How to work as a diplomat in Denmark
Updated: Jul 7
Many think of diplomats as those distant, secretive elitists who hold secret meetings around the world and goes to fancy parties all the time. However, this is only partly true; the nature of diplomacy is at times secretive, as there is a need for the ability to speak with candor in negotiations without fearing the press getting hold of statements. Diplomacy has many traditions, and among those traditions are sometimes fancy parties; in Denmark, this includes one or two parties with the royal household and with the presidium of the Parliament. Most days, diplomats go to work at the Embassy headed by an ambassador and work for their countrymen at home and in the hosting country. Most of the time, it is an 8 AM to 4 PM job. The job can consist of several different types of tasks, and depending on the size of the Embassy, a diplomat have one or more responsibilities. The most fundamental duties include consular services, information gathering for status reports, negotiation with the hosting country’s government, and public as well as economic diplomacy.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Sector Ministries
In Denmark, there are approximately 70 embassies of many different sizes and with different goals and missions. A study by Martin Marcussen laid out several of the obstacles diplomats face when working in Denmark. Many diplomats find it most natural to contact the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs when they get an assignment from home. That is not how it works in Denmark. New diplomats in Denmark soon realizes several things. One is that the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not a gatekeeper for the Danish government or society, and often the ministry will refer the diplomat to other ministries or organizations. The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have the resources or sector knowledge to assist the embassies with much other than Protocol matters. Most knowledge is decentralized to embassies and sector ministries. The diplomat should contact the relevant sector ministry and preferably the relevant section of that ministry as it will make the meeting more relevant and give access to more specific knowledge about the topic of interest.
Also, it should be noted that due to the culture and structure of the Danish Public Administration, it is challenging to get a meeting without having a clear agenda. Danish ministers are cautious with their time and rarely accept social meetings without an agenda even with ambassadors; this is not to be disrespectful; it is in no small degree of simple, practical reasons. As mentioned above, the minister is unlikely to have the relevant in-depth knowledge and hence will refer to the more specialized managers or heads of sections. It is due to the pragmatic approach that diplomats often find themselves in meetings with relative low-level managers or clerks. It is practical to talk with those with hands-on experience, and then the minister will join when it comes to political negotiations.
Companies and organizations
Danish culture does not have much focus on social status. It is frowned upon to draw attention to once high social status, hence diplomats incl. Ambassadors cannot expect special treatment due to their status. However, when visiting sites or companies’ diplomats can expect to meet people who know their stuff and can explain it, typically someone who works with it every day, this is unlikely to be the CEO, though (s)he might join the tour or meeting. The diplomats working in Denmark need to cast a wide net in Danish society and connect with private companies, interest organizations, and politicians at every level. It can be challenging and confusing due to the large number of possibilities. It is through the broad contact the diplomat can get the best insights into the Danish culture and how the Danish welfare system works. New diplomats should also work to get an understanding of the complexity of the Danish society that they are going to work in for the next few years. Here outside assistance can be a good help if there are not already Danish employees or a strong local knowledge at the Embassy.
Diplomats can have many reasons to connect and engage with Danish parliamentarians. It could be to stay informed on specific topics or to try to seek influence on foreign policy. The Danish Parliament can block the government’s foreign policy, which means Danish parliamentarians are interesting for diplomats. However, Danish politicians, much like the rest of the Danish society, can be very pragmatic and direct. Danish politicians rarely want to participate in long ceremonies; they are more interested in getting straight to the point. However, politicians do not require an agenda as such, as they usually are willing to and interested in talking about all kinds of political matters. Some diplomats might find Danish politicians distant and unfriendly when the politicians do not accept an invitation to a celebration or dinner with the ambassador. Again it is the pragmatic culture that is in effect. The politicians are busy, and while participating in a party or dining with this or that ambassador might be fun, it is not really practical, and there might well be more efficient ways to get results. There is not much time for building friendships and personal relations during the active part of the year — perhaps the summer (July — August) would bear more success as the Parliament is in recess during the summertime. However, the politician might want to spend this time on holiday with family and friends. All that said, politicians in Denmark dislike strict protocol but love talking politics and not just foreign affairs. They are usually in the political game because they have one or more causes that engage them. So if the diplomat can identify these causes and set up a meeting with these on the agenda, it might very well be possible to attract the attention of the busy politician.
Most ambassadors and other diplomats are close to invisible in the Danish media landscape. This is partly due to the lack of language skills at the different embassies and the lack of employees with knowledge about media, and partly because of the secret or tedious nature of working at an embassy. Ambassadors could win a lot from making a bigger splash in the media. The ambassador should be honest and approachable, tell the story about getting to Denmark and remember to say something positive about Danes and Denmark — that always win. The Embassy could present itself as a background source to the news media, giving background to development in their country or other facts without it becoming too political. What is always worth remembering when talking to journalists in Denmark is, they are very proud of their profession, and they decide for themselves which story to print.
Denmark can be challenging for diplomats to work in, especially if the culture differs a lot. A title does not give status in Denmark. It is earned through hard work. Danes are very pragmatic and direct, which can seem rude and upsetting to many. However, when diving into it and accepting the different quakes and stuff, it is possible to move out of the Embassy and engage with the people, politicians, and companies. Language skills are essential when navigating the Danish Public Administration. At the same time, pretty much everyone speaks English, it is just more comfortable in Danish, and it merely holds the door open just that much longer for the diplomat to make her or his argument.