Denmark in NATO: Paying for Protection, Bleeding for Prestige


The 2018 NATO summit in Brussels met the expectations of many observers who were concerned that President Donald Trump’s extemporaneous remarks and actions could weaken and confuse the alliance. The Trump administration worked diligently to frame the agenda around equitable burden-sharing in NATO, sending letters to many allied capitals exhorting them to increase defense spending. And while most concern has been expressed about Germany’s willingness to address its spending and readiness difficulties, it is Denmark that will be the true bellwether for the burden-sharing debate to come. If the Danes accept that “Burden sharing … must include cash, in addition to capabilities and contributions” and increase defense spending above what is already planned, then the debate in NATO will move to a different plane.

Denmark has become the poster child for analysts arguing that America’s favored metric of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense is ill-considered, and what matters is contributing effectively to coalition operations when asked. The weekend prior to the NATO summit, the Danish Ministry of Defense released a video and a webpage in both Danish and English detailing what they “offer” NATO to sell that message. Copenhagen has dismissed the 2 percent goal as unrealistic. Denmark approved a six-year defense agreement this January that pledges to increase spending from 1.17 percent of GDP in 2017 to 1.3 percent by 2023 — and to do so slowly, with 60 percent of the increase coming in 2022 and 2023. The Danes are basically daring Trump to give them a pass on the goal of 2 percent by 2024 and aim to wait him out.

This strategy is sound, but Denmark will likely cave to the right sort of American pressure. The Danes will haggle for a “discount” given their performance on other metrics but can be convinced to revisit the levels of defense spending agreed upon in January if what they value most in this relationship is placed at risk: Denmark’s reputation for being a “good ally.” Successive Danish governments have built this reputation, and garnered plaudits and rewards, by being willing — even eager — to participate in U.S.-led expeditionary operations without complaint or caveats. However, during the recent NATO summit, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen made it abundantly clear to Trump that Denmark has paid its dues in blood as a U.S. coalition partner in Afghanistan and Iraq with relative casualties comparable to those suffered by the United States. The Danish political elite is thus arguing for a NATO burden-sharing logic that balances blood and treasure, but is unwilling to budge on treasure as the fiscal weight of an extensive welfare state dominates domestic politics. Even then, if American officials make it clear that defense spending is the new coin of the realm, and that Denmark will lose its access in Washington unless they pay their membership fee, Denmark will grudgingly comply — as it has done in the past.

Paying for Protection, Bleeding for Prestige

Jens Ringsmose of the Royal Danish Defence College has argued that balance of threat theory and the economic theory of alliances capture the reasons why small states generally ally with a larger power — for protection and to free ride on security guarantees — but not why small states maintain, increase, or decrease their defense efforts. Small states react to threats of abandonment from their allies rather than changes in perceived threat from their adversaries, he argues, because larger alliance partners can reallocate their efforts to reduce the security enjoyed by the smaller ally without eviscerating the alliance. Ringsmose argues that small powers see their military spending as “the price of protection or a membership fee,” and size it to be large enough to be worthy of the potential costs inherent in the relationship for the larger partner or partners. He demonstrated that when Denmark increased defense spending during the Cold War — only in 1951, 1960, and 1973 — it did so in response to sharply worded diplomatic notes, pressure, and even NATO assessments of what Copenhagen could and should invest in defense rather than changes in threat perception. Each time, “the security provider and the tight-fisted ally … reached a common understanding about the price of alliance membership.”

The risks of abandonment abated with the end of the Cold War, but not the benefits that small states sought from NATO membership. Ringsmose, Peter Viggo Jakobsen, and Håkon Lunde Saxi have argued that Denmark, Norway, and other active allies contributed to post-Cold War expeditionary operations in the Balkans, the greater Middle East, and elsewhere to build status and social capital with the United States — capital that “can be converted into influence, agenda-setting power, access, or even material benefits” at a later time.

The arc of Danish post-Cold War grand strategy can be understood in these terms. Danish leaders reacted to their newly benign strategic environment by adopting an activist and militarized foreign policy and helping to manage instability on the European periphery in the wake of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union. They contributed to U.N. peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, engaged with a Bosnian Serb Army brigade in 1994 — inflicting as many as 150 causalities without suffering losses and convincing the Danish public of the utility of force in the process.

This orientation strengthened into a wide consensus after 9/11. Danish leaders — particularly Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen — chose to bandwagon with the United States. They wholeheartedly reorganized its military structures to undertake expeditionary operations of the type the United States was demanding of its allies. The 2004 defense agreement essentially denationalized defense of Danish territory and placed a high degree of reliance upon the commitment of NATO allies to defend it in the event of a war in Europe — the kind of war that Danish leaders believed extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Danish capacity to undertake expeditionary operations, while relatively small, was surprisingly robust. The Danish Army sustained 850 to 1000 soldiers in Basra, Iraq, from 2003 to 2007 and shifted their efforts to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2012, sustaining 1200 to 1400 troops in Helmand as part of the Afghan surge. The Royal Danish Air Force partnered with that of Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium to sustain year-long deployments of a multinational C-130 squadron and a similar F-16 squadron in Kyrgyzstan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002 and 2003. Only the United States dropped more precision-guided munitions in 2011’s Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. The Danish military continued that pace through the entirety of Operation Unified Protector. Denmark also sent seven F-16s (four plus three in reserve) into the fray against the Islamic State in October 2014 and sustained that deployment through September 2015. The Royal Danish Navy divested itself of the submarine fleet that it had used to help bottle up the Soviets in the Baltic Sea and instead invested in three state-of-the-art frigates with modular payloads that set a standard for ships in their class. Once operational, they participated nearly continuously in anti-piracy operations off of the Horn of Africa and even joined a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier task force for maneuvers in 2016 and 2017. Danes suffered significant casualties, both historically and per capita in these operations, losing eight troops in the Balkans, eight in Iraq, and 43 in Afghanistan.

American leaders routinely thanked Denmark for its stalwart participation in coalitions of the willing, with skilled personnel, interoperable equipment, and without caveats. Denmark’s willingness to engage in actual combat, and its leadership of a public that has demonstrated extreme tolerance of casualties and support for their forces in operations, have also been noted. Danish leaders met with their American counterparts far more often than they used to since these changes were implemented, including frequent bilateral meetings with the president and the secretaries of state and defense. “Denmark’s enhanced standing in Washington not only opened doors at the highest level: on several occasions Danish diplomats were invited to join special forums reserved for the United States’ closest allies,” noted Ringsmose and Anders Henriksen in a book chapter entitled “What did Denmark Gain? Iraq, Afghanistan and the Relationship with Washington.” American gratitude extended to promoting Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to be NATO Secretary General from 2009 to 2014 and Chief of Defence Knud Bartels to be chairman of NATO’s Military Committee from 2012 to 2015, putting Danes in the highest NATO leadership positions for an overlapping 33 months. Danish leaders saw such rewards as tangible indicators of their status as well as of America’s guarantee of Danish security.

Butter Over Guns

Yet while Denmark’s operational tempo accelerated beyond anything imagined by previous generations and burnished their reputation within the alliance, Danish leaders bowed to domestic pressure to reduce defense spending. In 2007, only 5 percent of Danes supported increased defense spending while 66 percent preferred other priorities. Just last month Gallup reported only 4 percent of Danes saw defense as a priority — tying for 13th place out of 15 categories. Defense spending reflected these sentiments.

The 2010 to 2014 defense agreement maintained the budget while finding “optimizations” to pay for operations, such as reducing the operational F-16 fleet from 48 to 30 aircraft. The government of Lars Løkke Rasmussen — the current Danish prime minister — opted to renegotiate that defense agreement with parliament midstream, reducing defense spending by 15 percent from the topline from 2013 to 2017 to fund a highway project and a promised tax cut. The result was that Denmark deferred a decision on fighter aircraft recapitalization for three years, reduced sustainability for operations such as its F-16 contribution to counter ISIL, struggled to man two of its three new frigates, deferred arming them with the missiles they were built to carry. Beyond equipment, already challenging personnel issues have been exacerbated: The officer corps has bled talent for years, remains seriously understaffed, and is fighting to retain highly educated and trained officers in the ranks.

Growing Frustration

In the age of never-ending wars and attempts to retain primacy, American patience with reluctant allies began to wear thin. While Donald Rumsfeld infamously divided NATO into “Old Europe” and “New Europe” over support for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Obama administration expressed its frustration more diplomatically and systematically. In 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed alarm at the “demilitarization of Europe” and in 2011 warned:

[T]he blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea, frustration became policy. The Obama administration pushed successfully to formalize the understanding, reached at the 2006 Riga summit, that allies would “aim to move towards” 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. This promise was realized in the 2014 Wales Summit Declaration. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work emphasized in meetings with allies that “our bedrock policy is that we would like every NATO member to spend 2 percent of their gross national product on national defense.” The U.S. ambassador and visiting American officials reinforced this message in Copenhagen. Most of Denmark’s neighbors heeded the call, with the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, former Warsaw Pact members Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria, Nordic neighbor Norway, and even non-NATO member Sweden each raising their defense budgets.

The Danish response to these efforts was four-fold. First, many took these efforts as simply another ritualized act in standard U.S.-European relations: “It’s a part of the game,” said Holger K. Nielsen, the respected defense spokesperson for the Socialist People’s Party. Within this context, Danish officials and analysts made the case that output measures should trump input measures such as percentage of GDP. Denmark offered itself as the exemplar of an efficient, effective ally and banked on their record and reputation to deflect criticism. Third, they argued they would soon meet the NATO target of spending 20 percent of their defense budget on equipment, particularly as payments for their acquisition of 27 F-35s started. Finally, they argued their forthcoming defense agreement would result in a “substantial lift” in spending that should allay concerns.

The agreement approved in January of this year does progressively increase spending from 1.17 percent of GDP in 2017 to 1.3 percent by 2023 — back to where it was in 2013. Despite arguing that reaching 2 percent was “unrealistic” and that Denmark’s defense structure could not absorb such an influx of funding even if approved, Danish leaders considered this to be a good faith effort to move towards 2 percent.


The American president’s unorthodox diplomacy certainly upset many of these arguments. European leaders, Danes included, looked to more traditional U.S. officials, such as the vice president and the secretary of defense, for reassurance. They received it, particularly with regard to upholding American treaty commitments, but not in terms of burden-sharing.

Danish officials received this message personally. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis greeted his Danish counterpart in May by pointedly noting that “twelve nations have yet to submit the plans to make this modest commitment” to spend 2 percent. Left unsaid was that Denmark was among that group. Trump’s June 19 letter to the Danes noted that “Burden sharing … must include cash, in addition to capabilities and contributions. Strong performance in one area does not absolve any Ally of responsibility for the others.”

With such a clear framing of the argument, and the well-prepared deflection articulated by Rasmussen, what are the likely implications for U.S.-Danish relations?

First, we can expect Denmark will continue to highlight metrics that show its value as an ally and downplay those that do not. Concerted efforts by the administration and others in NATO — such as Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg — to build a consistent message around the “quality and quantity” argument will, however, find a receptive ear in corners of the Danish policy community.

Second, it is likely that only states that approach the two percent threshold will be taken seriously by the United States when engaging in discussions of efficiency at the margins. Furthermore, allies requiring maximum effort to deploy small units for a limited period of time will receive a limited hearing in such discussions. Danish officials highlight the efficiency of their forces, which is admirable, but it has been purchased at the expense of size, sustainability, and comprehensiveness of all three services.

Third, and most important, it is likely that Denmark — and others with a similar policy — could be subjected to naming and shaming until they reconsider. Trump’s penchant for hectoring those who fail to live up to his expectations may be particularly effective against Denmark. If prestige, access, and influence in Washington is the coin Denmark has worked to earn with its defense policies for the past two decades, then withholding it could have significant coercive value. Danish officials may consider reopening the defense agreement if they are rhetorically included among the countries that have not yet proffered a credible plan to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, relegated to the sidelines of allied councils until they do so, or their force contributions turned down when they are suboptimal — perhaps because they cannot be organically sustained. If President Trump brings his “singular obsession on this issue” to bear on Denmark, they may find eliminating the risk of losing the benefits of alliance worth the higher costs of membership — just as they did during the Cold War. By doing so, Denmark may do the alliance a substantial favor and enable serious discussion of more appropriate metrics of burden sharing than blood versus treasure.


Gary Schaub Jr. is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Military Studies at the Department of Political Science of the University of Copenhagen. He formerly served on the faculty of the Air War College, the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, and was a Research Fellow at the Air Force Research Institute. He is the editor of Understanding Cybersecurity: Emerging Governance and Strategy (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018) and co-editor with Ryan Kelty of Private Military and Security Contractors: Controlling the Corporate Warrior (Rowman and Littlefield 2016).

André Ken Jakobsson is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Military Studies at the Department of Political Science of the University of Copenhagen. Dr. Jakobsson earned his Ph.D. in International Relations at the Center for War Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Southern Denmark and is currently researching grey zone statecraft and hybrid warfare.

Image: Jessica Ostroska