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Is Denmark an Arctic Great Power?

Is Denmark an Arctic Great Power?

February 15, 2017

In partnership with the Arctic Yearbook, Arctic in Context is pleased to be running a series of interviews with the authors of the peer-reviewed articles that appeared in the 2016 edition. The authors with whom we will speak are among the Arctic experts whose research influences policymakers, business leaders, and media coverage. We encourage you to read further, and will provide a link to the full article at the end of each interview.  


The Kingdom of Denmark is a state that consists of more than one nation. Linked to the Arctic only through the Faroe Islands and Greenland, the latter is the strategic center of Denmark’s Arctic policy. In the interview below, Erica Dingman discusses Danish policy in the region with Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern Denmark, where his research focuses on Western security challenges, Danish foreign and security policy, and Arctic politics. 

Erica Dingman: As you point out, the Kingdom of Denmark comprises the nations of Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland, which is strategically located in the Arctic. But the strategic significance of Greenland has ebbed and flowed over time. Could you give us a bit of background on this?

Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen: It’s not something I covered extensively in my paper, but it seems that the strategic importance of Greenland ebbs and flows, as you put it, and is correlated with the American relationship to Russia. Greenland was very important to the U.S. during the Cold War. It’s right there between America and northern Asia, where the Americans could intercept a missile going over the North Pole. It’s also important because of what is called the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. gap, where Russian submarines would go out in case of a military crisis. So for the United States, it’s very much about the relationship with Russia. When tensions are high, Greenland is incredibly important; when tensions are low, Greenland sort of disappears from the inner circles of Washington.

If you then look at it from a Danish point of view, Greenland is important because of its relationship with the United States. During the Second World War, Greenland played a really important role between the “Free Danes,” a group of politicians and civil servants in exile and the American government. What happened was that the Danish ambassador in Washington declared the government in Copenhagen obsolete; they were under the control of Germany. He didn’t de facto set up an independent government, but he had his own foreign policy and he used Greenland as a pawn in that game to get the Americans to work with him.

During the Cold War, Greenland was very important in solidifying the relationship between the U.S. and Denmark. To go back to your original question, the key is U.S. interest in Russia.

ED: In the recent past, Denmark’s ministries of defense and foreign affairs both released reports that suggest means by which Denmark’s Arctic presence could be enhanced. How do these reports advance Denmark’s Arctic interests?

JRC: The reports are important for two reasons and it’s important to understand them as two interrelated reports. One reason has less to do with Denmark’s Arctic capabilities, and more to do with selling the Arctic in Denmark. Because Denmark has a long list of foreign policy priorities, the Arctic has until recently been far down that list. These reports are important, particularly the foreign policy report, because it defines the Arctic as one of Denmark’s main interests together with strategic reassurance in Eastern Europe, control of the Baltic Sea, and missions in the global south. So Denmark has four or five strategic priorities and the foreign policy report defines the Arctic as one of those priorities; it explains to the Danish public why the Arctic is important. It uses this phrase that I also used as the title of my piece, calling Denmark “An Arctic Great Power.” I believe this oversells Denmark a little bit, but it’s important because the government needs to explain to the Danish people that this is an area where the country can actually make a difference. The first outcome is this domestic selling point.

Second, the reports outline concrete ideas and measures that can implement goals in the Danish Strategy for the Arctic 2011-2020. For example, they suggest that Denmark increase its spending in the Danish Arctic. I think that the key outcome will be an increase in defense spending, but that this expenditure will focus on Coast Guard activities—search and rescue. It’ll entail investment in satellite capabilities and environmental protection and stuff like that. It will also try to establish an Arctic Coast Guard for the Greenlandic population following the Canadian model. That is also why I put “An Arctic Great Power” in quotation marks, because I think this is a move in the right direction that puts more emphasis on the Arctic than previously, but one shouldn’t exaggerate it. It’s a small step. Denmark is moving less than 1 percent of its defense budget to the Arctic, so it’s small potatoes. But in an area like the Arctic, where even a small investment sometimes goes far, it will probably have an impact on a five- to 10-year horizon.

ED: Could you briefly explain the Canadian model?

JRC: Canada has been very good at developing the Canadian Rangers, a body of indigenous people and locals used to enhance search and rescue and environmental capabilities in the Arctic. This model has been an inspiration to Danish authorities—the idea is to get the Greenlanders to voluntarily contribute to search and rescue and the Coast Guard in Greenland. It’s seen as a way of getting more capabilities in vast areas with very little infrastructure, but also as a way of integrating the population of Greenland into a Kingdom of Denmark way of thinking, and getting them to think of themselves as citizens of the Kingdom of Denmark.

ED: How has Russia influenced Denmark’s Arctic policy?

JRC: Denmark is rather dovish when it comes to Russia. Of course, relations to Russia are one of the most important dynamics going on in the Arctic today. In Copenhagen, the thinking is that it is possible to keep Russia on a peaceful course in the Arctic, and the best way to achieve that is to avoid NATO involvement in the Arctic. If you look at the Danish Strategy for the Arctic, it emphasizes cooperation all the time. Denmark’s Arctic policy, compared to some of the other coastal states, is perhaps more Russia-friendly. That said, Denmark has a strong interest in NATO keeping a strong front vis-à-vis Russia in general. So there’s this real tension in Danish foreign policy: Should we be dovish or hawkish vis-à-vis Russia?

ED: Where do Denmark’s interests overlap with Greenland? Where do tensions arise between the two?

JRC: In many ways, both Greenland and Denmark share an interest in getting Greenland developed. Both want to generate a meaningful industrial sector in Greenland. Ninety-five percent of the way, they both envision a Greenland that gets to rule itself in the sense that Denmark’s politicians don’t want to be responsible for what goes on in Greenland. What’s more, Greenland’s politicians really want to control their own matters. There are many overlapping interests, but of course there are debates about who gets to decide what. The Kingdom of Denmark’s division of labor allows Greenland its own domestic policy in a number of areas, whereas Denmark is responsible for foreign, security, and defense policy. Sometimes it is clear, but sometimes the line between domestic policy and foreign and defense policy blurs. Uranium mining is a good example. Is that a foreign policy matter or is that a natural resources policy?

Another tension arises when it comes to relations with China. Greenland is interested in getting as many investors as possible, whereas the Danish government is particularly worried that too many Chinese investments will antagonize the United States; the United States is the key ally and key reason as to why Denmark is actually interested in Greenland.

ED: You make a distinction between the Danish nation and Danish state. How does this influence the political discourse and why are identity politics important?

JRC: Denmark is slightly different than that of many modern states in that there is a very strong overlap between the Danish nation and Danish state. Compared to Canada or the United States, for instance, where there are many cultural communities that exist within the same state, more than 90 percent of the population of Denmark self-identifies as Danes—the connection between Denmark the state and Denmark the cultural nation is very strong. Other “nations” like the Faroe Islands or Greenland, which are both other nations within the state, blur the self-image that many Danes have.

It’s a big challenge in Denmark to sell the idea of the Kingdom of Denmark as a federal state. Most Danes are not used to thinking about Denmark as a federal state or a state of many nations. Danish politicians struggle to come up with a word or a way of thinking about Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland as a political unit, a state with three nations, that fits with the broader population’s understanding of Denmark as a mono-cultural nation-state, where Denmark the state is equal to Denmark the nation.

Danish Arctic strategy and foreign policy strategy both contain language that hints at the Kingdom of Denmark as a federal entity akin to the United States, in which several communities exist within one state. Thinking of Denmark as a place that contains many diverse nations, especially Greenland, is a hard idea to sell; Danes are used to thinking that their ancestry and their country go back for several generations. That’s why all attempts to articulate such an identity are stranded thus far and why the Danish government hasn’t managed to sell it yet. I think many Danes struggle to think of what Greenland is good for, why they should care. It’s also a hard idea to sell to Greenlanders because, as Ulrich Pram Gad recently showed, they have the same “nation equals state” model in Greenland. They also struggle to see themselves within a Denmark, because it’s not a “real” state—a real state has only one nation and one state. It’s a work in progress.



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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. He is currently conducting a three-year research project about the impact of the Ukraine Crisis on Arctic politics, which is funded by the Carlsberg Foundation.

Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen’s full article, “‘An Arctic Great Power’? Recent Developments in Danish Arctic Policy,” which appeared in the Arctic Yearbook 2016, can be found here.

You can also read Jon’s article, “Denmark Engages in Arctic Nation-Building,” which appeared in Arctic in Context on May 25, 2016. 

[Photo courtesy of US Coast Guard Academy]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.