A most modern ambassador prepares his goodbyes

Rufus Gifford has redefined the role of an ambassador by opening up his life to the Danish public through his reality TV show. Now in his last year, Gifford reflects on his time in Denmark, the rise of European and American populism, and the need for the establishment to find new ways to forge trust with the public

Machine gun wielding police officers watch over a queue that slowly snakes its way towards the US ambassador’s residence in the affluent Ordrup suburb north of Copenhagen. We show our invitations to the Fourth of July celebration and hurry through to the garden.

While we gorge on food and spot celebrities, a long line of people wait patiently to greet the US Ambassador, Rufus Gifford. An hour later, people are still queuing and Gifford is still shaking hands, still smiling, still in character.

There is a reason why so many people want to meet Gifford – he’s a celebrity. The star of a reality TV show on state broadcaster DR – I am the Ambassador from America which premieres on Netflix in the UK, US, Australia and Canada this week – the Danish public watched as Gifford wed his partner Stephen DeVincent, learn Danish, play wheelchair basketball with amputees, and drive across the city during last year’s election night to meet with political parties.

With his diplomatic work shielded from public view, Gifford comes across more as a cultural ambassador for America than the United States’ most senior diplomatic envoy in Denmark. His rise to celebrity is a brilliant execution of soft power and public diplomacy, though it’s raised questions about the role of a modern diplomat. Does his public persona distract from his role as the representative of a country facing criticism for its surveillance programmes, extraordinary renditions, and use of torture?

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While Gifford largely steers clear of tricky diplomatic questions on his TV show, he is still an opinionated political animal. On the programme he referred to Europe’s far-right as having “politics that I disagree with at the pit of my soul”.

Following a career as a producer in Hollywood, he worked as a fundraiser for the Democratic Party and as Finance Director raised more than a billion dollars for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign – a feat that earned him the Ambassadorship to Denmark.

It is clear that Gifford is politically driven. But that’s not what he’s known for in Denmark. At his Senate confirmation hearing in 2013, Senator Tim Kaine – now Hillary Clinton’s running mate – heaped praise on Gifford for his social skills and ability to leverage relationships to achieve his goals.

“Rufus has been a great problem solver and deals with folks whether they feel happy or unhappy and makes them feel listened to and makes them feel included,” Kaine said. “Rufus is a master of hospitality.”

Rufus Gifford in his garden at Rydhave while hosting the Impact Investor Ball. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Rufus Gifford in his garden at Rydhave while hosting the Impact Investor Ball. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

The challenges to multiculturalism
Just over three years after his appointment, he greets me with a warm smile and a firm handshake in his small office in the US Embassy in Østerbro – an iconic eyesore of misguided modern architecture. He launches himself at the questions, speaking rapidly and at length.

I bring up Donald Trump, who had the night before suggested that gun rights activists “do something” about Hillary Clinton. He puffs his cheeks and rolls his eyes, then apologises and says he can’t comment directly on the US election.

“What I can say is that what’s happening in the US is exactly what’s happening around Europe. Our candidates are just a lot more flamboyant. If you look at what Trump said on the Muslim ban, Espersen (MP for the Danish People’s Party) proposed roughly the same thing. There’s lots of talk about eliminating Schengen within the Danish political debate. Brexit was largely fuelled by immigration. So if you look at the political narratives that are operating in Europe, it’s roughly the exact same thing Trump is getting attention for – Muslims, the wall, more isolationism, anti trade. European politicians are saying the same thing and every single one of them is growing in influence in their home country.”

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Trump is then, simply, the American manifestation of a xenophobic movement coupled with an anti-Establishment fervour that is rising across the West.

“You can see it in his slogan ‘Make America Great’, but the most important word is ‘Again’. Because it’s this idea we used to be great, but are no longer. What does that mean? Does that inherently mean, when things were simpler, when things weren’t so complicated? When was that? What kind of images does that conjure up in your head?” he asks rhetorically.

“I think all those political movements are fuelled by this – that a multicultural global society is challenged, and progressive values have challenged our democratic norms. We struggle with that and that’s, in my mind, what’s fuelling Trump. He’s running against a candidate that is the definition of ‘establishment’. Hillary Clinton and her husband have been running for office for 40 years. As the President says, she’s probably the most qualified person to run for president, or at least one of them, but that’s not what people are electing right now.”

Taking a quiet moment alone. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Taking a quiet moment alone. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

A better case for cooperation
The electoral success of the Danish People’s Party last year demonstrated that the Danish electorate is increasingly attracted to populist themes and messages. A number of new right wing parties have since launched, sensing a growing appetite for anti-immigration and anti-internationalist policies.

The Liberal Party (Venstre) government has also started to flirt with the emerging populism. They supported former UK PM David Cameron’s renegotiation with the EU, and share his government’s frustration with the European Convention on Human Rights, which places limitations on the deporting of foreign criminals.

While Gifford won’t comment directly on the government’s position, that the convention needs reforming, he argues that international conventions and alliances – from climate agreements to NATO – need to be empowered, not discouraged.

“We have to explain to people more effectively why these institutions are effective and why they have been so important for the peace and security and harmony of the world over the decades. I will be the first to say that I think we’ve done a terrible job of that. We need to explain to people – be they pig farmers in Jutland or mechanics in Ohio – why globalisation is a good thing, because they don’t get that right now. And we’ve done a terrible job at that. I do think it’s fuelling a more isolationist narrative but ultimately we need to fight the basic political trends that are driving countries to be more isolationist. Who does that benefit geopolitically? I would argue there is nothing more that Vladimir Putin wants than a splintered West.”

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Becoming an ambassador
In the time between his selection and arriving as ambassador, Gifford says he read extensively about diplomacy and spoke to three former ambassadors to Denmark. But while the US State Department provided him with a broad mandate – promoting American interests and consolidating the relationship with Denmark – he was given no clear method for achieving his goals.

“My obsession was taking something that is really good and to make it better. How do you take an old friendship and make sure you’re not taking it for granted? How do you actually make the relationship richer and take it to the next level? When I arrived here this was the mission I wanted to focus on.”

So Gifford spent as much time travelling the country to listen and talk to Danes. And it quickly became apparent that most people had little idea about what ambassadors did with their time.

“People were curious, but what they thought we did was just wildly inaccurate. There was this concept that we played golf during the day and went to cocktail parties at night, and in the middle of the day I would come to work at this iconic hideous building and do nefarious things.”

He found that while the American brand was good, there was still a level of widespread mistrust amongst Danes about the intentions of the US government.

“Danes would ask ‘are you tapping my phone lines? Are you advocating for massive multinational corporations? What are you doing that’s good? What is your purpose here? Are you advocating for trade deals that are going to steal jobs from Danes?’ But instead of answering those questions in a bureaucratic way, my obsession was to answer them in a human way,” Gifford says.

“We used to have a real trust between the countries, and we still do to certain extent, we just haven’t focussed on it as much. Going back to the Second World War, the relationship between Danes and Americans has been really, really rich, so that’s what I really wanted to focus on with the general population. I wanted to engage with issues that are debated in every single classroom, in every single boardroom in Denmark. I wanted to ask how do you insert yourself into that conversation, how do you present a more nuanced definition of the United States? How do you have a more honest conversation with these people? Not necessarily to get them to agree, that would be great, but it’s more about respect, about understanding.”

He says he’s discussed everything from gun violence and gay rights, to Snowden and climate change. And while the debates are often level-headed, there have been some memorable confrontations.

“I will never forget this moment when I was answering questions at a gymnasium in Herning and the first question I was asked, in front of a thousand people, was ‘how does it feel to be an ambassador from a country that tortures its prisoners?’ I realised right then that we needed to be doing this more, sitting in these rooms answering questions. Because these are issues Danes are debating in their civics classes, they’re hearing about it and reading about it. So for the American Embassy to ignore that narrative is terrible,” Gifford says.

“I answered the question by saying I felt three ways. As a human being I’m disgusted, as an American embarrassed, but as an ambassador I’m actually proud. The truth is we have to live in a world where we acknowledge what we have done wrong, come clean on it and say this is what happened, we were not operating in a way that was consistent with our values, we are sorry, and we are not going to do it again. That was not what the State Department emailed us. But the point is that you have to have a heart when you’re discussing some of these issues. I think you have to add an element of humanity into the work I do, which is inherently bureaucratic.”

Rufus Gifford in his garden at Rydhave while hosting the Impact Investor Ball. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Rufus Gifford in his garden at Rydhave while hosting the Impact Investor Ball. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Denmark is no model
Gifford’s job of humanising the US administration, and representing progressive and liberal values – leading the Pride march and marrying his same sex partner – is only part of his role. His experiences in Denmark are conveyed back to the US government, and provide insight into a social model that contrasts strongly with the US.

Interest in Denmark from liberal America has never been stronger, particularly due to the praises of Senator Bernie Sanders during his failed run to become the Democratic presidential nominee. Gifford, however, is far more measured in the ways that the US can learn from Denmark.

“Can you do, as Bernie Sanders eluded to, take a Danish system and plop it on top of the United States? Of course not. People ask me what the biggest difference between Denmark and the US is, and I answer that, politically speaking, the system here is based on the concept of trust in government, while our system in some ways is based on a distrust of government. Every Dane I’ve spoken to about Obamacare, regardless of whether they are left or right wing, do not understand why Americans are so upset about the idea of providing healthcare to people. But to understand Americans you have to understand that government solutions are usually the last thing a certain segment of the population wants. It should be privately earned, rather than to have the government force it on you. To understand the US you have to understand that the decentralised pioneer spirit of America is alive and kicking.”

“Still, the health care reform shows that we are moving in a more social direction. Ever since our founding we have been moving in a more socialised direction, whereas Denmark is moving in a more privatised direction and what is that, is that progress on both sides? I would say yes. Democracies have to change and breathe and evolve.”

A fraught public existence
Gifford’s time in Denmark hasn’t been without mishaps. In season two of the documentary show, he invited guests to his residence to watch the TV show Homeland. He and his staff secretly prepared for a helicopter to arrive just before the screening, but as it hovers over the garden, the powerful downdraft blows over the screen, injuring an audience member. A camera crew captured a clearly despondent Gifford, embarrassed that his surprise backfired.

Gifford also recalls the time he spoke out about the decision by Copenhagen Zoo to perform a live autopsy on its giraffe Marius, which had been put down. The killing provoked international outrage, though the zoo argued it was necessary as Marius risked inbreeding if kept alive, and that there were no zoos which would take him.

In a Facebook post, Gifford wrote that he found the situation “disturbing” and would reach out to the zoo for answers. But the backlash was immediate, with more than a hundred comments, mostly from Danes, suggesting his position was both hypocritical and ill-informed.

“In some ways it was the most interesting moment of my ambassadorship, because it allowed me to understand Danish culture and where I fit in. I wrote a statement, which was the most innocuous thing, but I also realised later what my responsibility was, and that it wasn’t appropriate to do what I did there, which was important for me to learn.”

Perfect imperfections
These hiccups aren’t likely to overshadow his accomplishment as the most visible and well-liked US Ambassador in living memory, however. At a time when the US is coming to terms with the fallout of the Iraq War, its secret drone programme, and the Snowden revelations, Denmark remains a strong ally of the US, contributing personnel and fighter jets in the US-led missions in Libya and Syria. The country also provided assistance in the removal and destruction of Syrian and Libyan chemical weapons. Gifford was the face of the US that the Danish public and political establishment could sympathise with, making it easier for parliament to continue its close relationship with the beleaguered superpower.

Gifford’s time in Denmark is now coming to an end and he insists he doesn’t know what the future will bring.

“I’m trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I had this conversation with (former Danish PM) Helle Thorning Schmidt, that there’s no job listing in the world where they say they are looking for a former ambassador or prime minister. She said the same thing, that the work experience is amazing but it’s sort of random as well, it doesn’t lend itself to something specific.”

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Whoever follows Gifford is unlikely to garner the same public attention. But Gifford claims that if his predecessor is to to forge a bond with the Danish people, there are two central concepts to keep in mind. First is the Law of Jante (Janteloven), which emphasises collective success over individual accomplishment, and ‘hygge’, which describes the sense of well-being and coziness that Danes strive to maintain..

“Unless you understand those two in particular, you don’t understand Danish society, you don’t understand how Danish people think and work, even businesses. Those two concepts make Denmark special and unique,” he says, adding that while he loves Denmark, he doesn’t like anything to be too perfect.

“I acknowledge that there’s significant imperfection in Denmark and that’s what I love about it. I love that it’s a country that’s self aware and understands the challenges it’s faced with, and is still trying to be great and do the right thing in a globalised world. That’s why I love it and love the people too.” M

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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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