Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to embark on an official state visit to the United States from June 21 to 24, where he will be welcomed by President Joe Biden at the White House. This marks Modi’s first state visit to the US during his nine-year tenure as prime minister, with the last Indian leader to make a state visit being former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from November 23 to 25, 2009. Although PM Modi has made several trips to the US, none have been classified as state visits, which hold the highest rank in diplomatic protocol.
State visits are characterized by a head of state or government traveling to a foreign country in their sovereign capacity. As such, they are officially referred to as a “visit of [name of state]” rather than “visit of [name of leader].” In the US, state visits occur only upon the invitation of the president, acting in their capacity as the head of state. These visits often span several days and consist of various elaborate ceremonies, depending on the visiting leader’s itinerary. For instance, in the US, these may include a flight line ceremony, a 21-gun salute White House arrival ceremony, a White House dinner, exchange of diplomatic gifts, an invitation to stay at the Blair House, and flag street lining. Modi’s visit will feature a state dinner on June 22.
Not every trip made by a foreign leader is considered a state visit. State visits hold the highest rank and ceremonial significance compared to other types of visits, and they symbolize the pinnacle of friendly bilateral relations. They are relatively rare in order to maintain their prestige and symbolic status. For example, under US diplomatic policy, the president can host no more than one leader from any nation once every four years.
Lower-ranked visits are classified as official visits, official working visits, working visits, guest-of-government visits, and private visits, according to US diplomatic policy. The key distinction between these visits and a state visit is that state visits are carried out in a sovereign capacity, with only the head of state allowed to make such visits. Other visits can be made by various high-ranking leaders, including crown princes, vice-presidents, and ceremonial heads of state. State visits also involve numerous elaborate ceremonies, whereas invitations for other visits are sent out more freely.
PM Modi’s previous trips to the US were categorized as a working visit (2014), working lunch (2016), and official working visit (2017). The US Department of State website describes his 2019 visit as one where he “Participated in a rally in Houston, Texas.”
Indeed, state visits hold the utmost prestige and ceremonial importance. However, when it comes to actual diplomatic work, the classification of the visit does not necessarily determine its effectiveness. Working visits can be just as successful in nurturing healthy relationships between countries as state visits. In fact, due to the infrequency of state visits and the numerous ceremonial events associated with them, most diplomatic work is often accomplished during other types of visits.