NATO’s bullying of Denmark raises uncomfortable sovereignty and transparency concerns

2 November 2020

A scathing six-page NATO assessment of Denmark’s military forces and its record in meeting alliance commitments has been published online by the Danish Ministry of Defence. The document dated 14 October 2020 is an ‘overview’ of Denmark’s performance in meeting metrics associated with a ‘NATO Defence Planning Capability Review 2019/2020’. Presumably, similar assessments have been made for the other 29 NATO member states, but none appear to have been published so far.

The document raises important questions about national sovereignty, decision-making and transparency within NATO. For example, who authored the Danish report and what was the research methodology and writing process? How was it peer reviewed within NATO and Denmark? Why did the Danish Ministry of Defence decide to make it public, leading to extensive media criticism in at least one Danish national newspaper (see Berlingske, 29 October 2020)?

The document concludes that Danish and NATO military priorities are “misaligned” and outlines three main areas where Denmark must immediately tighten up: “numerous critical quantitative and qualitative limitations” in a supposedly battle-ready brigade of 4,000 soldiers, and shortfalls in anti-submarine and signal intelligence capabilities. "The lack of progress since the previous Capability Review is of concern”, the document says, adding that “Denmark needs to further increase its defence spending in order to fully implement all of its NATO Capability Targets”. It warns that until it does so, “other Allies may potentially have to pick up part of Denmark’s fair share of the alliance burden”.

The Danish Defence Minister Trine Bramsen has sought to deflect the criticism by arguing that the NATO assessment ignores the Danish military contribution to the Arctic, which in recent years has become a theatre of increasing political and security tensions. Bramsen has also initiated "a constructive dialogue" with NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, to find a common solution according to a letter to the Danish Parliament’s defence committee.

The United States calls the tune on military spending

The US embassy in Denmark was quick to highlight the NATO findings in a presumably pre-planned news release. This was unsurprising since the Trump administration has been a vocal critic of those NATO member states, including Denmark, that have failed to meet the NATO commitment to spend 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) on defence. In August 2019, for example, President Trump postponed his visit to Denmark after Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, called his interest in purchasing Greenland "absurd". Trump then asserted that Denmark was not spending enough on NATO, tweeting, "For the record, Denmark is only at 1.35% of GDP for NATO spending”. Former Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen responded that Denmark will "not accept that our defence willingness is only about percentages” and cited the country’s military commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq. Other NATO member states, most notably Germany, have also criticised the rigidity of the NATO 2% spending target.

To date only, 10 NATO member states meet that commitment, and Denmark is expected to reach 1.5 percent of GDP by 2023 (which would be a 20% increase on 2018 levels of military spending). The NATO assessment is clearly an attempt to put pressure on Denmark to reach the 2% target faster, something that Trine Bramsen describes as “pure politics".

Denmark has clearly punched above its weight in contributing to recent coalition (and not just NATO) operations. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Denmark paid the price in heavier relative casualties comparable to those suffered by the United States. Whether some of these military missions, especially those in support of the wider US ‘war on terror’ and in Libya, were desirable or effective is a separate question, but they plainly distort the existing NATO burden-sharing logic. Moreover, Denmark has continued to increase its military contributions to a number of missions around the world, including the Global Coalition against Islamic State in northeast Syria, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, France’s mission in the Sahel, and a US aircraft carrier group in the north Atlantic and Mediterranean, in addition to increasing its contribution to NATO. Moreover, in June this year Denmark agreed to take over leadership of the NATO training mission in Iraq for an 18-month period, beginning in December 2020.

NATO is also shaping Danish attitudes to nuclear weapons

Not only is NATO seeking to get Denmark to increase its military spending at a faster rate than currently envisaged—a questionable proposition in a pandemic and economic recession—it is also preventing the country from re-examining its role in maintaining the nuclear status quo. In the past, Denmark had called for intensified efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences. During the Cold War, there were also periods of tension between Denmark and the United States over US nuclear weapons deployments on Danish territory, nuclear weapons policy and deployments in Europe, and port visits by nuclear-capable warships. Since 1990, however, Denmark has become more closely aligned to the United States and the mainstream of NATO in its security policy thinking and actions. In 2004, for example, Denmark agreed to allow the United States to upgrade its radar systems in Greenland in connection with the development of the US national missile defence system. It has also supported the retention and potential use of nuclear weapons on its behalf, as indicated by its endorsement of various NATO statements.

Moreover, Denmark has not yet signed or ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force earlier this month. It did not participate in the negotiation of the treaty at the United Nations in New York in 2017, but instead joined the United States and several other NATO states in protesting against the treaty-making process. In a ‘non-paper’ sent to NATO members ahead of the negotiations, the United States “strongly encourage[d]” members, including Denmark, to vote against the resolution, “not to merely abstain”. Recently, 56 former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and defence ministers from 20 NATO member states and Japan and South Korea, as well as the former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and two former NATO Secretary General’s, Javier Solana and Willy Claes, signed an open letter supporting the TPNW. The letter was also signed by three former Danish foreign ministers: Kjeld Olesen, Mogens Lykketoft and Holger Nielsen. The publication of the NATO assessment and the ensuing public spat on burden-sharing is also an opportunity for the Danes to have a broader debate and rethink their relationship to NATO and nuclear weapons. The challenge will be to reconcile often countervailing pressures deriving from Denmark’s NATO commitments on one hand, and its multilateralist, good international citizenship on the other.