Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Through Thick and Thin: Will Danish Military Engagements with the U.S. Endure in the Middle East?
Through Thick and Thin: Will Danish Military Engagements with the U.S. Endure in the Middle East?

Through Thick and Thin: Will Danish Military Engagements with the U.S. Endure in the Middle East?

What many initially treated as a joke may cause a rift in U.S.-Denmark relations. President Donald Trump’s peculiar offer to buy Greenland from Denmark has caused an unexpected controversy. Trump showed that the news report was no joke when he cancelled a long-planned state visit and called Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s comments “nasty.” Trump’s actions prompted uproar and surprise in the small Kingdom of Denmark. After all, Denmark considers itself a devoted ally and has followed U.S. foreign policy through thick and thin over the last three decades. This applies in no small measure to the broader Middle East region, where Danish military forces have contributed to all major U.S.-led wars and interventions since 1991. Recently, the U.S. has asked Denmark to contribute to the U.S.-led forces in Syria’s Northeast and to a naval mission in the Strait of Hormuz. Will Denmark now change course, and decline U.S. requests for the first time in 30 years?

A newly independent inquiry into Denmark’s military engagements, commissioned by the Danish Parliament, concludes that Denmark’s military engagements in the Middle East have had little to do with any direct threats to Danish national security. Rather, they are results of shifting governments’ eagerness to respond to U.S. demands and proving Denmark’s usefulness. Denmark is a “super Atlanticist,”[1] meaning that it unequivocally supports U.S. policies and its role in the world, and is willing to pursue even costly and risky policies to maintain its special relationship with the U.S.  In contrast, “Atlanticist” countries, such as Holland, Belgium, Norway, and Greece, are also closely allied with the U.S., but have at times refrained from supporting or outright condemned U.S. foreign policies and wars.

To grasp just how influential the U.S. is on Danish foreign and security policy, it may be useful to compare it with the Cold War period. Denmark was not always a stalwart supporter of U.S. actions and interventions. A nation of five million in northern Europe that bordered Warsaw Pact countries, Denmark was not very preoccupied with the Middle East region, but mainly worried about Russia and Eastern Europe.[2] As a small state, Denmark thought it best to soften international anarchy and superpower rivalry through multilateral institutions and peaceful conflict resolution mechanisms. Rather than military might, shifting Danish governments emphasized peace and development, allocating up to 1% of its gross national product to development aid in the global south—the highest percentage in the world. This was a foreign policy niche where Denmark perceived it could make a real difference. Denmark was also a somewhat reluctant NATO member, and Danish foreign policy at times collided openly with that of the U.S., e.g. on the Vietnam War, on U.S. interventionist policies in the Third World, or NATO nuclear policies, which Danish parliaments repeatedly footnoted in the 1980s. Compared to the post-Cold War period, Denmark’s foreign policy orientation has therefore gone through a tectonic shift.

The first small baby steps were taken right after the Cold War when Denmark sent a warship to participate in the U.S.-led naval blockade against Iraq. Military interventions in the Balkans, and multiple wars in the broader Middle East, all at the behest of the U.S. followed. Many were without a clear UN anchoring, thereby breaking with a historical principle in Danish foreign policy. To the Danish public, the wars were often framed in idealistic terms as humanitarian efforts to prevent state atrocities, enhance international rule of law, or promote democracy and freedom. Behind closed doors, however, the recent War Inquiry has shown that Danish politicians’ deliberations were mainly about pleasing the U.S. Danish policymakers were eager to live up to U.S. expectations and solidify the transatlantic bond.[3] At times, Denmark did not even respond to a prior U.S. request, but anticipated that a U.S. call for a Danish military contribution would be coming, as when Denmark decided to send fighter jets and special forces to participate in the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001.

As a result, Denmark’s presence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is above all militaristic and security-oriented. Denmark has few diplomatic missions in the region and commits far fewer resources to aid, conflict-mediation, or development than to military operations. The “civilian flagship” is the so-called Danish-Arab Partnership Programme (DAPP) from 2002—initially modelled on the U.S. State Department’s program to promote political and economic reforms in the Arab World from the same year. Relatively large aid packages have also been transferred to Syria and neighboring countries in order to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and essentially stopping the influx of refugees to Europe. Though Denmark supports the EU line on the major policy issues in the MENA, e.g. Iran, the nuclear agreement, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is clear that Denmark puts less time and energy in EU initiatives for promoting political and economic development in MENA compared to the EU’s Southern European members.

Not only have Danish governments followed the U.S., but they have also participated in riskier military operations. In Afghanistan, Danish forces were located in the most dangerous province of Helmand, where they endured casualties that compare with the U.S. in relative terms. In the Libyan intervention against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, Denmark was one of the first countries to send ground personnel and hit 17% all targets from the air. In the divisive Iraq war in 2003, Denmark sided with the U.S. when other countries in Europe did not. Still today, Denmark has soldiers stationed with U.S. troops on the al Asad base in the unruly Anbar province in Iraq helping to train Iraqi soldiers. Although the Danish public has grown increasingly weary of the seemingly endless interventions, Danish governments continue to make military contributions to U.S. missions in the Middle East almost by default.

With Denmark suddenly a target of Trump’s fire and fury, some Danish politicians are questioning what the Danes got out of being so supportive of U.S. policies and interventions. Did we not earn any “points” in Washington? This may soon have very real policy implications. Right now, Denmark is mulling over two separate U.S. requests for Danish forces in Syria’s Northeast and a naval force in the Strait of Hormuz. Will Denmark decline a new military operation in the Middle East for the first time in 30 years?

There is certainly eye-rolling over Trump in Danish foreign policy circles, but the new Social Democratic government is eager to confirm the “special relationship,” and the importance of the U.S. to Denmark, as a recent phone call over the weekend between Trump and Frederiksen confirms. According to Frederiksen, “The U.S. remains the most important ally to Denmark.” Yet, the U.S. request for naval support in the Strait of Hormuz is politically difficult for Denmark. Like other European countries and politicians, who already have declined the U.S. invitation, Danish politicians in the center and center-left are concerned that the U.S.-led mission will escalate tensions with Iran and give indirect support to Trump’s maximalist pressure strategy. Political parties on the right are more positive, but they are also supportive of the European approach to Iran and eager to keep the nuclear agreement with Iran alive. In short, Denmark is hesitating and may for the first time in 30 years decline a U.S. request.

There are other indications that Denmark in the longer run may change from a super Atlanticist to an Atlanticist. Already, today, the U.S. is no longer viewed as a guarantor of a liberal world order. U.S. positions on international trade, extraterritorial sanctions, and climate change also clash with Danish normative understandings of what the U.S. role in world politics should be. Politicians, especially in the center and center left, are increasingly calling for a stronger Danish orientation towards Europe and closer military cooperation with France and Germany.

Had Trump handled the Greenland issue better, Denmark would probably have said yes to both requests. Now, it is no longer a certainty and may be a first step away from Denmark’s super Atlanticism.

[1] Wivel & Crandall “Punching above their level, but why?: Explaining Denmark and Estonia in the Transatlantic Relationship,” Journal of Transatlantic Studies, May 2019.

[2] See, also, Malmvig, Helle, “Between Clumsy Hans and Thumbelina Danish Middle East Policy from WWII to the Arab Uprisings” (2013) in Timo (eds)

[3] See, also, Wivel and Mariager (2019) Denmark at War, Great Power Politics and Domestic action space in the cases of Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, Danish Foreign Policy Yearbook, DIIS. Copenhagen.