides. Yet this position was not filled in the Obama administration until August -- and then by Capricia Marshall, a veteran aid to Hillary Clinton both in the White House and her presidential campaign.

It's easy to imagine some turf battles between Obama's uber-social secretary Desiree Rogers and Marshall, herself a former social secretary in the Clinton White House. But for whatever reason, President Obama has chosen not to travel abroad with Marshall, who would traditionally have her own seat on Air Force One.

Of course, everyone in the administration serves at the pleasure of the president, so he is entitled to choose whomever he pleases. But Obama's protocol gaffes make me wonder if he is getting the veteran advice he deserves, whether from Marshall or somebody else. This administration represents the American people, not just any particular president, and the respect the office requires is no trivial matter.

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