A warship on a diplomatic course

Published 06th Aug 2008

Elsewhere on these pages you can read about how the original Skuldelev 2 ship ended in Roskilde possibly after a diplomatic mission to the court of Svein Estridsson. But does the Sea Stallion from Glendalough also have a place in modern diplomacy?

The other day I was at a lunch meeting in the canteen of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Asiatisk Plads in Copenhagen.

Beside me sat my boss, the director of the United Nations in Copenhagen. Opposite us sat three civil servants from the ministry. As a new UN employee, I had just introduced myself, when my boss interrupted with a broad smile:

"But haven't you forgotten the most important bit...?!"

"Oh, yes," I replied, adding: "I've also been member of the crew on board the Sea Stallion."

"Is that right?" exclaimed one of the participants at the meeting, who, it turned out, knew Asbjørn Date, the TV journalist with Danish Radio who followed the project closely last summer, when the Sea Stallion sailed from Roskilde to Dublin.

For a while the meeting agenda was suspended. The subject was no longer the Foreign Ministry and the UN or poverty and the 2015 targets... Instead we discussedt the magnificent Viking ship which – it turned out – all around the table had followed last year.

So I had to turn to some of my favourite anecdotes.

For example, the story about how last summer the Sea Stallion featured in newspapers in Malaysia, South Africa, and the Faroe Islands – just to mention three exotic places.

Or the story of how the Sea Stallion's arrival in Dublin was shown on gigantic TV screens in Times Square, New York.

And the story about the prompt answer when a Chinese was asked what he knew about Denmark:
"I know Denmark for two things: the Mohammed cartoon controversy and the Sea Stallion."

This last anecdote really made the civil servants from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sit up and take note. If there is one thing officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have close to their hearts it is Denmark's reputation around the world.

Since the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's publication of the Mohammed caricatures, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been in a frenzy several times while steering Denmark through the crises. And, very appropriately, at the meeting I was sitting across from three of the civil servants who among other things are responsible for what is known as public diplomacy.

As I understand it, public diplomacy is about going out in the world, waving the Danish flag, and telling people about Denmark: Stories which can assist in drawing a balanced picture of Denmark – not least in situations where extremist groups and people are depicting Denmark solely in black and white.

It was at about this point in the discussion that one of the civil servants had the idea of sending the Sea Stallion on a diplomatic mission around the world.

The Sea Stallion is, when it comes down to it, 30 meters of sailing public diplomacy.

Smiling broadly, I promised to pass on the idea to the skipper and the good people on board – and this I have duly done. From my own time on board, I know that there are crew members who would appreciate voyages to more southerly and warmer latitudes. A thought that met sympathy during last year's cold and rainy voyage.

Before the meeting returned to its original agenda, I quickly suggested that in the future the Sea Stallion should be on the Foreign Ministry's budget. As far as I know, the Sea Stallion presently features under the Ministry of Culture, but apparently there is not much money there to squander on maritime archaeology.

But who knows: Maybe the economic future of the Sea Stallion can be secured through a simple change of resort?

When I think of the Vikings' warships and their original purpose, it certainly makes sense to transfer the elegant warship to the ministry dealing with foreign policy.

And no, this is not said in jest:

In recent years, the Viking Ship Museum, the Sea Stallion from Glendalough and the doughty crew on board have time and again demonstrated that the stories about our proud forefathers' phenomenal seamanship can reach out to even the remotest parts of the world.

It may well be that it is antediluvian and made of wood. It may well be that it is driven by a sail made from flax and that it smells of tar and sweat... but without actually intending to be so, the Sea Stallion represents some of the most effective public diplomacy the world has long seen.

Dear Minister of Foreign Affairs... Dig deep into your pockets!

Created by Henrik Kastoft, communication advisor to the UN and former crew member