It has a lovely, wind-swept coastline and a bicycle-friendly capital city. It has some cutting-edge restaurants, internationally competitive companies, impressive wind farms, a spectacular opera house. It regularly tops the list of the world’s happiest countries — this year, it came in second, just after Finland, and well above the United States. Still, at this particular juncture in history, maybe it’s time to ask: What, after all, is the point of Denmark?
Or, more precisely: Why do we need a Danish ally? In normal times, I wouldn’t have bothered to ask that question, let alone spend even a nanosecond answering it. Denmark has been a formal U.S. ally since it joined the NATO alliance in 1949. For 70 years, nobody has questioned Denmark’s strategic importance in the Baltic Sea, its reliability as an ally, its membership of the various clubs that make up the West. But President Trump’s ludicrous spat with the prime minister of Denmark — which takes place just as he sets out, once again, for what all assume will be another disastrous trip to Europe — makes me think it’s time to go back to basics, to think again about the purpose of U.S. alliances, and not just the alliances with big countries such as Germany or Britain.
It’s true, of course, that some aspects of this bizarre Danish story just reflect Trump’s own snowflake hypersensitivity, his mistaken belief in his ability to “make deals,” his instinctive dislike of female leaders. But some of it also reflects a very deep scorn for smaller countries, a scorn already made evident by his appointment of an ambassador to Copenhagen who is beyond caricature: a failed actress with a rich husband ; a degree from a chiropractic college that recently was put on probation by an accrediting agency; and a penchant for promoting online conspiracy theories. Trump’s lack of interest in the momentous protests in Hong Kong and his support, in 2014, for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are part of the same pattern. Might makes right, in Trump’s 1930s-era brain. If big countries choose to occupy and incorporate smaller ones, then so be it.
This argument can be countered by pointing to the contributions that Denmark has made, in recent years, to U.S. foreign policy. After 1989, the Danes deliberately reconfigured their military, creating expeditionary forces designed to assist the United States. Denmark sent troops to Iraq; in Afghanistan, the Danish army suffered 43 casualties, a higher rate, proportional to Denmark’s 5.7 million population, than the U.S. military. Since 1951, Denmark has also hosted an important U.S. air base in Greenland — a self-governing, autonomous Danish territory that is not for sale — and Denmark makes important contributions to modern thinking about informational warfare and cybersecurity, too.
But the real value of Denmark’s alliance with the United States lies elsewhere. What really matters, in the longer run, is not merely Denmark’s troop contributions but the fact that Denmark — like Portugal, Estonia, the Philippines and Belgium — is not at war with anybody, is not a target for invasion, is not preoccupied by a violent rivalry with one of its neighbors. For a large part of the 19th century, Denmark was in a constant struggle with Germany (look up the Schleswig-Holstein question if you don’t believe me), just as France was once at war with Spain, and Japan with Korea. These kinds of struggles — for territory, influence, trade — between big countries and small ones in the world of “might makes right” preoccupied leaders, devastated territories and, in the 20th century, mushroomed into the lethal battles of World Wars I and II.
Since 1945, the United States’ large and small allies in Europe and the Pacific have ceased to fight one another. Instead, they have agreed to be led by the United States, to abide by U.S.-created systems of mutually beneficial rules of trade, to create vast markets for U.S. companies that would not have been conceivable in the dog-eat-dog, “might makes right” world of the past. Small countries such as Denmark are now safe places for long-term U.S. investments. They abide by international commercial agreements. They don’t confiscate American property or destroy it in the course of a war.
So, no, it’s not a good idea to insult the Danish prime minister or to cancel, arbitrarily, a U.S. presidential visit to Copenhagen. When the United States seeks to project power, in Afghanistan or Iraq, Denmark can be useful. But Denmark’s membership in the NATO alliance and the rules-based international order that Trump so dislikes — predicated on a multi-decade truce with its neighbors — is America’s golden ticket to security and prosperity.