Televisual diplomacy: I am the Ambassador and Danish nation branding at home and abroad

Publication Date01 November 2019
AuthorJoel Vessels,Robert A Saunders
Date01 November 2019
DOI10.1177/0263395718805403
SubjectArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/0263395718805403
Politics
2019, Vol. 39(4) 430 –447
© The Author(s) 2018
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DOI: 10.1177/0263395718805403
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Televisual diplomacy: I am
the Ambassador and Danish
nation branding at home
and abroad
Robert A Saunders
Farmingdale State College, USA
Joel Vessels
Nassau Community College, USA
Abstract
In a time when the current US president came to office via a career in reality television, it seems
unnecessary to argue that popular culture and International Relations intersect in meaningful and
dramatic ways. Operating from this premise, mass-mediating the act of diplomacy via a television
series presents a fecund object of analysis that questions many of the myths surrounding what we call
the ‘diplomatic community’. Consequently, this article is interested in the geopolitical interposition
of Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) via the popular culture form of reality television. We
achieve this through a close reading of the DR series I am the Ambassador/Jeg er ambassadøren fra
Amerika (2014–2016), ‘starring’ the real US ambassador to Denmark. We situate Ambassador within
the evolving space of ‘new diplomacy’ through an evaluation of how it imagines, popularises, and
expands ‘everyday’ sites of diplomacy via mass-mediation. However, as we argue, the series – when
viewed holistically – says more about the Danish state and its people than it does about the role of
the US ambassador, thus functioning as a tool of nation branding as much at home as abroad.
Keywords
Denmark, diplomacy, nation branding, popular culture, reality television
Received: 13th December 2017; Revised version received: 18th July 2018; Accepted: 28th August 2018
Introduction
Diplomacy, like reality television, is a blend of reality and illusion wherein the ‘actors’ are
constrained by a complex formula that dictates how they are expected to perform. In
everyday practice, diplomacy thus functions as a form of ‘spectacle’ (Hüttler, 2017)
Corresponding author:
Robert A Saunders, Department of History, Politics and Geography, Farmingdale State College, 2350
Broadhollow Road, Farmingdale, NY 11735 USA.
Email: robert.saunders@farmingdale.edu
805403POL0010.1177/0263395718805403PoliticsSaunders and Vessels
research-article2018
Article
Saunders and Vessels 431
informed by a particular ‘set of aesthetics’ (Neumann, 2013: 143). Accepting this prem-
ise, mass-mediating diplomacy via a television series presents a valuable object of analy-
sis that can help International Relations (IR) scholars to interrogate what we mean by the
‘diplomatic community’ in the 21st century (see Constantinou, 2016). Focusing on the
televisualisation of diplomatic acts, systems, and sites (including the body of the diplo-
mat), this article investigates the political interposition of the Danish Broadcasting
Corporation (DR) via reality-TV, one of the current era’s most prominent forms of popu-
lar culture. We do this through a close reading of the DR’s series I am the Ambassador/
Jeg er ambassadøren fra Amerika (2014–2016) (hereafter Ambassador), starring the sit-
ting US ambassador to Denmark. As a state-funded entity with an explicit mission to
create content that serves the cultural and social needs of the national population, we
argue that DR – via Ambassador – serves as an agent on Danish nation branding at home
and abroad. Beyond a holistic treatment of the series, we detail the spaces and places
where ‘public diplomacy’ manifests, and how transmitting such staged acts via television
expands and amplifies certain types of messaging that engages IR at multiple scales.
In our analysis, we attempt to extend the maxim that all ‘politics is performance’ (Brady,
2012: xii) by demonstrating how diplomacy qua popular culture serves the Danish state in
the current globalised milieu. Consequently, we treat Ambassador as a screened geopolitical
intervention (see Carter and McCormack, 2006), and one that exemplifies what Clerc and
Glover (2015: 18) call ‘nation branding à la nordique’. This article argues that the series
also functions as an inventive form of public diplomacy advancing ‘continuous dialogue
and community’ (Mordhorst, 2015: 253), while also building Denmark’s ‘brand’. On one
hand, Ambassador enables the US State Department’s (public) diplomacy in Denmark via
the personalised outreach of Gifford, and, on the other, (nation) brands Denmark to the
Danes through a symbolic differentiation from the ‘bad America’. Our focus is on the ways
in which the series is ‘scripted’ (not via text, but instead through spatio-political framing) to
present a commendatory picture of Denmark to Danes through the everyday diplomatic
duties and personal life of the American ambassador. We aim to situate Ambassador within
the evolving field of ‘new diplomacy’ through an evaluation of how the showrunners and
Gifford represent everyday sites of IR via mass-mediation, linking this process to the post-
modern form of statecraft labelled ‘nation branding’ (cf. Aronczyk, 2013; Kaneva, 2011;
Volčič and Andrejevic, 2015). We argue that the use of another country’s diplomatic repre-
sentative (i.e. US Ambassador Rufus Gifford, who served from 13 September 2013 until 20
January 2017) to burnish its own national image represents a leap forward in the evolution
of the ‘brand state’ (Van Ham, 2001). Here, we are influenced by Acuto’s (2014: 346)
assemblage thinking to reconsider the ‘relationship between the international contexts of IR
and the commonplace realities we all partake in our own homes’. Using Ambassador as a
case study, our aim is to illustrate how diplomacy is rapidly changing in an environment
where new media has become an indispensable element of foreign affairs, thus laying the
groundwork for future studies (particularly those related to ministries of foreign affairs’
usage of social media to achieve their mandate).
We begin with a recursive historiography of diplomacy as a form of theatre, situating
our analysis within an interdisciplinary framework that synthesises approaches drawn
from diplomatic history, critical IR, and popular geopolitics. This lays the groundwork
for exploring the impact of popular culture on world politics, and especially the evolv-
ing role that (reality) television plays in public/cultural diplomacy. We then provide a
close reading of Ambassador as a text, interrogating the series’ impact beyond the small
screen. In the conclusion, our focus turns to contemporary Danish television’s role as

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