The ally who’s come in from the cold

Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s trip to Washington DC will build on strategic alliance that has endured frosty periods

As Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt prepares for her first trip to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama on Friday, it may not be an understatement to say that relations between their two nations are at an all-time high. It certainly is a far cry from the gloomy days in the 1980s when former foreign minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen was told by his American counterpart, George Schultz, that “if all the countries in Europe acted like Denmark, we wouldn’t have an alliance!”

Recently though, Denmark has remained an unwavering ally to the US during the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the War on Terror. In fact, Denmark has contributed more troops per capita than nearly anyone else and for this reason Obama will probably be thanking the Danish prime minister for her nation’s efforts when they meet up in Washington.

The American ambassador to Denmark, Laurie S Fulton, who will also be present in Washington, agrees that Denmark is a vital European partner of the US.

“It is because we share common values and ideals such as democracy and freedom,” Fulton said. “In my opinion, relations have never been stronger. In addition, the United States cares very much about the situation in the European Union, which we consider one of our most valuable allies.”

According to Fulton, both President Obama and the US secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, see Denmark as a country that “punches above its weight”, which is important to the US, despite its small size and population. The ambassador went on to say that it was essential for the Obama administration to meet the new Danish leader.

MP Jeppe Kofod (Socialdemokraterne) reinforced the notion that the trip to Washington will help further strengthen the consensus between the two nations.

“It is to reconfirm the strong relationship between the United States and Denmark and to discuss the shared challenges that lie ahead,” he said. “These issues include the security needs in Afghanistan and the importance of the partnership in the Arctic pact. In addition, north Africa will also feature, as Denmark is scaling up efforts in the region, where the United States continues to maintain considerable interests.”

Professor David Nye at the Center for American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense concurred that current relations with Washington are cordial, although he said that there are a number of issues behind the upcoming meeting.

“[Danish military efforts are] appreciated by the White House, and it surely has something to do with the former prime minister occupying the top post at NATO,” Nye said. “Americans in general are more interested in domestic problems right now. Foreign affairs are not a major theme so far in the election campaign. The visit of the Danish prime minister will be noted, but probably will not provoke much discussion, unless the problems with the euro are not resolved by then. In that case, the visit will be more likely to generate comment and discussion, because Denmark is heading the EU for this period.”

Nye raises an interesting point. Aside from discussing the Afghanistan withdrawal, American aspirations for this meeting would appear to centre more on current EU dilemmas and future NATO operations than on individual relations with Denmark.

Ahead of the meeting, Thorning-Schmidt has not indicated that the continued utilisation of Guantanamo, clandestine CIA flights or climate issues will be on the agenda, despite the fact that while her party was in opposition, it was vocally against these practices during the previous Bush administration.

“It is as if the criticism of Guantanamo has more or less disappeared,” Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard, a professor of political science at Copenhagen University, said. “The last time there was a demonstration about Guantanamo was two weeks before Obama was elected. Since Obama’s election, the Danish left has almost completely stopped criticising the US.”

The foreign minister, Villy Søvndal, recently indicated to Information newspaper that since the Obama administration had yet to advise Denmark of developments concerning the Guantanamo prison, the question of supporting the dispersal of its prisoners is redundant.

Some may question if Danish politicians have become star-struck. But with Anders Fogh Rasmussen as secretary general of NATO, and Denmark’s current position as the interim EU president, it could be an opportune moment for Denmark to force some issues within the realm of foreign affairs.

But for now, as Thorning-Schmidt prepares for her journey across the Atlantic, Danish-American relations could be described as basking in the sun of a golden era. It is clear that the icy rapport of the past has long since thawed. Ellemann-Jensen, in a column for Berlingske newspaper, said it wouldn’t be unthinkable for Thorning-Schmidt to hear Obama twist around the words of Ellemann-Jensen’s former counterpart and say: “If all the European nations acted like Denmark, we would still have a strong alliance.”

Factfile | A sometimes rocky relationship

The ‘Footnote’ Period: Danish-American relations haven’t always been cheerful. At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, Denmark became embroiled in the ‘Footnote’ period when a parliament majority, led by Anker Jørgensen (Socialdemokraterne), forced the incumbent Poul Schluter’s government to convey a foreign policy that it did not agree with. Much to the consternation of the Reagan administration, Denmark ended up reneging their earlier commitments to support the American stance on the Soviet Union setting up missiles in Eastern Europe. From 1982 to 1988, Denmark demonstrated this defiance by inserting countering footnotes in NATO resolutions to illustrate their opposition to various points. It was during this time that Uffe Ellemann-Jensen was told by then-US secretary of state George Schultz that “if all the countries in Europe acted like Denmark, we wouldn’t have an alliance!”

Thule Air Base: The Americans have contributed to a frosty relationship as well. In 1968, as war raged in Vietnam, an American B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons crashed near Thule Air Base in Greenland. This became a massive scandal in Denmark as the Danish official policy at the time strictly forbade nuclear weapons on its territory. In what reeked fiercely of subterfuge, both American and Danish officials scrambled to contain the situation and clean up the wreckage. The Americans maintained that the plane was not scheduled to land in Thule, but was forced to try to land there due to a fire on board.

Factfile | US-Danish relations through the years

1801: Diplomatic relations between Denmark and the United States are established and the US opens its first diplomatic post in Copenhagen.

1916: A financially struggling Denmark sells the Danish West Indies to the US for 25 million dollars ; they are renamed the Virgin Islands.

1946: The US attempts to purchase Greenland from Denmark for 100 million dollars, but the Danes refuse.

1968:  An American B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons crashes near the Thule Air Base, despite Danish policy forbidding nuclear weapons in their territory

1982-1988: Denmark implements ‘Footnote’ period, during which relations with the US suffer.

2002: First Danish troops arrive in Afghanistan to support the US led coalition.

2003: Denmark joins the heavily criticized US led invasion of Iraq.

2005: Denmark critical of delayed and weak US support over the Muhammad cartoon incident.

2011: Danish military takes part in the US backed effort to depose Gaddafi in Libya.

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