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Denmark Engages in Arctic Nation-Bending

Denmark Engages in Arctic Nation-Bending

May 25, 2016

By Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen

The Arctic is the new black in Copenhagen. Over the past decade, the region has gone from being a peripheral issue and a career dead end for Danish diplomats, best left for a few die-hard Greenland nerds in the Office for Nordic, Greenlandic, and Faroese Affairs, to becoming a top priority on Denmark’s foreign and security policy agenda. The interest in Arctic issues reached new heights a few weeks ago, when the government published a comprehensive foreign policy review (an executive summary in English is available) declaring that “the Kingdom of Denmark is a great power in an Arctic context.” The Arctic vision presented in the report does not represent a fundamental shift in policy, but should rather be seen as a continuation of the cooperative focus of Denmark’s 2011 Arctic Strategy. Within the coming months, the Ministry of Defense will publish its Arctic strategic review, which will outline a palette of concrete initiatives in the region. A late bloomer compared to Norway, which made the Arctic its top foreign policy priority back in 2005, Denmark’s policymakers have come to recognize that the opening of the High North leads to challenges and opportunities that warrant enhanced attention.

The turn to the Arctic means that Danish policymakers must engage in an exercise of creative nation-bending to justify the new emphasis of Arctic affairs. Danish taxpayers could reasonably ask why they should care about, let alone bankroll, initiatives in the Arctic, a region that seems far from their everyday lives. The answer has been to appeal to a new understanding of Danish nationhood that emphasizes the Kingdom of Denmark—the political union of Denmark proper, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland, where the former is responsible for foreign and defense issues, while the latter two have wide autonomy—as a political reference point. Hence, it is “the Kingdom of Denmark” that is an Arctic great power—the 2011 Arctic Strategy is formally “The Kingdom of Denmark’s Arctic Strategy.” Danes are used to thinking of themselves as citizens of a European, monocultural nation-state, where one nation (the Danes) with one language (Danish) live in one state (Denmark). The fact that most Danes share the same culture as almost all of their fellow citizens probably helps to explain the unusually high levels of trust found in Denmark, the rise of the Danish welfare state, and the strength of anti-immigration and anti-globalization parties. This monoculturalism only worked because other groups with a long history of Danish citizenship—the Faroese and the Greenlanders—were small and tucked away in far-off corners of the North Atlantic, where they could be conveniently ignored.

The new emphasis on the Kingdom of Denmark tries to transcend this monoculturalism by reframing Danish statehood as a confederation where the three separate polities are cast as partner nations. Of course, the three nations are not equal, as Denmark continues to formulate the Kingdom’s foreign and security policy, as well as other policy areas, while bankrolling welfare states in the Faroe Islands and Greenland. This attempt to create a common voice that somehow originates in Copenhagen and represents all three nations may be the best solution to a complex working relationship, but it still creates awkward tensions. For instance, Aleqa Hammond, the nationalist former Greenlandic prime minister and current member of the Danish parliament, called the Arctic vision in the new foreign policy review “a report that sees with Danish eyes,” ignoring “Greenlandic interests.” Vittus Qujaukitsoq, Greenland’s foreign minister, called the report ”a scary reading” that envisions ”a new Danish foreign policy, which is only based on Danish values and interests.” Both Faroese and Greenlandic politicians have reacted to the review by arguing that they should make their own foreign policy strategies. These reactions may be a bit over the top, as the new review does nothing but continue ideas that were outlined in the 2011 Arctic Strategy, with which the same Faroese and Greenlandic politicians have not expressed problems.

In that sense, the Danish attempt to formulate a vision of Arctic nationhood seems to become more cumbersome than similar articulations in some of the other Arctic coastal states. For instance, Norwegian politicians also began to frame Norway as an Arctic nation when the country began its Arctic turn some 10 years ago. However, that move was much easier, as the bulk of the Norwegian Arctic (except the islands of Svalbard, Jan Mayen, and Bjørnøya) is contiguous with the Norwegian mainland and inhabited mostly by ethnic Norwegians. Norwegian articulations therefore only had to deal with an internal audience and only had to remind citizens of the importance of areas and people who lived north of the Arctic Circle. Danish policymakers, by contrast, must convince a domestic audience in Denmark proper while simultaneously dealing with disgruntled and independence-bent politicians in Nuuk and Thorshavn. Each of these tasks is complicated by the existence of the other. To a Danish audience, this Arctic vision involves a fundamental shift in the way Danes understand citizenship and their nation-state. To a Faroese or Greenlandic audience, it involves selling an inherently unequal constitutional arrangement in a political context that is already shaped by postcolonial issues of guilt and identity.

These tensions and complications may inhibit Denmark’s ability to allocate resources to the High North. Denmark is not an Arctic nation in the same way that, for instance, Norway is. Denmark may become more engaged in the High North, but it will do so on the cheap whenever possible and it will be hampered by the need to accommodate Greenlandic and Faroese sensibilities.



Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern Denmark, where he is also affiliated with the Center for War Studies. His research focuses on Western security challenges, Danish foreign and security policy, and Arctic politics.

The article is cross-posted at the Blog of War. 

[Photo courtesy of Vincent van Zeijst]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.