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Fridtjof Nansen and the Birth of Celebrity Diplomacy

August 7, 2013

One of the basic problems in the way that we make sense of the world is that we look at the present and the past through different lenses.  We see the present through the news or twitter so it appears to be rapidly changing and complex we see the past through the lens of limited reading and often through extreme theoretical simplifications that we picked up in higher education. If you studied international relations the Westphalian system or the ‘nation-state’ is normally taken for a description of the past rather than an idealization.  The problem is that we tend the juxtapose the simplification with our experience of the present and assume that the difference between past and present reflects real differences not a difference in our viewpoint.  As a result we overstate the degree of discontinuity.

I was really struck by this  during a recent visit to Norway when I visited the museum in Oslo that houses the Fram, this was the ship used by Fritdjof Nansen (1861-1930) and Roald Amundsen in their polar expeditions at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.  I was particularly intrigued by Nansen as an exemplar of celebrity diplomacy rather than being a product of Live Aid and the internet the polar explorer was outdoing Bono a century earlier.

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As a skiing champion and a pioneer of scientific study of the Artic Nansen was able to attract the support he needed to mount his own polar expeditions.  In turn his crossing of Greenland in 1888 and his attempt to reach the North Pole in 1893-96 made him an international celebrity – a status that was cemented by best-selling books and international promotional tours.  Nansen was also a staunch advocate of Norwegian independence from Sweden and his standing in scientific as well as popular culture networks helped to build the identity and reputation of Norway.  Thus with the approach of independence in 1905 Nansen was pressed into service to persuade Prince Charles of Denmark to accept the Norwegian throne and then he was dispatched as ambassador to London where he oversaw the conclusion of a treaty to guarantee Norwegian independence.  During the First World War he was called back into diplomatic service to secure food supplies for Norway in the face of the British blockade.  An advocate of the League of Nations he was a pioneering figure in humanitarian aid for refugees.

The point is that the literature on ‘super-empowered individuals’ or celebrity diplomacy  treats this as a new development whereas Nansen was able to use build his own celebrity using the social and media networks of the late 19th century in a way that was useful to the Norwegian proto-state.

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One comment

  1. Good point Robin. I fully agree with the lack of a sense of history that plagues some of the literature on “new diplomatic trends”. Some is new, some is just old in new guises..

    Also, the Nordic Countries have been using private personalities with contacts abroad for diplomatic, and not only public diplomatic purposes. In the confines of small societies, someone with a name abroad, worldly skills and language proficiency is an asset.

    As to Nansen, however, he did not always work completely in tune with the Norwegian government. Some of his positions on the League for example were quite at odds with what “official Norway” would have to say… But nonetheless, he is a great example of this “personal diplomacy” especially smaller states have been keen to use.

    Hopefully your holidays were nice and relaxing.



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