Denmark’s New Foreign and Security Policy Strategy Meets Reality with ‘Pragmatic Idealism’


Image credit: NATO


by Jan Top Christensen
CGAI Fellow
June 2023


Table of Contents


Denmark just got a new strategy for its foreign and security policy, although the most recent one dates back only to January 2022. The reason for already replacing the previous one can be explained in one word: Ukraine. Russia’s invasion in February 2022 has changed the whole security situation in Europe and creates “deep-rooted distrust, and long-term confrontation and unpredictability,” according to the new strategy. The war is seen as a war about values. Either Ukraine becomes a part of the democratic European family or it is re-integrated into the despotic-czar Russia 2.0.

Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen writes in the foreword, “the ink had barely dried before a new geopolitical reality came crashing down … we must deal with the world as it actually is: uncertain, unpredictable and complicated. Brutal at times …”

He describes Russia’s blatant disregard of international law, China’s clear signs of wanting more “elbow room” and building up its military capacities and the U.S. turning more attention to Asia, regardless of who is sitting in the White House.

“We must not be naïve,” Rasmussen writes. “Countries act according to their own interests, not according to what would be good for Denmark … Everything is not equally good. Values still play a role. A balance has to be found between pragmatic realism and democratic idealism. Thus, pragmatic idealism is not a confrontation with our values either … on the contrary,” he adds.

The question is whether “pragmatic idealism” works as a clear moral compass. On the continued presence of some major Danish companies in Russia following the invasion, international commentator at the Danish daily, Politiken, Michael Jarlner, finds that it has “hardly become easier for Danish companies”.  And he stresses his criticism by pointing to the foreign minister’s recent decision “to remove the ban on weapon export to one of the world’s most brutal regimes, Saudi Arabia”.

The strategy will serve as the framework for more detailed new strategies and political agreements, including a new, focused approach to global trade and supply lines, a revised strategy for technological development, new plans for further engagement with Africa, broad political agreements on long-term boosted defence policy and a more “wholehearted Danish commitment to the EU.” 


When Fiction Inspires Reality

Rasmussen is foreign minister in the new Danish coalition government, formed in December 2022. It’s a majority government made up of the Social Democrats holding the prime ministerial position, the Liberal Party and Rasmussen’s new party, the Moderates. Rasmussen was for many years chairman of the Liberal Party and twice prime minister but was dethroned as chairman by his own members when he recommended co-operation with the Social Democrats. As in the popular Danish TV political drama series, “Borgen,” he decided to create a new centre party, and named it the Moderates. In the 2022 election, it became the third largest party in the parliament, almost halving his old party, the Liberals.

The full new strategy for Denmark’s foreign and security policy may be accessed here:


Denmark Must Bear Its Share in NATO, Going Beyond the Two-Per-Cent Target

The strategy document stresses the commitment a broad majority of parties in parliament made in March 2022. According to the new strategy, not only will Denmark reach the two per cent of GDP for defence in 2030, three years earlier than planned, but it may go beyond this target. Russia’s aggressive behaviour will be met with substantial new defence investments. “In the future, Europe and Denmark must assume greater responsibility in NATO,” the new strategy states.

Following on the strategy, the coalition government recently presented its defence proposal for the coming years. For the next two years, some C$3.5 billion has been set aside as new military assistance to Ukraine. The government considers this amount as part of the Danish defence budget and thus claims it has already reached the two-per-cent threshold this year. Some Danish critics question the validity of this accounting principle and await NATO’s reaction.


The Arctic Calls for Further NATO Co-operation

Russia’s increased military presence in the Arctic, and now as a more unpredictable actor, calls for further co-operation in the region. China’s growing interest in the Arctic is also changing conditions. Denmark is increasing its military presence in the Arctic to strengthen the surveillance and enforcement of sovereignty.

While co-operation with Russia in the Arctic Council has been suspended because of the invasion of Ukraine, Denmark will continue to work for the Arctic to remain a low-tension region.

Finland is a new NATO member, and with Sweden hopefully soon to follow it is expected that both countries will largely take care of NATO’s security interests in the Baltic Sea. Denmark can thus set aside more resources for the Arctic region. The U.S. is keen to see more Danish air and maritime resources used for Arctic surveillance to counter the increased Russian military activity there and in the North Atlantic. The Danish government has clearly signalled its readiness to respond positively to the American request.

With growing activity in the Arctic, increased co-operation between Canada and the Nordics within NATO seems obvious.


The EU Needs More Decision-making Power: Denmark is Getting Ready

Since its 1973 entry into the EU, Denmark has hesitated about giving up national sovereignty. Denmark sees Europe as its main platform for developing its foreign and security policy. Therefore, it is in Denmark’s interest to help the EU to increase its geopolitical influence to better reflect the EU’s economic weight.

Ukraine, the west Balkan countries, Moldova and Georgia (where Denmark just opened a new embassy) are knocking on the EU’s door. Denmark is ready to help these countries to develop their legal and economic institutions so they can meet the accession criteria for the EU.

The new strategy also indicates that Denmark is getting ready to discuss the use of majority vote instead of consensus decisions in European foreign and security policy decisions. Rasmussen sees it as an “inevitable debate,” given the possibility of the EU increasing by 10 new members and thus becoming a union of possibly 37 countries.

Denmark wants to see a stronger geopolitical role for the EU. Denmark has recently accepted Germany’s invitation to become an observer in the club of core EU countries discussing how to create new decision-making procedures in the EU.


Globalization Is Up for Change: Is Free Trade Under Deconstruction?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created a serious energy crisis in Europe. COVID-19 challenged European health systems. China controls the supply of many critical minerals. Denmark has become acutely aware of the vulnerabilities created by an extended division of labour through globalization. The new strategy recommends that Denmark put more emphasis on closer European industrial co-operation, including in the defence industry sector. Green transition, digitization and critical infrastructure are mentioned as other key areas. Denmark has to become more robust and safeguard strategic supply chains, even if that comes with an economic price.

Denmark will work to increase the EU’s strategic autonomy. In trade with China, equal market access should be a pre-condition. In trade with the U.S., “fair competition” is key, says the strategy, without mentioning the recent challenges for Europe (and Canada) created by the U.S.’s Inflation Reduction Act’s protectionist measures.

Where growth was the key target for globalization, security steps today are an equally important dimension. “First and foremost, we must reduce Denmark’s and Europe’s critical dependencies and vulnerabilities,” the strategy states.

Denmark and China signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2008 and that document is up for review. Denmark will continue co-operating with China on global challenges like climate change and health, but Rasmussen stresses that China has developed to become a “systemic rival.” The future approach to China will not be characterized by decoupling, but by de-risking, and Denmark will continue including human rights issues in its dialogue with China.

With the Indo-Pacific’s increased economic and political importance, Denmark and the EU must invest more diplomatically and economically. As a major maritime nation, Denmark has a clear interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.


Acknowledging the Need for a Stronger Foreign Service

Like the Canadian foreign service, its Danish counterpart has systematically been exposed to budget cuts over the last two decades, as foreign ministers have come and gone. Since 2010, eight people have occupied that position and the prime minister’s department has taken over more foreign policy decisions. But it now seems as if things may change in Denmark. The strategy is clear and conclusive: “The new political reality demands Denmark’s foreign and security policy adapt … to continue to defend and promote Danish values and interests … It requires us to increase our engagement and build new alliances … All of this requires a strengthened Danish diplomacy that is prepared to tackle the challenges we face.” The fact that the very experienced and political heavyweight Rasmussen is now in charge of the foreign ministry bodes well for a revitalized foreign service in Denmark.


Will Denmark Succeed Where Canada Failed?

In 2020, Canada failed in its bid for a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Denmark’s new strategy stresses that it will remain one of only five countries living up to the old UN target of spending at least 0.7 per cent of GDP on development assistance. The focus will continue to be on ODA to African countries. The strategy highlights the importance of meeting the African continent, which holds 54 votes at the UN General Assembly, with “equal dialogue and partnerships.” So the chance that Denmark, with a more active and strategic profile, will fare better than Canada seems good when the UNGA votes next year for the 2025-26 UNSC seats.

A successful UNSC bid would mean that others are noticing Denmark’s actions, but more than rhetoric is required to meet the challenges of our security environment. The actions taken to address these challenges must be pragmatic while still aligned with our values. The strategy says Denmark should still promote its values, but it should do this “with an eye on reality” in a way that does “not close doors.” The pragmatism is stressed in the words: “There will always be dilemmas when dealing with others who do not share the same value as us.” 


About the Author

Jan Top Christensen is a retired Danish ambassador, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and an international consultant.


Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

The Institute was created to bridge the gap between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically Canadians have tended to look abroad out of a search for markets because Canada depends heavily on foreign trade. In the modern post-Cold War world, however, global security and stability have become the bedrocks of global commerce and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across international boundaries. Canada has striven to open the world since the 1930s and was a driving factor behind the adoption of the main structures which underpin globalization such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and emerging free trade networks connecting dozens of international economies. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute recognizes Canada’s contribution to a globalized world and aims to inform Canadians about Canada’s role in that process and the connection between globalization and security.

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