“Caught Trying” in Denmark: The Case for Taking Risks in Using Non-Traditional US Diplomacy to Meet Global Challenges
Denmark is one of America’s closest partners. Near the pinnacle of global indices of wealth, well-being, and democracy, Denmark is uniquely positioned to work alongside the United States in support of our shared approaches to addressing 21st century global challenges. It is the only Nordic country that is a member of all three vital multinational organizations: NATO, EU, and Arctic Council. Denmark very much reinforces President Obama’s now-famous foreign policy quote in the April 2016 edition of The Atlantic: “If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy.”
On a government-to-government level, it would be hard to ask more of our diplomatic relationship. The extremism-inspired terrorist attacks that shook Copenhagen on February 14 and 15, 2015, reaffirmed the importance of our close cooperation at all levels and reinforced Denmark’s commitment to being one of the United States’ closest allies. Danes take great pride in standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States on global issues, with high levels of public and political support for our mutual policy priorities. In the past couple of years, Denmark was one of the first countries to join the Counter-ISIL coalition, offering aircraft, military trainers, humanitarian assistance, and now radar capabilities. Denmark committed equipment, funding, and personnel to counter the spread of Ebola in Africa and supported MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali).
It also took a strong position against Russian aggression in Ukraine by flying air patrols along NATO’s eastern border, sending a battalion to NATO exercises, and advocating for strong EU sanctions against Russia. Denmark also engaged forcefully in support of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP); worked with the United States on climate change, human rights, and other global issues; and collaborated closely with us on counterterrorism goals, including de-radicalization and countering violent extremism among its significant Muslim minority population. (At present, Denmark has one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq in the European Union per capita after Belgium.)
However great the official bilateral relationship is, we, along with many other US Embassies around the world, have found that we must make these historically good relations even stronger to meet pressing global challenges. One way we do this is to reach beyond traditional audiences. Publics that are younger and diverse tend to be more skeptical of American politics and policies. This new generation is rapidly replacing older, largely more pro-American generations that came of age during the Second World War and Cold War. What is more, many young Danes are, on the one hand, more open to globalization and multiculturalism, but on the other hand skeptical of their parents’ and grandparents’ politics and institutions.
Like their counterparts elsewhere, these younger Danes are smart, empowered, and accustomed to direct responses to their interests and concerns. Due in large measure to today’s instantaneous, customized digital environment—in which social media platforms, interest groups, and advertisers expressly tailor communications to each individual’s preferences and tastes—young people today respect frankness, dislike talking points and other traditional means of government interaction, and openly disdain any form of address that speaks at them and not to them.
To prepare for a global environment that will require increased international cooperation, we must engage younger publics in Denmark and throughout the world now. In countries like Denmark, we have historically spent too much time “preaching to the choir” and not enough time trying to reach an increasingly skeptical, and younger, public. Governments and institutions that choose to continue their natural risk-averse inclinations do so to their own detriment. Rather, it is precisely in the best interests of the United States and other governments to take risks in engagement. We simply cannot afford to cede this crucial space and must go where these publics are, both physically and digitally.
We have a President, a Secretary of State, and an Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy who understand the changing public diplomacy landscape and the need to take risks. As Under Secretary of State Rick Stengel likes to emphasize, “Never let the fear of screwing something up stop you from trying.” In fact, he often refers back to when he started in his position: “From my first day, Secretary Kerry told me, ‘Let’s get caught trying.’ When you are leaning forward and if you make mistakes, we will support you.” Emboldened by such strong backing, my Embassy team and I in Copenhagen did just that. Our goal was to take the positive government-to-government relationship to the Danish public, building trust community by community, person by person, in an effort to reach as many Danes as possible.
As my fellow Ambassadors, past and present, know only too well, there are few jobs that demand more public exposure. As Ambassador, you are always “on.” You are always representing the United States in everything you do, as much in your personal time going to the grocery store or the gym as in your official duties meeting at the Parliament or government ministries.
Yet we took it even further, sharing as much as we could about the Embassy’s work and our lives as possible. As we soon learned, Danes strongly connected with our willingness to open up to them and connected with my own personal story as one of America’s first openly gay Ambassadors. Media interviews on issues led to personal profiles, which led to more media interviews on issues. Likewise, social media posts on my life and experiences as an American in Denmark built an interest in policy issues. In turn, requests for public appearances grew: everything from speaking to schools, universities, and business groups to Facebook messages asking me to drop by birthday barbecues when I would solicit suggestions for visiting a Danish city over social media. We tried to respond to as many as possible, with me or other Embassy colleagues capitalizing on as many invitations as we could to reach as many people as possible.
We learned quickly that American politics and policy were debated around almost every dinner table, in almost every classroom, and at almost every board meeting in Denmark. These were conversations we wanted to be a part of. At every opportunity, my Embassy team and I emphasized the importance of dialogue: our conversations centered on answering individuals’ questions as honestly as possible, no matter how tough a question—from drone strikes to allegations regarding US intelligence activities to why we have been unable to close Guantanamo. This mixture of access, accountability, and transparency—speaking mostly with a hand-held microphone, sleeves rolled up, and expressly without a podium or the trappings of officialdom—has made an impact. Soon small groups in half-empty rooms turned into standing-room only town halls.
Slowly but surely, as interest in me as Ambassador grew, so did interest in the work of the Embassy and US government. As my friend, former Huffington Post CEO and current President of Content and Consumer Brands at AOL Jimmy Maymann likes to say concerning the issue of broadening audiences, they would get readers “coming for the Kardashians and staying for the Obamas.” Or, as we like to put it in our Danish context, they come for my dog Argos but stay for a discussion about Denmark increasing its defense spending. In other words, in today’s communications landscape, the connection between the personal and policy is vital in reaching younger generations. If they feel they know you and trust you as a person, they become invested in what you share with them, even on subjects or issues in which they previously had no interest.
We have been able to harness this growing curiosity about our work to advance an ambitious agenda with Denmark. We engage Danes on issues in which our bilateral partnership makes a difference: encouraging youth entrepreneurship by enabling the next generation of start-up companies, helping boost both our economies; empowering partners to help Danes value diversity, especially using employment-based solutions to help solve Europe’s immigration crisis; and building vibrant transatlantic green tech cooperation that creates jobs and helps stem climate change.
Our social media following has increased four hundred percent across all our platforms since we adopted this strategy, with the message reaching well beyond that, all without additional cost. Moreover, we are hitting our target audience digitally: our posts reach more young Danes and other non-traditional diplomatic audiences by a huge margin, reaffirming that we are on target with our strategy.
Such an impact is best summed up from a trip I made to a university recently. In a classroom full of about seventy students in their early twenties, the instructor asked them if they had ever known of another ambassador. Not a single student could think of another ambassador, Danish, American, or any other nationality. But they all knew me by my first name, largely because of the bold public diplomacy initiatives that we have undertaken as a Mission. Not only did we successfully navigate two seasons of the Department’s first-ever documentary series about the life and work of a United States Ambassador and Embassy, as well as publish a best-selling book, but we were a consistent presence on both Danish TV and in print, held town halls all over Denmark with hundreds in attendance, and connected with American press, garnering long-overdue attention for the State Department’s innovative public diplomacy efforts.
We have seen wonderful profiles of our aggressive and strategic public affairs work in Vanity Fair, New York Times, Boston Globe, Daily Beast, Washington Post, Vogue, PBS Newshour, USA Today, and the Atlantic, among others. This level of attention, strengthening the bilateral relationship and facilitating the work of the State Department, is unprecedented and a direct result of the strategy of taking risks to reach non-traditional audiences in our non-traditional world.
President Obama said at the US-Nordic Summit in May: “Sometimes we have a tendency to take our best friends for granted, and it’s important that we not do so.” Sometimes that friendship involves stepping outside our traditional comfort zones and reminding each other why we are friends in the first place. We have to remind ourselves that the reason for our friendship is people. Governments change, politics change, but these great alliances have stood the test of time precisely because of the connection between our people.
My Embassy Team and I got out from behind our desks, moved beyond the confines of traditional audiences and events, took risks, met people where they lived, worked and hung out—physically and digitally—and let them get to know us on a fundamentally human, personal level. In doing so, we have reminded older Danes and have shown younger ones why this relationship is so important. At the same time, such efforts remind all of us that a broader, deeper, more inclusive and more human conversation will help us devise solutions to challenges in an increasingly complex world, together.
United States Ambassador to the Kingdom of Denmark