Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Denmark.


Since the end of the Cold War, every incoming government in Denmark has committed itself to pursuing an active foreign policy. Gradually, this has also meant participating in international military operations, and since 2001, Denmark has been one of the most energetic European countries in this regard.

Denmark pursues an active foreign policy at both the European and the international level, helping develop joint EU approaches and contributing to military interventions.In fact, it is hard to think of any European nation that is more engaged internationally, especially relative to its size, so it seems fair to rank Denmark’s level of foreign policy ambition at 5 out of 5.

The underlying assumption in Denmark’s approach is that active international engagement fundamentally serves the interest of a small country with an open economy—as do strong rules-based international institutions, such as the EU and NATO. Denmark wants to be out there engaging, and it wants to be there together with partners and allies, in particular with other EU members and with the United States.

Mostly, Denmark’s European and transatlantic ambitions are seen as mutually reinforcing. When the two collide, Danish foreign policy becomes controversial. This was the case with the EU’s 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which some saw as providing for an embryonic EU defense capacity—potentially at the expense of NATO. This is the backdrop against which Denmark, after voting against the Maastricht Treaty, obtained—and still maintains—an opt-out on defense matters.

In spite of its opt-outs, which, in addition to defense, also cover eurozone membership and justice and home affairs, Denmark remains deeply committed to the European integration process. Majorities within the Danish electorate have supported this line consistently over the past forty years.

Denmark pursues an active foreign policy at both the European and the international level, helping develop joint EU approaches and contributing to military interventions.This does not mean that Euroskepticism is entirely absent from the Danish strategic outlook toward Europe. Indeed, a significant minority of Denmark’s electorate clearly feels that the country has already given up too much national sovereignty. It is uncertain whether any Danish government would be able to muster the majority necessary at a referendum to do away with the opt-outs, fully or in part.

Still, in practical terms, Denmark pursues its foreign policy within the framework of the EU and in close coordination with other member states. Doing so serves dual strategic objectives for Copenhagen: addressing the problems in question and engaging Denmark more closely with its European partners. Acting jointly with other EU countries ties Denmark into the core of the union and forges important bilateral strategic partnerships. At the same time, being engaged in hammering out joint positions and involved in their execution leverages Danish foreign policy views.

#Denmark wants to be out there engaging with its EU allies & the US.
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In the EU’s neighborhood, two Danish priorities stand out. The first is the crisis in Ukraine. Denmark has been active in developing the EU’s response to the crisis in regard both to Ukraine itself and to the sanctions imposed on Russia, which Copenhagen advocated. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Danish foreign minister has repeatedly visited Kiev and Ukraine’s eastern regions, and Denmark remains closely engaged with all neighboring countries in trying to find a way out of the crisis.

The second priority is EU enlargement. Denmark was instrumental in developing the Copenhagen criteria that aspiring EU members must fulfill and continues to advocate for enlargement based on those standards. In regard to its Eastern neighbors, the EU should use the membership perspective to ensure real progress toward the rule of law. This does not imply pushing aside the Copenhagen criteria in favor of further accession on a political basis. Rather, Denmark insists that applicant countries must undertake credible and thorough reform to qualify for membership.

In the Middle East, Denmark maintains its support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite growing impatience over the lack of progress and over Israel’s settlement policy. Reacting to the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as the high number of civilian casualties during the 2014 military campaign in Gaza, the Danish government advocates recognition of the State of Palestine. Copenhagen has declared itself ready to take this step even in the absence of a full EU consensus.

Since 2001, Denmark has been stepping up its military contributions to overseas interventions, mostly within a NATO context but also as part of various UN-led operations. Although Denmark is at the lower end in terms of its defense spending as a percentage of GDP (1.4 percent in 2013), it is at the very top in terms of its military role in international missions. These high-profile Danish contributions—including at the hard end of interventions, which has resulted in a significant number of Danish casualties—command broad and stable public support.

This is true in Afghanistan, where Denmark is currently shifting its emphasis toward more civilian efforts. Together with EU partners, Copenhagen is seeking to strengthen Afghanistan’s social and institutional development. Unlike in most other partner countries that are engaged heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been no major reconsideration of the Danish contributions, and the political willingness to engage in these operations remains high.

In Africa, Denmark is among the countries taking a leading role in Somalia and the Sahel. Denmark is active in both the humanitarian and the nation-building fields and has sent a modest military contribution to support the French intervention in Mali, which for years has been a main recipient of Danish development assistance. Elsewhere in Africa, Denmark contributes to EU policy in South Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. Being a major shipping nation, Denmark takes a strong interest in combating piracy, in particular off the coasts of Africa.

Being a major shipping nation, #Denmark takes a strong interest in combating piracy.
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Most recently, Denmark is providing support for air strikes in Iraq against the Islamic State. It is consistent with Danish strategic thinking to support the U.S.-led coalition and to assist the Iraqi government in reestablishing control of the jihadist-held territories and in halting the advances of this kind of extremism. While Danish F-16 fighters are active in Iraq, they are not allowed to operate in Syria because of the lack of a clear legal basis for such operations.

Increasingly, there is a focus on the delicate interrelationship between military operations and nation building. Almost certainly, a main priority for Denmark in the years to come will be to develop the EU’s strategic capacity to intervene to assist failing states. That includes helping in the construction of transparent and accountable institutions of government, both political and social.

There are two areas beyond the main focus of international politics to which Denmark gives particular priority. The first is the Arctic Council, of which Denmark is a leading member. Here, Copenhagen maintains a special liaison role between Greenland, the Arctic Council, and the EU. Denmark is working jointly with Greenland to promote cooperation among the Arctic nations based on the principles of international law and mutual understanding.

Denmark spearheads the consensus among the Arctic nations that the further development of the region should be based on international law. Even though Russia has made no secret of its plans to scale up its military presence in the region, cooperation with Russia in the framework of the Arctic Council has been solid for a number years. It remains to be seen whether the current crisis between the West and Russia will be a game changer on Arctic issues as well.

A second stronghold of Danish foreign policy is its green diplomacy. Acting as a laboratory for green solutions, Denmark has developed strong cooperation in the fields of energy and green technology, both with partners in the EU and globally. Policies to combat global warming, at the European and the international level, are very much part of this effort. Bilateral cooperation on green issues is increasingly important in political and economic terms. While such cooperation is based on mutual interests, it does provide Denmark with a significant level of soft power.

All in all, Denmark is a committed international player that contributes both to EU policies toward the union’s neighborhood and to military interventions farther afield. As Copenhagen continues to play an active global role, a key challenge will be to ramp up a more diversified set of foreign policy tools, as the current strong emphasis on military instruments may not be sustainable over the long haul.


Bo Lidegaard is the editor in chief of the Danish daily broadsheet Politiken.