Mr. Tech Ambassador
I met him at breakfast in the traditional way. Picture the subdued luxury of the wooden restaurant in a five-star Parisian hotel, Dokhan’s, fitting snugly in a Belle Époque building near the Place de l’Étoile. In other words, en plein air in the ambassadors’ quartier. But Casper Klynge is a new kind of ambassador. The world’s first “tech ambassador,” he’s represented Denmark among tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon since September 1, 2017. He’s chosen to live in California, specifically in Palo Alto, while the regular Danish Ambassador to the US is still in the capital, Washington, D.C.
“American authorities have had a hard time understanding why we both need to be in the US,” Casper Klynge admits, taking a sip of tea. Denmark’s decision is not just a pragmatic choice, nor a symbolic one. It illustrates that a remarkable amount of power has shifted from the Capitol to Silicon Valley, from national parliaments to multinational boards. Certainly, the tech giants aren’t States themselves, but they’re increasingly resembling them – even financially. In 2018, their consolidated income reached $600 billion, the equivalent of Switzerland’s GDP. Last year, Apple’s market value equaled Saudi Arabia’s. And Google’s matched Argentina’s. The tech giants can also claim nearly $400 billion in assets.
In addition, the number of Facebook users is twice as high as the populations of all G7 countries combined. Mark Zuckerberg’s influence is global, and he doesn’t hesitate to use it politically. Currently on a “road trip” of the US and suspected of exploring a 2020 presidential run, Zuckerberg has praised Alaska’s social security system, critiqued the American penal system, and thanked “all journalists around the world who work tirelessly and sometimes put their lives in danger to uncover the truth.” He’s also publicly opposed some of Donald Trump’s decisions. And he’s certainly not the only one doing so in San Francisco.
Google’s cofounder Sergey Brin, for example, has been seen at protests against Trump’s Muslim immigration ban last January, while the current CEO Sundar Pichai said he was “upset.” As for Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, he tweeted in June that the “decision to withdraw from the #ParisAgreement was wrong for our planet.” “Climate change is real,” wrote Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX. He tried every means at his disposal to change Donald Trump’s mind, even participating in a presidential council on the matter. Apparently it didn’t work, but his personal efforts, and those of his colleagues in Silicon Valley, were saluted around the world.
“The private sector has more and more importance on the international political scene,” Casper Klynge insists. “Is this a good thing or a bad thing? To be honest, I have no idea. What I know is that we need to have a dialogue, an official and a diplomatic dialogue. It’s also a question of transparency.” On his Twitter account lists two other addresses besides Palo Alto: Beijing and Copenhagen. “My embassy exists across three different continents. It’s a way to account for globalization, which is part of technology.” In Paris, he’s come with others to meet his French counterpart, David Martinon, who was named “ambassador for cyberdiplomacy and digital economy” on November 22. And it’s likely that other countries besides France will follow the Danish example by establishing their own “tech ambassadors.”
But what does this pompous title mean ?
The boat of modernity
“A lot of my duties are similar to my previous jobs,” the Danish tech ambassador explains. “It’s about interacting with a wide range of players, networking, and discussing points of view and politics we don’t necessarily agree on with the country or the players in question.” At 44 years old, Casper Klynge already has extensive diplomatic experience. According to his LinkedIn profile, he worked for the European Union from 2006 to 2008, then for the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2008 to 2013. That year, Klynge was named Danish Ambassador to Cyprus. The following year, he was named Danish Ambassador to Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Visibly jet lagged, he still held a smile and his gestures contained a latent energy. His English was flawless, his turns of phrase fluent. So was his outfit, which he wore with great ease. His voice had the studied, political calm that only relaxed when joking in Danish with his deputy Nikolaj Juncher Waedegaard. Waedegaard preferred the French pastries to Casper Klynge’s bowl of fresh fruit. And he worried over not being able to charge his iPhone before their next appointment of the day. “You see, we can’t live without technology anymore!” Casper Klynge joked, reassuring Waedegaard and indicating my Samsung, which quietly recorded our conversation.
In all, 15 people work with him. “It might seem like a small team for a country like France, but for a country the size of Denmark, it’s an appropriate sized team,” he says. “The government decided to give us the necessary resources to do our work well.” One way, certainly, is to quiet the most critical voices, who accuse Denmark of putting on a cheap “publicity stunt.” Others have applauded the country’s initiative, believing that it signifies a “revival of state sovereignty” over the tech giants. “If Napoleon liked to say that ‘diplomacy is the police in grand costume,’ the Ambassador Casper Klynge is quickly putting on his diplomatic clothes,” wrote the innovation director of the Foncière des Régions, Philippe Boyer, in May.
A few months earlier, the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anders Samuelsen, had announced the creation of a technology ambassador for his country. “In the future, our bilateral relations with Google will be as important as the ones we have with Greece,” he said to justify Denmark’s decision. Denmark was already one of the most digitalized countries in Europe. It had also been chosen by Apple and Facebook to install two huge data centers. But the wealthy little European kingdom has burrowed deeper than that into Silicon Valley. Casper Klynge is also responsible for encouraging their investments in Denmark while promoting Danish products to their startups. He meets these business leaders exactly as he would meet a Prime Minister or a President.
In 1487, an unprecedented event occurred: the world’s first ambassador, a Spanish man, moved to another country, England, permanently. But the difference between a traditional ambassador and a “tech ambassador” is not only in the people they speak to. “The tech sector being an extremely rapidly evolving sector, we need to be really flexible for our diplomacy to work,” Nikolaj Juncher Waedegaard says. “We nevertheless have defined certain priorities: the transformation of traditional diplomacy tools to adapt to 21stcentury challenges, the systematic collection of information on technological evolutions, building bridges between foreign policy and domestic policy, etc.”
For Casper Klynge, it’s first and foremost a matter of “not missing the boat of modernity”.