Business as Usual? - The change of government leads to at least four changes in Denmark’s security policy

Written by Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, Assistant Professor at Center for War Studies

Elections are exciting times for political nerds - like Christmas, a sunny day at the beach, and the premiere of a new Star Wars movie all wrapped into one. If you are like me, you spent the entire election evening at the edge of your seat, eagerly awaiting the latest news in what turned out to be a squeaker. And if you are anything like me, you also spent your Sunday combing through the new government agenda, still fresh off the press, to see if Mr. Rasmussen’s liberal government would change Denmark’s security policy.

Conventional wisdom tells us that changes of government mean little for Denmark’s security policy. Sure, there are exceptions like the 2003 Iraq War, but Denmark’s security policy is generally ruled by a wide consensus that stretches from the nationalist Dansk Folkeparti to left-wing parties like Socialistisk Folkeparti. This is also true this time around. The new government might be slightly more US-friendly, slightly more willing to spend on defense and to invest in capabilities like new fighter aircraft, but it will still strive to maintain consensus and the long lines will remain the same. There are, however, four areas where the change of government also means a change in tack:

1. A one-person foreign policy review 
During the campaign, Mr. Rasmussen announced that he would ask an experienced person to review Danish foreign, security, development, and defense policy. The idea of putting all this responsibility on the hands of just one person met much ridicule, with one expert calling it “mildly insane”.The idea to review Danish foreign policy is not foolish at all. There is an urgent need to rethink Denmark’s priorities and capabilities in light of the Ukraine Crisis and the review could come to shape Danish foreign and security policy beyond the life-time of the current government. Furthermore, conjoined operations – the idea that hard security, development, and diplomacy should be coordinated to achieve stabilize weak states - are the new black in Danish foreign and security policy and it makes sense to have external parties review how the process of developing doctrines and institutional mechanisms is progressing. However, the notion that this should be done by just one person is definitely an innovation. Such tasks are typically placed in the hands of commissions that consist of experts, civil servants, and politicians and they tend to work over several years. The final report is typically the result of several compromises and tends to be a bit stale and wishy-washy. The government insists on the suggested one-person format and it will be very interesting to see if the result will be crisper and more up-to-date and if it is accepted as legitimate by the media, opposition and political stakeholders. Perhaps a new format for foreign and security policy-thinking has been born. 

2. Less likely that Denmark joins the CSDP 
Much is happening in Denmark’s EU policy. Changes in EU’s institutional set-up mean that the government is forced to host a referendum to see if Denmark can scrap its opt-out from the European legal and home affairs cooperation. Some experts have speculated that a win in this referendum would embolden the pro-European parties to push for more opt-out referendums, including a referendum about joining the European Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP).The change of government makes this less like. The new government lives at the mercy of the euro-skeptical Dansk Folkeparti and it will avoid pushing policies – like CSDP participation - that highlight the rift between the liberals and the nationalists. A referendum about the CSDP will therefore be pushed further down the line and is unlikely to happen at this side of an election. 

3. Cuts in foreign aid 
Foreign Aid is one of the areas where there is less daylight between the new government and Dansk Folkeparti. Both liberals and nationalists want to lower the level of aid from 0.87 percent to 0.7 percent of Gross National Income. As mentioned above, Danish foreign and security policy is all about conjoining stability operations, so that development aid is used together with hard security and diplomacy to stabilize weak states. Less aid means that there will be fewer funds to development and thus less “conjoinedness”. Furthermore, the cuts will also mean that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will get less funds and a slimming of the Danish diplomatic corps is unavoidable. 

4. Closing the Iraq Commission 
The previous government established an Iraq and Afghanistan Commission to investigate whether the Danish participation in the Iraq War was legal and whether Danish troops violated international law during both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The commission’s work has so far been highly inefficient and internal strife between the commission members has made it easy to argue that the whole ordeal was a waste of money. The commission should investigate whether Danish officers knew that Iraqi and Afghan prisoners risked torture when they were handed over to local authorities. The commission thus had a legal – and not a political - focus and the then-opposition saw it as a political vendetta against the right-wing government that had presided over those wars. In turn, the current opposition argues that the Rasmussen government only closes the commission because it fears that the result might tarnish leading members of the liberal party. The entire affair shows that the wound that opened when the government joined the Iraq War with a slim majority has yet to heal.

All in all, the change of government will have small, but significant, implications for Denmark’s foreign and security policy. The coming years will show how those implications will play out – luckily, there will still be much to do for political nerds. 

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