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Military support, canned pork and an air base: Here’s why Denmark has been an important U.S. ally

Denmark Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen in Copenhagen on Wednesday. (Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters)
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President Trump canceled a visit to Denmark scheduled for next month after Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen refused to consider selling Greenland to the United States. Trump’s move has infuriated Danish politicians and strained relations with an ally that — until now, at least — has stood behind the United States on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena.

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Denmark stretch back to 1783, when the monarchy then known as Denmark-Norway formally recognized and established a commercial treaty with the newly independent nation.

The friendship has continued, mostly smoothly, since then. Denmark joined NATO as a founding member in 1949 and remains “a stalwart NATO ally,” according to a U.S. State Department Web page.

“Around the world Denmark is a steadfast partner to the United States,” says the website of the U.S. Embassy in Denmark.

This cozy relationship is why Danish politicians perceived Trump’s abrupt cancellation of his trip as an affront. “It’s an insult from a close friend and ally,” Michael Aastrup Jensen, a member of Parliament representing the center-right Venstre party, told The Washington Post.

Here’s a look at U.S.-Danish relations in recent decades.

Support for American wars

When the United States goes to war, Denmark has been quick to pitch in. Denmark was an important NATO member during the Cold War because of its strategic location on the bloc’s northern edge. In the decade after the Cold War, Danish forces served in Bosnia under U.S. command as part of the NATO air campaign against Serbia in 1999, according to the Atlantic Council.

After 9/11, Denmark contributed troops to the war in Afghanistan, and a small contingent of Danes remain in Kabul nearly 18 years later. Denmark also provides more than $100 million on average annually to build Afghanistan’s security forces, per the Danish Defense Ministry.

Denmark was also quick to support the war in Iraq, chipping in a submarine, a warship and several hundred troops in 2003 to bolster the U.S. invasion, according to the Irish Times. Government ministers under then-Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen defended the intelligence — later debunked — used to justify that invasion. Denmark maintained a military presence in Iraq until 2007.

Since then, the country has contributed troops to a U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State and assisted other U.S. military operations in the Middle East.

Martin Lidegaard, a politician in Denmark’s Social Liberal Party and a former foreign minister, called the United States “our closest ally when it comes to security.”

“And I hope that the U.S. also considers us a close ally,” he added.


The United States is Denmark’s largest non-European trading partner. The State Department describes Denmark as “a center for U.S. agencies and the private sector dealing with the Nordic/Baltic region” because of the small country’s perch at the entrance to the Baltic Sea.

The United States and Denmark traded $11.5 billion dollars in goods in 2018, per U.S. government figures. The United States exports aircraft, computers and machinery to Denmark, according to the State Department. In return, the United States receives chemical products, windmills, canned ham and pork, and furniture from the Scandinavian country.


Greenland represents the source of present turbulence in U.S.-Danish relations, and it’s been a flash point in the past. After World War II, Denmark rebuffed President Harry Truman’s offer to buy Greenland for $100 million in gold.

But Greenland has also marked a site of cooperation between the countries. American administrations have kept an eye on the massive island, which belongs to Denmark, because of its strategic location in the Arctic.

Why might Trump want to buy Greenland? Take a visual tour.

Denmark allowed the United States to build an air base there in 1951, and Thule Air Base has remained the United States’ northernmost military outpost since then. It’s home to an American missile defense system, and thousands of flights land or take off from the runway there each year.

Diplomatic relations under Trump

Danes have soured on the United States slightly under Trump, although Denmark’s top leaders have insisted the alliance remains strong.

The Trump administration’s ambassador to Denmark, socialite and former actress Carla Sands, is not nearly as popular in Copenhagen as beloved former Ambassador Rufus Gifford, who starred in a reality-TV show, “I Am the Ambassador From America.”

Gifford called Trump’s decision to back out of his trip “a shame” on CNN on Wednesday.

“Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics — I think that’s obvious,” Gifford said. “But you know what? They are a big fan of the United States of America, and the fact that they had an American president visiting was a big deal for them.”

As members of Parliament offered sharp critiques of Trump and his approach to foreign policy Wednesday, Frederiksen — the prime minister — delivered more-tempered remarks.

Though she voiced surprise and disappointment that the White House had decided to cancel a visit for which preparations were already “well underway,” she said Trump’s decision would not “change the character of our good relations."

That didn’t stop Trump from hurling one of his favorite insults at Frederiksen on Wednesday, calling her rejection of his offer to buy Greenland “nasty.”

Even though Trump will no longer visit Copenhagen in September, some Danish residents still plan to fly a balloon depicting Trump as a baby there, Bloomberg News reported.

Still, Lidegaard said he doesn’t expect the relationship to change dramatically in the long run.

“The U.S. will continue to be an ally as long as a broad majority in the U.S. also considers us as an ally, and I certainly believe that is the case,” he said.