Interests or values: Denmark questions its international role

Internationally, Denmark should prioritise its own interests, argues Peter Taksøe-Jensen, Danish ambassador to India, in a report ordered by the government. The view has been criticised by development agencies, who say that Denmark should instead act as a force for good in the world

For a small country, it often feels like Denmark plays an outsized role in the world – from participating in international wars to producing household names in the food and art worlds.

But the nation’s ability to defend its sovereignty, further its interests and do good in underdeveloped areas and conflict zones is limited. Prioritising its resources is vital – but how?

Ahead of last year’s election, PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen proposed appointing a tsar that would form a strategy to advance Denmark’s interests abroad by coordinating its policies in defence, foreign affairs, security, trade and development over the next 15 years.

Peter Taksøe-Jensen, Denmark’s ambassador to India, was given the assignment in September and in May his findings were released in the report Danish Diplomacy and Defence in Times of Change.

While his proposals are unlikely to be adopted wholesale, the report’s findings outline the difficulty of balancing Denmark’s complex web of interests.

“The economic centre of gravity is shifting from west to east,” writes Taksøe-Jensen in the report’s introduction. “Demographic challenges and technological developments are among the factors that will shape the global future. In Europe’s backyard, continuous crises are producing instability and migration, both of which are putting the EU’s coherence and ability to come up with common solutions to the test.”

He also identifies issues created by the melting of Arctic ice caps, which is opening the region to increased economic activity, as well as Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Baltic region.

Private sector
Taksøe-Jensen sees development funding as a strategic tool – rather than simply a moral imperative – that can be aligned with Denmark’s economic strengths. Climate change and resource scarcity increasingly cause countries to look for more sustainable ways to grow their economies, and they might as well look to Denmark.

“The green transition and sustainable urbanisation will become a [global] focus area for development policy as well as for private business sectors. For Denmark, this provides an opportunity to integrate development cooperation and economic diplomacy in completely new ways.”

The idea is to better integrate Danish business interests with development programmes by phasing out traditional ‘country programmes’ and replacing them with so-called ‘flexible partnerships’.

“Development assistance [will serve as] a catalyst for other sources of funding and as support for Danish commercial interests.”

Humanitarian aid
Identifying countries that can benefit most from working with the Danish private sector is a win-win situation according to Taksøe-Jensen. And when it comes to humanitarian aid, Denmark should focus on countries it understands best – Afghanistan, Syria and Libya – where its military has previously operated.

The goal is to control the flow of migrants from these conflict zones by integrating foreign policy, humanitarian aid and long-term development goals in order to promote security, economic development and good governance.

It has long been the mantra of parliament’s right-wing parties that Denmark should disburse its refugee aid in areas closer to the conflict areas rather than caring for refugees in Denmark. Last year’s extraordinary migrant flows, however, forced a surge in spending on housing asylum seekers in Denmark.

Responding to this, the government chose to divert funds from its development budget, a move that was swiftly condemned by the OECD. Taksøe-Jensen stresses the need to spend Denmark’s humanitarian aid budget in conflict areas, arguing that it is more cost-effective and can help reduce future migrant flows.

He also challenges the government’s unwillingness to join the EU in finding common solutions to the refugee crisis. He points out that a lack of common policy has resulted in disjointed approaches, including border closures that potentially undermine the EU and the free movement of goods and labour.

“It is vital for the future of Schengen and EU cohesion that common European solutions be found to reduce the number of refugees and migrants, as well as manage those that arrive, in Europe,” he writes.

The Russian bear
The report’s recommendations for dealing with Russia seem somewhat inconsistent, however. Russian aggression in the Baltic has escalated in recent years and Taksøe-Jensen argues that it is important for Denmark to show military resolve by participating in NATO operations and training exercises in the region.

But when it comes to the Arctic, where Russia and Denmark have competing territorial claims, Taksøe-Jensen argues for a more conciliatory approach, suggesting that increased military friction in the Arctic should be addressed through better satellite surveillance and a “discussion forum on security policy”.

Kristian Søby Kristensen, a senior researcher of NATO strategy and security policies at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Political Science, says that Taksøe-Jensen’s advice in both cases echoes the line already taken by the Danish government and military.

In the Baltic, for example, there is growing concern that Russia might attempt to annex Estonia, which has a large Russian population. To deter an attack, NATO has announced it is sending 6000 troops to Estonia’s Russian border – including 150 from Denmark.

His less aggressive approach in the Arctic also mirrors the orthodoxy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is wary of escalating conflict in the region.

“The Arctic is an important region for Danish foreign policy as it’s one of the few regions where Denmark can say it is a power of significant status when regional decisions are made,” says Kristensen. “The Kingdom of Denmark’s voice in the Arctic is bigger than its voice in Brussels. But it’s also an area with potential future risks if confrontation between Russia and the West accelerates in the Arctic. Denmark really does not want a bilateral conflict with another state over territory.”

Interests over values

Although Taksøe-Jensen’s proposals tend to support prevailing trends at the Foreign Ministry, Kristensen says the report is a sharp and opinionated document that reflects a departure from the conventional approach to developing foreign policy.

“The normal procedure is to undertake an inquiry along with lots of different people and produce a long report that is a consensus product – everyone has to agree with the relatively bland wording. Taksøe, to his credit, has tried not to do that.  He has tried to be provocative and to use wording not everyone will agree on.”

The report is also noteworthy for its focus on Danish interests rather than Danish values. Kristensen says this shift will likely start a new debate about how to prioritise Danish resources in humanitarian and development aid, and where these investments should overlap with the interests of the Danish private sector.

Given that the report was meant to focus on prioritisation, however, Kristensen was less impressed with Taksøe-Jensen’s position on defence spending.

“He wants the military to do what they are doing, just more with more money. You can hear the echo of the Danish defence establishment between the lines.”

The report’s release did succeed in sparking debate. Political party Alternativet launched a platform for discussing foreign policy on its website under the banner, ‘The Best Denmark For the World’.

In a press release, Bishop Pete Fischer-Møller, chairman of Danmission, an international outreach arm of the Church of Denmark, wrote: “National interests and economic growth should not be the primary motivation for Danish development funding.”

The Danish Shipowner’s Association says it supports the report’s interests-based approach and a number of its proposals, especially “the recommendations for increased focus on the Arctic as well as business interests in Asia and Africa,” wrote chairperson Anne H. Steffensen. “All three regions will be increasingly important to Denmark in the coming years, and we should therefore increase our presence in the regions.”

The Danish Refugee Council, meanwhile, approved of Taksøe-Jensen’s insistence that humanitarian aid be spent abroad, and not on housing refugees in Denmark.

“Not knowing how much resources you have to spend is a handicap,” General Secretary Andreas Kamm told DR. “Danish expenses for refugees are hard to predict because of the flow of refugees.”

Champions for cooperation
Laust Leth Gregersen, chairperson at Global Focus, an umbrella organisation for international development NGOs, is concerned that Taksøe-Jensen’s ‘interests over values’ approach undermines the importance of international cooperation for its own sake.

“International institutions such as the EU and UN are important for more reasons than that they simply serve our own interests. They also help create a better world by expanding a common rule of law and creating a global community.”

He agrees that Danish interests and values are interdependent. Investing in EU cooperation, for example, has helped lift the continent out of poverty and conflict while strengthening its economies, which is in Denmark’s economic interest.

“Of course foreign policy is about self-interest, but we also have to believe that investing in global public goods of cooperation and civil society is really important for Denmark and the world as a whole. You need champions for that approach, and historically, that has been Denmark.” M

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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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