The 51st state: Keeping Washington happy is a Copenhagen job

In recent decades Denmark has become one the US’ staunchest allies. This special relationship has brought Denmark into a number of foreign conflicts, and has permanently transformed the country’s position in the world.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and it is doubtful that the irony was lost on anyone when, during the funeral of a man who had dedicated his life to the fight against imperialism and colonialism, three of the most active leaders of the free world made funny faces and snapped a selfie. When Helle Thorning-Schmidt, David Cameron and Barack Obama cuddled up for the most powerful moment of self photography in history, it was not a show of personal friendship, but evidence that the “special relationship”, which has made their countries some of the most aggressive players on the international scene, is here to stay.

This reality was further emphasised late last month with the announcement that Denmark would be sending F-16s to Iraq to help in the fight against the Islamic State (IS).

“Sadly, it can be said that the longstanding Danish tradition of working with international organisations such as the UN has been replaced with just following the US wherever they go,” said Nikolaj Villumsen, defence spokesperson for left-wing party Enhedslisten.

Changing lanes
At the end of the Second World War, Denmark became the fiftieth member of the UN, and throughout the Cold War, its only active use of its military involved actions performed either under the UN banner or with the approval of the organisation. The 2003 War in Iraq marked the end of a multilateral approach to international politics and (to critics like Villumsen) the beginning of Denmark’s position of “you say ‘jump’, we say ‘how high’.”

Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, an expert on US and Danish defence issues at the Danish Institute for International Studies, argues that the civil war that broke out in the Balkans during the nineties was a major factor in pushing the country away from the UN and towards the US.

“The practice of supporting and listening to the UN has been weakened in recent years,” said Rahbek-Clemmensen. “In Yugoslavia, there was a need to go around the UN to do the morally right thing, and with that, the UN lost some of its moral clout in the Western world. Today, the organisation doesn’t mean a whole lot when it comes to Denmark’s national security; it is mostly with respect to other, less important issues that it still is seen as valuable.”

He further claims that this new way of interacting with the world was calculated to gain favour with the superpower across the Atlantic, and that it has even gone “further than was needed.”

Maintaining loyalty
But not everybody sees the “special relationship” between Denmark and the US as a bad thing. Konservative MP Per Stig Møller (below), who served as Foreign Minister during both the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, maintains that being active in support of US goals around the world is key to maintaining Denmark’s national security.


“The two countries have a very good and loyal relationship with each other,” he said. “It is important for both Denmark and Europe to maintain a strong bond with the US, because without their support we would be unable to withstand a push from the south or from the east.”

Møller, who along with current NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was one of the key figures in forming this new, activist way of approaching foreign policy, remains clear on why the change happened, and why it should continue.

“We expect loyalty from the US, so therefore we should be loyal to them. Loyalty has to go both ways, or it doesn’t exist,” said Møller.

This line of thinking seems to be found across the political spectrum in Copenhagen, as the 2011 change in government from left to right – which critics had hoped would mark a change in policy – only resulted in the creation of a tweaked version of the policy of military activism.

“I had hoped that with a new majority in parliament, we would see a new way of approaching foreign policy,” bemoans Villumsen. “But as we saw with Syria, where we were the only country in Europe that was ready from the get-go to conduct bombing campaigns, this hasn’t changed. I feel that our politicians have not learned nearly enough from our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The neighbours
The Iraq War was important in more ways than one for Denmark, as it established an approach that was inherently different from its closest neighbours, Germany and Sweden. Both nations refused to be part of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’, and did not participate in the invasion of Iraq.

“The main thing with Sweden is that they have a very different culture from us when it comes to these kind of decisions. They have maintained a position of neutrality for a long time, which we have not done.” said Rahbek-Clemmensen. “But it is true, we could have done the same as the Germans, and chosen not to be so involved in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, but we didn’t.”

The reason why Denmark felt the need to follow the US into Iraq, while larger countries such as Germany and France chose to stay away, can, according to Rahbek-Clemmensen, be explained both by the smaller stature of Denmark, and the domestic political situation.

“In Germany and France, you had social democratic governments, and they felt they could score political points by refusing to participate,” he explained, “while the decision fitted well with Venstre and Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s political perspective. They saw this as something inherently moral that should be supported.”

The last six Danish officers in Iraq before withdrawal in 2011 (Photo: Hærens Operativ Kommando)

The last six Danish officers in Iraq before withdrawal in 2011 (Photo: Hærens Operativ Kommando)

There can be little doubt that the use of the military in recent decades has changed the way the world perceives Denmark, and has thrust Denmark firmly into the international limelight, for better or for worse.

“There have been studies that show that goodwill toward Denmark in the US has increased due to our actions, and the same seems to go for Britain,” said Rahbek-Clemmensen. “In regards to the security situation, however, our activist stance has undoubtedly put us on the terror map and made us more likely to come under attack.”

Furthermore, in 2005 Denmark was elected into the UN Security Council, and in 2009 Anders Fogh Rasmussen left his position as Prime Minister to become Secretary General of NATO; both choices were linked to the country’s increased stature on the world stage.

The road to the future
Today, Afghanistan remains frustratingly unstable, chaos reigns in Libya, and Iraq stands on the brink of a full-scale civil war. Nonetheless, Denmark is yet again willing to commit resources to foreign conflicts with no direct impact on the nation’s borders. And even Møller, who eleven years ago was key in launching the nation into the uncertainty of Iraq, remains convinced that “the decision was correct.” And now with the government committing F-16s to the fight against IS in Iraq, there is little reason to expect a change in course, a reality that people like Villumsen fear.

“It is incredibly frustrating that the current situation seems to revolve around who can be the fastest to repeat whatever Obama says,” said Villumsen. “If he just says the word ‘war’, then we are ready, and I fear that the majority in Parliament will continue to send soldiers into impossible, incomprehensible wars, and that we will keep on making the same mistakes again and again.” M

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By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson

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