As United Nations (UN) weapons inspectors continue in their challenging task of dismantling Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons by November 1, the situation in the war-torn country has once again raised questions concerning the UN role in world politics. And once again, Denmark has been right in the thick of it.
PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne) raised more than a few eyebrows when she announced in September that Denmark would support a US-led action against the Syrian regime, even if it wasn’t sanctioned by a UN Security Council that was gridlocked due to China and Russia’s unwillingness to approve military action.
Fresh from pulling out of a decade-long military intervention in Afghanistan in August, few had anticipated that Denmark would be willing to send troops back into battle.
A moral stand on Syria
But Ole Wæver, a professor of international relations at the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, wasn’t surprised by Thorning-Schmidt’s statement, pointing out that Denmark is the most US-loyal nation in Scandinavia.
“Denmark has been unusually active in the past 20 years, and we have been predictable and consistent in supporting our allies – namely the US,” Wæver said.
Wæver argued that while Sweden and Norway tow the UN line, Denmark was much more inclined to support military action and take a moral stand in the process. Sometimes that stand pays off, he argued, pointing out that international pressure directly led to the chemical weapons dismantling going on at the moment in Syria.
“Always supporting the US is wrong, but for the UN, no action is also bad. It seems like [Denmark’s] threat of action in Syria was helpful in getting to terms with the chemical weapons. It was better than doing nothing,” Wæver said.
Wæver went on to say that he believed that people often underestimate Scandinavia’s influence on the world stage, pointing to the Cold War and the War in Iraq as evidence. Whether that influence is always good is another matter.
“The main question [for Denmark] to ask is: what role do we play in relation to the European Union and US?” Wæver said. “We have influence when we use our position well, but also when we don’t, as seen in the Iraq War when Denmark contributed to a fracturing of the European position.”
Could have adverse effects
Jørgen Estrup, a former member of parliament for Radikale and the current president of the Danish United Nations Association – an NGO responsibile for promoting interest in the UN – contended that Denmark’s loyal support of the US could have adverse effects.
“It is an issue when the US is on one side and other countries are on the other, so naturally some countries notice that we are close to the US,” Estrup said. “In some cases it is important that you are not identified too much with one side or the other.”
Security Council reform
Estrup maintained that there was great frustration among nations about how the UN Security Council handled the Syrian chemical weapons situation in late August. Particularly important, he said, was to hear that France – one of the five permanent members – chimed in with support for a reform of the council’s make-up.
“Debate over a possible reform of the Security Council has been going on for years and years. But I noticed at the General Assembly debate in New York that many heads of state were calling for a reform, so at the moment there is more momentum than there has been for a long time,” Estrup said.
Saudi Arabia shocks the world
The calls for reform were emphasised last week when Saudi Arabia shocked the UN community in New York when it announced that it would reject a seat on the United Nations Security Council after being elected to the body for a two-year period.
In a statement, the Saudi Arabians cited that the UN Security Council’s “inability to perform its duties” had enabled President Bashar al-Assad’s regime “to kill its people and burn them with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment”.
On whether Denmark could act as a broker, as Norway did with the Oslo I Accord in 1993 – the first face-to-face agreement between the leaders of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) – Estrup was more reserved. He said that by teaming up with its Nordic neighbours, Denmark would have more influence.
“My feeling is that by itself, Denmark is too small a player, but of course it is possible for Denmark to push for some kind of reform of the UN Security Council and it would be much stronger with the backing of the other Nordic countries,” Estrup said.
United States of Scandinavia
Gunnar Wetterberg, a historian and research officer at the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (SACO), believes that Denmark should take co-operation with the Nordic countries a step further.
Wetterberg suggested that the five Nordic nations (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland) could form a united federation – a consolidation of economics and policy that would propel them into the fray as agenda-setters on the global scene.
“If you are one of the 12 largest economies in the world, you will have an influence that is much greater than it is today,” Wetterbeg told The Copenhagen Post. “The union would be a member of the EU and we would be one of the four or five largest economies and have an agenda-setting influence that neither Sweden, Denmark nor Finland possesses today.”
Becoming agenda setters
Wetterberg contended that a Nordic union would allow the nations to become part of the G-20 international co-operation forum – which focuses on the world’s most important international economic and financial issues – independently of the EU, which is one of the members. That would ultimately lead to gaining more influence on the global political affairs scene.
“The Scandinavian countries have some rather distinct features when it comes to international debate. We are free traders and prepared to accept rather far-reaching commitments when it comes to environmental issues, so my argument is that we don’t have the kind of influence that we could have had if we had been a union,” Wetterberg argued.
But while there is a greater movement of Nordic citizens across the countries’ borders than ever before, there are plenty of stumbling blocks facing a union, including language issues and an absence of political will to move on the issue.
“A realistic utopia”
Wetterberg called the potential Scandinavian union “a realistic utopia” and estimated that there was about an eight percent chance that it could happen before 2030.
“It will probably not come about, but if it did, it would be to the benefit of all five nations,” Wetterberg concluded.