No matter what: Denmark embraces US Security Policy
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen at the U.S. Department of State in Washington. Photo: US State Department

No matter what: Denmark embraces US Security Policy

Analysis. There are huge political differences between Sweden’s and Denmark’s Middle East policies. Denmark is faithfully, almost submissively, following Washington, while Sweden has a policy of its own. The attitude of the Danish governments in the last decades' security policy is remarkable, writes Lars Erslev Andersen, Senior Associate Fellow at the MENA programme at the UI. Denmark's affinity to the US is almost not questioned in the Danish foreign policy debate.

Publicerad: 2018-02-20

When Sweden in 2014 decided to recognize Palestine, Denmark declined and said, as an echo of the US government, that it supported a negotiated two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. At that time, Denmark had a Social Democratic prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Martin Lidegaard, was from the Social-Liberal Party (Radikale Venstre).

When the US President Donald Trump in January 2018 declared he would cut aid to the Palestinians, including aid to the UN program UNRWA (which was established in 1949 to provide humanitarian relief to refugees such as housing, primary health and schools) punishing them for their anger with his decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Sweden immediately stepped in to disburse 58.5 million USD to UNRWA.

unrwasäckEU is supporting UNRWA's humanitarian work for Palestinian refugees. Photo: European Commission DG ECHO  

In Denmark three parties, representing a majority in the Parliament expressed support for Trump’s decision and argued for a dissolving of the Palestinian refugee camps and UNRWA in interviews in the Danish daily Berlingske. The interviews – with the spokespersons from the Social Democrats, Nick Hækkerup, the Liberal Party Venstre, Michael Aastrup Jensen, Danish People’s Party, Søren Espersen – were a follow-up on an op-ed by the conservative politician Naser Khader. In a praise for Trump he had proposed a stop for UNRWA. Khader argued that there are only 20.000 Palestinians refugees, and that the more than five million registered by UNRWA just could move out of the camps to the West Bank, East Jerusalem or elsewhere. They only stayed in the camps with the sole purpose of claiming their Right of Return, he wrote.

The spokespersons of the two governing parties, The Liberal Party Venstre and the Conservative, as well as from the biggest parties in opposition, the Social Democrats and Danish People’s Party, expressed support for Naser Khader’s proposal. None of them suggested solutions to the Palestinian refugee problem and none of them had any ideas of what to do with the 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza and hundreds of thousands in the West Bank and Lebanon.

These examples demonstrate huge political differences between Sweden’s and Denmark’s Middle East policies. Denmark is faithfully, almost submissively, following Washington, while Sweden has a policy of its own. The Danish faithfulness to the US policy shows no difference between Danish governments headed by a Social Democrat or by one from the Liberal-Conservative bloc. While in opposition during the Iraq war, the Social Democrats were hard critiques of the government’s support to the George W. Bush administration, saying it sent Denmark to war without a UN mandate. But when the Social Democrats got to power themselves they became almost more supportive of the US Middle East policy than the Liberal-Conservative government had been.

Fogh RasmussenAnders Fogh Rasmussen, former danish PM and Secretary General of NATO. Photo: Slavko Sereda/Shutterstock

This became particularly apparent in connection with the debate on how to react to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels in August 2013. As early as in 2002, with its National Security Strategy, the Bush administration argued for the legitimate right of the US to conduct so-called pre-emptive military strikes without a UN mandate. Initially, the Danish Prime Minister from the Liberal Party, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and his government maintained that the UN Security Council based the war in Iraq on resolutions. But in 2005 he argued that he was impelled to go to war without a UN mandate; a statement that was met with massive criticism from the opposition.

In 2013, when Denmark had a Social Democratic government, the chair of the Danish Foreign Policy Committee, the Social Democrat Mette Gjerskov, said that, “Danes will just have to get used to going to war without a UN mandate”, and got support from a majority of the Danish parliament.

The Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt declared that Denmark would respect a US appeal for support for a military operation against Bashar al-Assad, even if the UN Security Council did not sanction this appeal. The trend is crystal clear: In 2003, the Social Democrats, then in opposition, required a UN mandate to go to war. In 2005, the Prime Minister argued that it could be necessary for Denmark to enter a war without a mandate, to be met with massive criticism from the opposition. In 2013, the new Social Democratic government and a majority of the opposition agreed that war without a mandate from the UN could be both legitimate and necessary. This process demonstrates clearly that the Social Democrats in government prioritize support of a US policy as much as the Liberal-Conservatives do, even if it means entering a war without a UN mandate, if only the US asks for it.

dansk afghantruppDanish soldiers meet with local Afghans living in a village in Helmand Province 2009. Photo: Aramis X. Ramirez/ISAF

There are many examples of Denmark just following the US foreign and security policy. When Trump travelled to NATO demanding substantial increase in the European member states’ Defense budgets, Denmark responded by doing that, as seen in the new agreement on Defense just reached in January. When the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis asked for Danish troops to Afghanistan, Denmark reacted almost immediately by deploying them. The tiny state of Denmark is now involved with troops in Mali, Special Forces in Syria and Iraq, training personal in Iraq, troops in Afghanistan, and other military operations and support missions in the fight against jihadism.

Denmark is so complying to the US policy, that the former US ambassador Rufus Gifford in an interview with the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten (2014/09/29) said:

“In Foreign Policy, Denmark and USA is on the same line to a degree that when I show up to ask for something in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Defense, they are already working on it. The same happens in NATO and UN. Denmark does really what the US wishes”.  Apparently, this “same line” includes the Danish policies towards Israel, the Palestinians, Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East in general.

What is the background for this very close Danish relationship to the US? Some argue that we owe this to the US salvation of Denmark and Europe from the Nazis during the World War II, others that it was the Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, later Secretary General of NATO, who made Denmark such a close ally to Washington. It is true that Rasmussen developed very close ties to George W. Bush and it is also true that Denmark since WW II has followed the US, e.g. letting USA have the air base in Greenland. Still, the almost submissive attitude in the last decades’ security policy is remarkable compared to Sweden and Norway.

Probably one reason is to be found in the geopolitical situation that Denmark ended up in after the Cold War: with the breakdown of USSR and the Warsaw Pact, Denmark found itself without serious military threats against its sovereignty. The door was open for a safe and secure future protected as a member of the European Union as well, of course, as of NATO. But instead the Danes to a big surprise voted no to the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. In order to keep Denmark in the Union still respecting the result of the Maastricht Treaty referendum, the so-called Edinburgh Treaty was negotiated resulting in four exemptions for the Danish membership, among one was on the Union’s defense and security policy. The Danes accepted the new treaty at another referendum later in 1992, but was left without influence on the Union’s decision process on security policy. Hence, the tiny state was forced to look for another security umbrella and that was of course the US.

danskakrigsvetA veteran event in Kastellet, Copenhagen, May 2017. Photo: Shutterstock

Already in the 1990’s the Social Democrat government with Poul Nyrup Rasmussen as Prime Minister cultivated Danish security policy in close coordination with Washington. This was clearly seen in the support of the Clinton administration’s Iraq sanctions policy and military strikes on Iraq in December 1998 as well as in the Danish military contingent to the NATO organized Kosovo war against Serbia in 1999, which was exempt of a UN mandate. Thus, it is fair to say that Denmark’s close ties to USA improved long before Anders Fogh Rasmussen came in office in November 2001, but it is also fair to say that these ties were boosted tremendously during his leadership.  

Ever since, has Denmark with few exceptions (it has not left UNESCO in protest of its Israel policy as the US has done twice, and in the UN General Assembly vote on Jerusalem against Trump’s decision, Denmark voted with the majority) followed US in all matters when it comes to security policy, including the Middle East, irrespective of what party is in charge of the Danish government, be it a Social Democrat or a Liberal, and irrespective of who has the power in the White House in Washington, be it Clinton, Bush, Obama or Trump. That makes it quite easy analyzing Danish security policy, because one can just look at what they do in Washington – which is increasingly not so easy to grasp, but that is another story.

The most particular matter in the Danish closeness to the US line is that it is almost not questioned in the Danish foreign policy debate. After Trump took office, there has been a lot of debate, critique and questioning of his policy, but when it comes to security policy, Denmark has embraced him as much as previous Danish governments embraced his predecessors.  

Lars Erslev Andersen
Senior Associate Fellow at The Middle East and North Africa programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies.