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Article for Peace Research Institute Frankfurt project on "Democratic Peace", August 2005*

A Few Dilemmas Bypassed in Denmark and Greenland

Abstract: Denmark appeared caught in several difficult to resolve political dilemmas when the US indicated a desire to upgrade Thule Air Base in Greenland for a key role in missile defence. Would a yes to the request inflame the movement in Greenland for independence? Would a no leave Denmark, which earlier had opted out of the EU defense co-operation, without strong allies? And would a democratic debate on the issue jeopardise a government policy in favour of yes? But after several years of consultations, debate and negotiations approval from both Greenland and the Danish parliament was obtained. Essentially the dilemmas were bypassed. The strategic and military issue in missile defense were overshadowed when Greenland used the occasion to take one more step towards independence – and in Denmark the remoteness of Thule and a sense of supreme interests at stake limited public debate. Danish democracy functioned within limits set by US hegemony – decision-making and public debate were heavily under the influence of what Walter Russell Mead call “sticky power”. Neither the Danes nor the Greenlanders wanted to leave the US empire and both found their best choice in exploiting whatever the system affords.



As the first American Secretary of State ever to visit Greenland, Colin Powell on 6 August 2004 travelled to the remote village Igaliku, population 40. Seated outdoors in bright sunshine with a blue fjord and green mountains as a spectacular backdrop, he, together with Foreign Minister of Greenland Josef Motzfeldt, signed agreements enabling the United States to upgrade radar facilities at the Thule Air Base for use in missile defence (MD). Since Greenland still is a part of Denmark, although it has a so-called Home Rule Government, the agreements were also signed by the Danish Foreign Minister, Per Stig Møller.

In remarks made at the occasion all three claimed the day to be historic. Secretary Powell explained his presence as a search for ‘a full partnership with Greenland’ and inaugurated ‘a new era of broader co-operation between the United States and Greenland’.[i] The Danish Minister called it ‘a very special day in the Danish-Greenland-United States relationship’.[ii] And Josef Motzfeldt had prepared a speech quoting Article One of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ In the future, he added, the date would mark the time when this promise, given when Greenland was under colonial rule, was finally redeemed. The agreements, he said, signified ‘an active step for Greenland towards increased foreign policy independence’.[iii]

This one agreement, when signed, modernized a 1951 defence treaty on Greenland between the then colonial power, Denmark, and its alliance partner, the United States, and now also made the Home Rule Government a partner. A second agreement focused on economic and cultural co-operation between Greenland and the US – a sort of backdoor compensation for American use of Thule. A third document dealt with environmental issues.[iv]

None of the agreements signed explicitly mention MD or an upgrade of the Thule radar station. Josef Motzfeldt in a later statement actually stressed his scepticism on the relevance of missile defence as a response to present threats, but also acknowledged: ‘The US can use the upgraded radar in accordance with the US request.’[v]

The choice of Igaliku was symbolic in pointing to the really important issue. A ceremony in the far north, at Thule Air Base or its nearby regional population centre of Qaanaaq (about 400 inhabitants), was not deemed appropriate. Igaliku was chosen because it is the home village of Motzfeldt, and one year earlier an agreement giving Greenland influence on Danish foreign policy had been signed in Itilleq, the tiny home village of the Prime Minister of Greenland, Hans Enoksen. Motzfeldt and Enoksen are from two separate parties in the coalition government, and after the Igaliku ceremony both had now received a gift. They could each showcase one more step away from Danish colonial rule, and for that accomplishment strong reservations on the military use of Greenland, with its deep roots in Inuit culture, were pushed aside.

As apparent losers most affected by the deal stood the local population around Thule. While the choice of Igaliku for the ceremony was a political gift to Motzfeldt, an added reason for the venue was fear of demonstrations in Qaanaaq. In 1953, the native population at Thule was, against its will, moved to this village, a few hundred kilometres away. Establishment of the base had impacted negatively on living conditions, and then the US authorities wanted to expand the restricted base area. In recent years a group representing the locals, Hingitaq 53, have sued in the Danish courts to get back its old hunting fields, now occupied by the base. After partial defeat, it brought the claim to the European Court of Human Rights in May 2004. The veteran hunter Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq, chairman of the group, explained then that if the land was not recovered ‘we will as the worlds northernmost living people cease to exist’ because hunting is not sustainable without it.[vi] Thule becoming part of MD has also been met with considerable local anxiety caused by fear of being a potential target for nuclear weapons.

Democracy Versus Narrow State Interests

But did democracy work for most other interests? The case of Denmark and Greenland offers a wealth of information to test how democracy affects the power of a state in military affairs.[vii]

The Danish decision-making process could, at least in form, be called a shining example of democracy at work. The ceremony in Igaliku was held after several years of consultations, debate and negotiations starting in 1999 when the Clinton administration’s plans for National Missile Defense (NMD) gave Thule a prominent role. Approval by Greenland and Denmark often appeared far from assured. Before the decisive phase, just after an official US request for the use of Thule had been received, the Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Møller on 17 December 2002 promised a free, open and thorough debate.[viii] Many objections were raised during several parliamentary debates in both Greenland and Denmark.[ix] International experts, including some critical of US missile defence plans, were summoned for hearings sponsored by the Parliaments.[x] The process gave plenty of time for debate: While the UK, after receiving a similar request, was able to respond on 5 February 2003 in the affirmative on use of the Fylingdales radar base, the Danish response came much later, on 26 May 2004. The Danish Prime Minister labelled MD a ‘Project for Peace’, and the democratic process from this perspective functioned very well in supporting peace and legitimizing the final approval.

How well did Danish democracy perform if MD, alternatively, is seen as a potential threat to peace and international stability? Were the concerns raised in this context subject to a free, open and thorough debate? Did Danish democracy function as a marketplace for ideas, all competing on merit, with the best winning? Based on both historical experience and political theory we should expect to find a less than ideal situation.[xi]

The Danish debate took place within geopolitical restraints. How to label US power in today’s world is still a matter of discussion, but the term ‘American Empire’, now preferred by many US scholars, seems well suited to describe Washington’s relationship towards Denmark and Greenland. They may be called parts of an ‘informal empire’ in the sense used by the American historian William Appleman Williams in his classic definition, and both thus must make their ‘choices within limits set, either directly or indirectly, by the powerful society, and often [do, J.D.] so by choosing between alternatives actually formulated by the outsider’.[xii] In the imperial structure Denmark, in its relationship with Greenland, is a sort of subcontractor being the de jure guarantor for US interests in Greenland based on the 1951 defence treaty, gaining considerable benefits for itself if control of Greenland can be sustained.

Within the confines of empire, Denmark during the Cold War actually preserved considerable room for manoeuvre. In a path-breaking study, Denmark has been called an ‘ally with reservations’ because it tried to pursue a non-provocative, low-key alliance-policy without far-reaching rearmament or military integration that might contribute to aggravation of East-West tensions. The policy was justified by both domestic factors (keeping NATO opponents in check) and external factors (keeping the Northern flank a relative low threat area). But the government was caught in a dilemma by a simultaneous desire for maximum security guarantees, and influence in military bodies where the United States was dominant. Sovereignty over Greenland helped alleviate this dilemma by making the American presence a ‘card’ in the game – Danish officials in their relations with the US secretly stressed that the base facilities should be included when calculating the contributions made by Denmark to NATO.[xiii]

Secrecy has often been used by Copenhagen to solve contradictions between stated policy and actual practice. Danish democracy ‘carries an undemocratic/elitist luggage in foreign and security policy’, as one scholar has noted,[xiv] despite its self-perception as an open grassroots democracy. But the MD issue caught Danish decision-makers in a new world situation. Secrecy was not a viable option – one reason being the need to get the Home Rule Government in Greenland involved, while another was a discouraging historical pattern of secrets becoming scandals. They thus had to handle two key questions: Could the tradition of reservations be extended to Greenland? Or, alternatively, how could Greenland be ‘delivered to the US’ again? 

Due to an election and change of government in 2001, two Danish cabinets (and three Foreign Ministers) were in charge of policy from 1999. The first government, led by a Social Democrat, tried to avoid public debate and firm positions as part of a defensive strategy. It found itself caught in a both political and strategic dilemma – it neither wanted to antagonize Greenland with a ‘Yes’ to Washington (giving the independence movement in Greenland new strength), nor did it want a conflict with the United States as a result of saying ‘No’ (although it was highly sceptical of missile defence).[xv] The second government, led by Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen, head of the ‘Left, the Danish Liberal Party’, came into office with a desire to profile Denmark as a very close and active US ally. Danish government policy was during this latter period geared towards obtaining approval from both Parliaments for the inclusion of Thule in the MD architecture.

How did democracy work for Greenland as a whole? It could be expected that the Home Rule Government would only be affected to a limited extent by restrictions operative in Denmark. As a former colony trying to acquire greater self-determination, Greenland has separate interests. The term “politics of embarrassment” has been developed to describe a tool available for organizations representing indigenous populations in areas under alien rule.[xvi] Through public campaigns they have, often effectively, highlighted abuses committed by the state in order to encourage recognition of their rights. This tool was used in Greenland to gain Home Rule, and later to acquire new concessions. And it was used again during the Thule debate with somewhat surprising effects.

A History of Controversy

No single factor in the process of debate, decision-making and negotiation was more important than the decades of controversy after Thule became a forward staging base for US strategic bombers in 1951. It gave valuable ammunition to the politics of embarrassment, and MD opponents in Denmark also used it. While secrecy had served the Danish state during the Cold War, it now backfired, feeding a climate of mistrust. The history simply did not ‘fit the profile Denmark wishes to present of itself to the world’[xvii] – and also to itself, it should be added. The state, due to its previous deeds, was thus put under pressure by Greenland when the history was recalled, and connections to the present were drawn in a strategy referring to moral norms and democratic values.

The United States gained a foothold in Greenland during World War II when the Danish ambassador in Washington, acting on his own due to the German occupation of Denmark, on 9 April 1941 signed an agreement delegating the defence of Greenland to the United Sates. After the war Denmark, under considerable pressure, agreed to a bilateral defence treaty in 1951 giving the United States almost unlimited military use of Greenland. The treaty established ‘defence areas’ which the US was entitled to ‘improve and generally to fit […] for military use’. In a large study from 1997, commissioned by the Danish government, years of US pressure to gain these rights were described as ‘a classic clash between a great power and a small state’. Denmark had the legal arguments on its side but lacked the political and military power to prevail.[xviii] 

From 1958 to 1960 the US built a ballistic missile early warning radar station in Thule without any controversy, but in 1987 a major affair erupted as a new radar was being built. Four years earlier the book ‘Grønland – Middelhavets Perle’ had created a stir by claiming a key role for Thule in an offensive American first strike strategy.[xix] The Danish government was caught unprepared, and requests in Washington for information did not enlighten it, as the American response was kept in brief and general terms.[xx] During a parliamentary debate the government nevertheless declared itself fully informed and refuted the allegations in the book. 

Shortly after that, an American military magazine described a planned modernization of the radar at Thule. Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Defence Ministry knew about these plans. Subsequently one of the American companies bidding for the radar job told the Ministry that a competitor, Raytheon, had offered to build a phased array radar at the site raising potential compliance problem with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The matter was then raised in Washington through the Danish embassy and during the summer of 1983 Denmark received a reassuring briefing: The Reagan administration could see no compliance problems. The Danish government accepted this position as its own. But several experts in the American arms control community saw it differently, and among them were the key negotiators of the ABM Treaty. The potential problem was first revealed in the Danish daily newspaper ‘Information’ in early 1985,[xxi] but a full-scale controversy did not break until January 1987, after ‘The New York Times’ had given the issue legitimacy in an article. The ABM Treaty was clear in prohibiting the stationing of a phased array type radar in a place like Thule far from US national territory, but the Reagan administration claimed that because an early warning radar had already been built on the site, it could be replaced. Information disputed this claim in a series of articles. It was for example revealed that the US Air Force in 1980, during the Carter administration, had decided not to replace the existing radar with phased array technology due to potential ABM Treaty compliance problems. One more Air Force argument against was that Denmark had to be consulted if a totally new facility was to be built.[xxii]

At stake in Denmark was more than a highly technical dispute on interpretation of a treaty to which Denmark was not a party. Parliament had earlier expressed its dislike of the US Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) but, according to American expert testimony, Thule with a new long-range phased array radar would contribute significantly to a missile defence system through improved tracking capability. The Danish daily newspaper ‘Information’ managed to pull American experts into the Danish debate, and the Soviet Union contributed with an official note on compliance issues after it was claimed by Copenhagen that Moscow was not really concerned. On 5 March 1987 in Parliament, government coalition parties and the opposition Social Democrats passed a lengthy resolution. A main point was that the Thule radar should not be used offensively ‘or in connection with an ABM or SDI system’. The government voted for this resolution because it had publicly stressed that the modernization did not have any relevance in an ABM or SDI context and did not change the basic function of the early warning role. American officials were less happy and bewildered: How could even an early warning radar not be connected to an ABM or SDI system? On that note the matter rested until late 1999 when Clinton administration plans for the use of the radar in its National Missile Defense were revealed.

Another lasting impact of the 1987 Thule affair was to involve local politicians more in foreign and security policy.[xxiii] In the 1979 agreement granting Greenland Home Rule, foreign and defence policy was preserved as a matter for the government in Copenhagen. The first leader of the Home Rule Government, Jonathan Motzfeldt (not to be confused with Josef), wanted the US to pay rent for its facilities in Greenland – a number of other bases and smaller radar stations besides Thule. But he was rebuffed by Denmark. Among the arguments were that Copenhagen could use Greenland as a ‘card’ in the transatlantic burden sharing debate – referring to the contribution made by giving the United States and NATO access to Greenland for free could still avert criticism of the Danish defence contribution.[xxiv] This ‘card’ grew in importance during the early eighties. Growth in the Danish defence budget was kept significantly below the three per cent recommended by the Alliance, and the Danish Parliament infuriated some allies by breaking alliance solidarity on a number of issues related to the nuclear arms race. Simultaneously Greenland became more interesting from a military point of view. 

As later admitted by a Danish ambassador to Washington during this period, the Thule radar also had ‘crucial’ significance for the ‘effectiveness of US intercontinental missiles’ and thus fitted into the more assertive US nuclear posture.[xxv] From a remote Danish military facility in the far north, Station Nord, the United States carried on exploration of the polar ice to develop anti-submarine warfare. And building a base on the eastern shores of Greenland was considered as a substitute for the Keflavik base in Iceland. Much of this went unnoticed in Greenland (and Denmark), and Jonathan Motzfeldt became more pragmatic in his view of the US presence. The 1983 book ‘Grønland Middelhavets Perle’ did nourish a traditional pacifist trend in Greenland, but at the same time the government in Nuuk was increasingly aware of the role military facilities played for the civilian sector, especially air transportation. Although Denmark had promised as early as 1979 to inform the Home Rule Government on foreign policy and security issues of relevance, the flow of information did not satisfy some politicians in Greenland.

The 1987 Thule affair brought this dissatisfaction into full bloom. A dispute on how authorities in Greenland and Denmark had handled the affair led to a split in the Home Rule Government coalition between the Social Democratic Siumut and the left wing Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA). Elections strengthened the IA. A former Prime Minister, Lars Emil Johansen, even challenged his own party leader, Jonathan Motzfeldt of the largest coalition party Siumut, and used the controversy as a stepping-stone for a later successful push to oust Motzfeldt. The prevailing sentiment in Greenland was that information on activities in Thule were still lacking. New Danish assurances on informing Greenland followed and in the fall of 1987 the Parliament in Greenland created a Foreign and Security Policy Committee. It came to co-operate closely with an organization created in 1980 by the Inuits of Alaska, Canada and Greenland to unite natives in the polar area. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference advocated de-militarization of the Arctic, even passing resolutions for a ‘strict’ interpretation of the ABM Treaty. It also played a role in assisting the evicted inhabitants of Thule. Their plight gained new attention during the 1987 Thule affair and set in motion a series of events leading in 1996 to a formal suit in the Danish courts for redress.

In 1995, a new affair strengthened hostility in Greenland to Danish supervision of the American presence. A couple of decades earlier in 1968 a nuclear-armed B-52 bomber had crashed on the ice near Thule. Rumours of contamination of the environment and humans involved in the clean up were confirmed by an investigation run from 1986 by a Danish journalist, eventually leading to the payment of financial compensation to hunters in Greenland and workers from Denmark. In the course of his investigation the reporter was able to reveal a secret agreement from 1957 allowing the US to station nuclear weapons in Thule, despite an official policy on of prohibiting such weapons on Danish territory, and despite Greenland not being a colony but a county in Denmark since 1953. Again a lack of co-operation from both Danish and American authorities raised strong sentiments. Lars Emil Johansen, then Prime Minister in Nuuk, called the decades long withholding of information from authorities in Greenland a ‘disgrace’.[xxvi] The investigative journalist in a summary described his experience in rolling up the affair: ‘The power of the United States was frightening and fascinating. It was like observing the relationship of old Rome to a vassal.’[xxvii] The dual Danish policy – one for public consumption, one highly secret – had caused Danish officials and politicians to act ‘in an information void concerning a central aspect of national security policy’ whenever indications of the presence of nuclear weapons came up, one scholar concluded.[xxviii] 

As a result of this latest controversy several reforms were swiftly enacted in the relationship between Nuuk and Copenhagen ‘to counter similar matters in the future’ by ‘ensuring full openness and simultaneous briefing’ of the Home Rule Government on foreign and security policy issues of relevance for Greenland, as an official account later stated.[xxix] The Danish Foreign Minister should have at least one meeting every year with the Prime Minister of Greenland, and the Danish Minister should have at least one meeting with the Foreign and Security Committee of the Parliament in Greenland. A standing committee of civil servants from both governments was created. Issues concerning the 1951 defence agreement were to be handled in two committees with representatives of the United States, Denmark and Greenland. 

The new structure did not solve fundamental issues of diverging interests. A working group in 1999 reported on these and looked for ways of reconciliation. The Danish position was that although the 1951 agreement only has two parties, the government in Copenhagen recognized that the Home Rule Government had interests of its own at stake. Greenland wanted a ‘re-negotiation’ of the defence treaty because it was done before Greenland was covered by the Danish constitution (1953) and before Home Rule (1979). Other specific demands were: status for Greenland as a ‘party’ to the treaty and a ‘general revision’ of its clauses. On these points the Danish position was that it would not be ‘opportune’ to raise re-negotiation with the US, and that ‘possible concrete problems’ should be solved through negotiations and supplementary agreements securing ‘visibility and influence’ for Greenland as a co-signatory. On behalf of the Danish Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister of Greenland, the Danish Foreign and Defence Ministries did an analysis of the significance American presence in Greenland had for Danish security policy. Among its conclusion were: Thule Air Base will ‘for many years’ cover a ‘strategic need’ for the United States, NATO and Denmark; Despite a new situation in security affairs the early warning facilities at Thule were still in the security interest of the Alliance and Denmark; American bases in Greenland had promoted the bilateral relationship ‘to the benefit of the whole kingdom’.[xxx]

Positions of the Principal Actors

It was with this heavy historical baggage that all actors in 1999 moved into a new controversy and took up their positions, this time on missile defence.

The United States 

For American administrations, use of Thule Air Base has been seen as a key component in recent MD plans. The Clinton administration in 1999 presented an architecture with an upgrade of the early warning radar and, in a later phase, an additional, much more powerful X-band radar was to be built. The NMD project was suspended in the fall of 2000, and during a hearing, arranged by the Danish Parliament in April 2001, a Bush administration representative, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Strategic Affairs Robert Lucas Fischer, was constrained in his remarks. The new administration had just started its Nuclear Posture Review and the architecture in a new MD project was uncertain. But as a personal view Fischer stressed the ‘extreme importance’ of large radar facilities for any land-based missile defence. Given its geographical position, an upgraded Thule radar thus constituted ‘an almost unique’ asset, he said.[xxxi] 

An official request to Denmark on the use of Thule for missile defence was delivered on 17 December 2002. The radar was to be upgraded in 2005/2006 according to a confidential briefing on the initial MD capabilities. One chart illustrated a missile trajectory attacking Washington, D.C., from Iraq being first detected by a similarly upgraded radar in Fylingdales, UK, and then being hit by interceptors from Vandenberg (California) and Fort Greely (Alaska) in the Thule radar field of view. The counterattack would apparently be possible when the warheads entered a zone east of Iceland. According to the old Clinton NMD project, an X-band radar would be very important in this counter-attack phase but the briefing did not mention this radar type.[xxxii] 

In April 2003, J. D. Crouch, Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Policy, presented the new plans for Thule at another hearing in Copenhagen. The upgrade of the existing radar was still on, but an X-band radar was no longer envisioned. No coherent explanation for this change in architecture was given. One member of the US delegation just said that a ‘more forward’ position was desired. The December briefing did not show any such element. According to this briefing the upgrade would bring ‘no change to radar elements, radiated power, duty cycle, range, azimuth, elevation or extents’. The capability was described as ‘early warning of threat objects launched north and east of CONUS [CONUS being the acronym for continental US, J.D.]’.[xxxiii] This description apparently includes missiles launched from Russia, but another chart called the facilities at Thule and Fylingdales ‘Middle East Defence Radars’.[xxxiv] During the Igaliku ceremony Secretary of State Colin Powell described the upgrade as ‘some software and minor hardware changes’ that would not be ‘noticeable […] to any of the inhabitants in Greenland’. It should, he continued, ‘make sure that we have in place the kinds of surveillance operations and activities that would be useful if these rogue nations, these nations that we know were developing long-range missiles and could carry weapons of mass destruction, actually are able to put these weapons in place’.[xxxv]

Denmark I

The Danish government, at that time Social Democrat-led, was probably informed about the Clinton administrations plans in 1998. Exactly when bilateral consultations were started is not clear. John Holum, Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, mentioned in press interviews a ‘special’ visit to Denmark in 1998.[xxxvi] This was very early in the US decision-making procedure since the administration in autumn and winter of 1998 had just begun ‘to look more seriously at missile defense as a necessary response’ to Republican pressure.[xxxvii] Questions in Parliament on the timing of consultations issue have been answered only in very general terms. One likely reason for the lack of specifics is that authorities in Greenland and committees in the two Parliaments were informed late in the process. Holum said, and Danish sources privately confirmed that Denmark asked not to receive an official request before an agreement between Washington and Moscow had been reached on modification of the ABM Treaty.

Public mention of Thule first happened during a hearing in the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 13 May 1999, when a possible architecture for NMD was presented, and the trade journal ‘Inside Missile Defence’ reported on it 19 May, but this was not noticed by the Danish press. Thule was in this architecture one of several early warning radars to be upgraded for NMD tasks and, in addition, building a more powerful X-band radar at three locations, Thule among them, was envisioned in a chart. Much of the information was confirmed, without directly mentioning Thule, again on 13 October by Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocombe during a Congressional hearing. According to the then Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Niels Helveg Petersen, Denmark learnt about US plans ‘through NATO and bilaterally’. Parliamentary foreign policy committees in Greenland and Denmark were informed during the summer of 1999 in general terms and under strict conditions of confidentiality. Danish politicians have privately complained that they had been much better informed during delegation visits to the US, starting in the summer of 1999, than  they were at home – and without warnings on confidentiality. The public in Denmark and Greenland did not get any information before 29 October when a Danish weekly, based on US sources, revealed the plans. The Danish Foreign Minister stressed that no official US request had been received so far, and thus a Danish decision had not been made. This response over the next couple of years became the standard answer in public to many questions, even in Parliament, on the issues involved. He also said that the prohibition from 1987 was current policy and Denmark thus did not want the Thule radar to be used in conflict with agreements still ‘in force’ in the arms control area.[xxxviii]

The coalition government under the leadership of the Social Democrat Poul Nyrup Rasmussen avoided a clear public stand, but there are indications that US plans did not find favour. When Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott presented the project at a North Atlantic Council meeting in mid-November 1999, the reception, according to one detailed report, was uniformly negative, only the UK representative avoided expressing criticism. The French ambassador let loose with a ‘diatribe’ but he was just the pitch pipe in a chorus of ‘dismay, suspicion, grievance, and warning’. The Danish ambassador ‘warned of the prospect of an arms race’.[xxxix] When a Social Democrat, Mogens Lykketoft, took over the Foreign Ministry in late 2000, the negative attitude was reinforced. In a debate in Parliament on 3 May 2001 he described the possible alternative consequences of an American deployment of MD as anything ‘between an incalculable arms race and the most extensive disarmament seen so far’.[xl] One key government source claimed that the Danish representatives were required to ‘keep a stony face’ during a meeting with their US counterparts and just ask questions, lots of them. Danish support should not, this source continued, be taken for granted because Copenhagen had not always in the past acted predictably according to raison d’état logic. In the 1980s, Parliament had repeatedly voted for arms control resolutions that were certain to anger the Reagan administration and displease NATO. In the 1990s Danish voters turned against further EU integration despite strong elite support. ‘“We have a reputation as an unpredictable, even unreasonable, country”’, a policy-maker said. ‘“And that reputation gives us some influence.”’[xli] In the Foreign Ministry it was taken for a given that Washington eventually would deploy NMD, but Danish leverage could be used to promote an agreement between Washington and Moscow, and preferably also a US-China deal.

Denmark II

Elections in November 2001 resulted for the first time in 70 years in a majority to the right of the Social Democrats and their traditional, small centrist partner, Det Radikale Venstre. The new Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, spearheaded ‘a general showdown with the Danish foreign policy tradition’.[xlii] In November 2002, he presented a ‘new foreign policy doctrine’ reflecting, a Danish scholar noted, a desire ‘to join one side in a lethal struggle’. In this view Denmark moved from being a ‘civilian actor’, regulating the conflicts of other people, to being a ‘strategic actor’, a country with a sense of vital interests at stake and a willingness to fight militarily for them.[xliii] Fogh Rasmussen himself presented his policy as a break with a more than 100 year old tradition, an ‘adaptation policy’,[xliv] which had allegedly dominated Danish foreign policy since the defeat by Prussia in 1864, and exemplified by co-operation with the German occupiers during World War II and the anti-nuclear Parliament resolutions of the 1980s – the latter being ‘submission and accommodation’ vis-à-vis ‘communist dictatorships’. The inclusion of the anti-nuclear policies was previewed in 1999 in a foreword he did for a book. Some people had, he wrote, during the Cold War committed ‘intellectual and moral treason’.[xlv] Neither the foreword, nor the book itself, made a distinction between Social Democrats and communists.

Fogh Rasmussen strove from early on to be one of the greatest of US allies. This shift in Danish policy had actually started earlier, during the Social Democrat-led government in the 1990s.[xlvi] One scholar has claimed that Danish foreign policy became ‘militarized’ and described a ‘Denmark uncritically following the American lead’.[xlvii] The characterisation could be called exaggerated, because Denmark’s new military profile – massive troop presence in the former Yugoslavia, support for the expansion of NATO through the development of compatible armed forces in the new Baltic countries and Poland, and participation in the Kosovo war – were limited to UN and NATO activities. And the pronounced pro-American Danish sentiments were nurtured by the popularity of President Clinton. But the characterisation did foreshadow things to come. After 11 September 2001 the Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen declared that Denmark was standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States. However, just weeks before, his Foreign Minister Mogens Lykketoft had said: ‘The EU has many common points of view, attitudes and values, that we to an increasing extent want to impress on the international society, and these are in opposition to the viewpoints of the new American administration.’[xlviii] By contrast Fogh Rasmussen highlighted how Denmark and the US had values in common. He looked at the United States as being the only power that could guarantee the security of Denmark and Europe.[xlix] 

This pro-US orientation on the strategic level can be seen as reflecting the search of a small state for security and influence through a strong bilateral relationship with the dominant superpower. After Danish voters in 1992 rejected the Maastricht Treaty a ‘national compromise’ established several Danish reservations on EU integration, one of them being a non-involvement in defence co-operation. As a result Denmark saw its interests as linked to a strong transatlantic relationship. The lack of a solid anchor in the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) has been used to explain why Denmark up to the change of government did not have the ‘strength and will’ to oppose missile defence. To have two ‘zones of conflict’ simultaneously – one in relations with the EU, another with the US – would be at least one too many.[l] When ESDP grew in significance, having a general impact on EU crisis management even with ‘soft power’, and also becoming a factor for the European role in the North Atlantic Alliance, Denmark increasingly was seen as marginalized. A plebiscite in 2000 on the Monetary Union gave a ‘No’, and thus a new vote on EU defence co-operation was postponed into the distant future. A high profile for Danish security policy, as desired by the Fogh Rasmussen government, was then seen as being ‘decisively’ linked to close co-operation with the US and a Danish military role in the high end, warfighting, part of the conflict spectrum.[li] 

On missile defence the new coalition parties had long before their election victory signalled a positive attitude to a future US request on Thule. In November 2002 the government declared its readiness to receive such a request. On 17 December it was made, and in a subsequent white paper on missile defence the government indicated its ‘positive attitude’.[lii] A final stand would, however, await public debate on the issue. When the Social Democrats responded with a more sceptical attitude it provoked a debate, led by the government coalition parties, on whether that party was returning to a policy of reservations akin to that of the 1980s.


The Home Rule Government presented its initial position on the upgrade of Thule on 19 November 1999. It stated that approval would not happen if, firstly, the ABM Treaty were to be ‘transgressed‘; and, secondly, the Americans were to ‘stick to their plans unilaterally’; thirdly if the upgrade were to be on the agenda then the Home Rule Government would expect ‘direct participation’ in talks; and, fourthly, the upgrade of the Thule radar ‘must in no way impact negatively on the existing world peace’.[liii] The statement was unanimously approved by the Parliament in Nuuk, and was for the next few years the foundation of declared policy. 

More demands were made. In a statement dated 15 November 2002 the Foreign and Security Policy Committee of the Parliament asked for the dissolution of the 1951 defence agreement, which was to be replaced by a new agreement with Greenland as an equal partner. This demand was even set as a ‘precondition’ for negotiations on any new use of Thule. ‘No new agreement – no Greenlandic accept’, became the key Parliament supported slogan.[liv]

A nine member Self-rule Commission set up by the Greenlandic Parliament in early 2000 repeated the demand for re-negotiation in its final report in April 2003. At that time the governments in Nuuk and Copenhagen floated the possibility of modifying the original treaty with a new Memorandum of Understanding, but this possibility was explicitly rejected in the report.[lv] The commission also suggested a futuristic plan for Thule – it should become an ‘international’ facility for early warning and satellite tracking.[lvi]

While politicians touted these demands in public, Greenlandic and Danish officials developed a more pragmatic set of demands. Concern in the Home Rule Government on security issues had been high, but several sources indicate a shift also among top politicians, behind closed doors, after the US request had been received. An upgrade was seen as inevitable, and attention focused on getting a good deal. A key official in Greenland noted: ‘All the objections really no longer mattered.’ A couple of years earlier Josef Motzfeldt of the far left IA party had accused the then Premier Jonathan Motzfeldt of being willing to sell use of Thule for a bag of dollars, and had vowed to personally kick out an American representative visiting to explain MD. Now he as Foreign Minister was in charge of upcoming negotiations with Denmark and the United States. In January 2003 very detailed proposals for a Memorandum of Understanding to reinterpret the 1951 agreement were presented to the Home Rule Government by its office of foreign affairs.[lvii] Shortly thereafter, the same office presented elements for a ‘compensation package’. The list ranged widely – from customs free export of products to the US to American diplomatic representation in Nuuk, from Washington’s assistance in building roads and harbours to scholarships at establishments for higher education in the United States.[lviii] Later a demand for cash payment as rent, about $ 20 million a year, was added. ‘Many in the Home Rule government felt they were sitting at the end of the rainbow’,[lix] one insider claimed. Income from the US base would in this vision constitute a way of diminishing dependence on large subsidies from Denmark.

The North Atlantic Group in the Danish Parliament – composed of two members from Greenland and one from the Faeroe Islands – in April played its pragmatic ‘card’: A declaration of principles for security co-operation. The proposal envisioned an agreement on the use of Thule if some ‘practical measures’ could be negotiated. A new proposal was the establishment of a joint Danish-Greenlandic-American ‘defence commission’ to ‘supervise security policy issues in the North Atlantic and determine risks and challenges in this connection’. Other proposals generally reflected the issues raised by the Greenlandic office of foreign affairs in January and February.[lx]

Debate Without a Popular Sounding Board

After the change of government in November 2001 few observers and participants in the Danish discourse were in doubt about how it would end. This perception is likely to have influenced many potential sceptics and opponents in their desire to spend time and energy on MD-related issues like threat, technology, strategy, stability and arms control. But many additional factors are relevant.

Quality of Debate

With support from a right wing populist party, the government coalition between a conservative party and Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen’s ‘Left, the Danish Liberal Party’ was assured of a stable majority for a Danish ‘Yes’ to the US request. The only joker in the game was the Home Rule Government in Greenland, and even in that case, approval was seen by many from early on as a question of price. MD created the usual spectrum of supporters-sceptics-opponents. Debate was largely confined to Parliament and thus followed a right to left spectrum with both sceptics (the two former government parties) and opponents (in two socialist parties) unable to block a government decision. Real dialogue was almost absent; debate was usually a repeat performance of pro and con arguments. Sceptics did not try to inject drama into the debate by presenting or supporting resolutions in opposition to US policy or the use of Thule.

   Information and arguments presented during hearings were used, if at all, only to bolster pre-conceived attitudes. The government had promised to deliver a white paper presenting and evaluating relevant information, but the report when published just made an argument in favour of MD for the general public.[lxi] Much of the report looked like a copy of an official UK white paper[lxii] – the main difference being that nuances were left out in the Danish version. When the Danish daily newspaper ‘Information’ asked for public finance for an alternative report the request was refused.[lxiii] Opponents in Parliament did use a question and answer arrangement to elicit more detailed responses from the government, but extremely few answers were substantive. Political parties made no discernible effort to take their debate out of Parliament by mobilizing public opinion. A poll in early summer 2001 had shown a majority of 52.7 per cent objected to Thule being part of a US-based missile shield, only 19.9 per cent were in favour.[lxiv] Later polling from Denmark is not available. This popular opposition did not manifest itself in the form of demonstrations, meetings or even letters in newspapers. 

The Foreign Ministry made space on its web site for public debate but only a handful used the opportunity, and the Ministry did not respond to concrete questions on the site. Except for Greenpeace the NGO community showed a lack of interest. Possible explanations are a focus on the Danish involvement in Afghanistan/Iraq and a perception that only far away Greenland would be affected. Debates and hearings in Parliament were covered sporadically in the news media – most likely because a dramatic outcome affecting government policy was not in the cards. Comments by politicians elected in Greenland, and news generated by the somewhat unstable Home Rule Government was the exception. By and large the press did not carry substantial articles on other issues involved. Focus in reporting was on the process, and little effort was spent on reaching some ‘truths’ on the complicated security issues – even in the best of investigative reporting, just mentioning opposing viewpoints was generally seen as enough. As several studies of the media have shown, a focus on process gives the government an advantage because it is the main news-generating actor. When op-ed pieces were published they inspired almost no follow-up debate. All parties drew most of their knowledge and arguments from American sources. The government and other supporters relied heavily on official US statements while sceptics and opponents referred to like-minded experts.

Contributions from the academic community were very rare – fear of being involved in a ‘politicized’ debate being one explanation offered by some.[lxv] The government financed Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut (DUPI) published one brief report in early 2001, and later a short bulletin. When the North Atlantic Group in Parliament, supported by the chairman of the Social Democrats, requested a study from DUPI on the Chinese reaction to MD, the institute refused.[lxvi] The lack of significant input from the institute, which has close to a monopoly on security related research, can be explained partly by a difficult transition period – it was closed down in 2002 and in 2003 re-established as the Dansk Institut for Internationale Studier (DIIS). But this initiative was seen by staff and others as an attempt by the government to strengthen control, and studies on other issues were published during the period. Whatever the reasons, it had the effect of robbing the debate of input from scholars with expertise on a Danish perspective. Publication on missile defence issues by DIIS, analysis to a large extent differing (indirectly) from claims made previously by government sources, was resumed in late 2004, after their immediate political utility had disappeared.

Security Issues

In public presentations the government and its supporters described the Bush administration’s MD plans as a purely defensive response to a threat generated by rogue states and terrorists.[lxvii] Rogue states, the government said, consider weapons of mass destruction and missiles a tool for ‘political blackmail’ and for these states it is ‘not necessarily a last resort’ but ‘a possibility for responding to any threat’.[lxviii] If the US becomes vulnerable it could undermine the security guarantees given to Denmark and thus ‘we have a political self-interest in a missile defence’.[lxix] Typically the Prime Minister numerous times called MD ‘a peace project’ and rhetoric was geared towards promoting this impression. Denmark and world security would, it was argued, benefit in many ways and no realistic risks were foreseen. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Per Stig Møller, found it ‘suitable to supplement, not replace, political initiatives’ against proliferation with missile defence. As a second benefit he mentioned the potential through an ‘effective’ MD for ‘limiting the interest’ in acquiring or developing missile technology.[lxx] Among additional benefits listed by the government and other supporters was a possibility for Danish industrial participation in the production of MD systems.[lxxi] Denmark does not have a large military-industrial sector – but whatever it has is focussed on high technology, and it has not received the orders envisioned in compensation packages agreed in connection with arms purchases from the United States.

The original Clinton administration’s NMD architecture had caused concern to the right in the political spectrum as it allegedly could create a situation of unequal security, America being protected but Europe not. Now the Bush project held a promise of extending the shield to its allies. ‘We are in the special situation that we can render a contribution in building a limited missile defence, which later can constitute a base for establishing a missile defence also covering Europe’, Per Stig Møller said.[lxxii] In a confidential memo to the Danish Parliament’s important Foreign Policy Committee, which has a counsellor role, the Foreign Ministry developed this argument ad absurdum by highlighting a possible contribution by the Thule radar to the defence of Europe against missiles. This would only be possible if the Earth suddenly became flat, American MD opponents suggested. Measured in miles the Thule radar does have a range touching Northern Europe, but because its rays are linear, at that range only objects at an altitude of more than 1,000 kilometres on their way to far more distant targets would be observed.[lxxiii] 

Denmark traditionally has been in favour of an arms control approach to both vertical and horizontal proliferation. Danish norms and interests were tied to the development of a global community based on international law with the United Nations at the centre. Officially this is still Danish policy. The government did greet US dismissal of the ABM Treaty with regret., but in a parliamentary debate shortly after, the Foreign Minister took an understanding approach. The ‘political circumstances’ for the treaty have been ‘radically transformed’ since 1972 and it ‘in reality’ maintains the ‘outdated’ logic of Mutual Assured Destruction.[lxxiv] He saw promise in a ‘new strategic framework for international security’ being negotiated by Moscow and Washington. A large majority, composed of supporters and sceptics, united in a parliamentary resolution supporting such a framework, including significant cuts in strategic arms.[lxxv] A year later the government report could state that the conditions set by Parliament had been met and that a possibility for increased American-Russian co-operation on the development of MD also had been opened.[lxxvi] One Danish scholar, Professor Ole Wæver, suggested during the final rounds of debate in early 2003 that Denmark should tie approval of the American request to demands on arms control efforts, but that did not happen.

The arguments from both sceptics and opponents against abrogation of the ABM Treaty and the development of MD were undercut severely by, as both sceptics and supporters noted, the quite subdued reaction from Russia and China. When he was Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Social Democrat Mogens Lykketoft in 2001 had explained his strong concern on MD with reference to the possible Chinese reaction. Even the conservative spokesman Per Stig Møller, later Minister of Foreign Affairs, at that time expressed concern on a unilateral US abrogation of the treaty, seeing a risk of Russia renouncing other agreements and China promoting proliferation.[lxxvii] But now Møller concluded that a Chinese arms build-up should be seen in the context of a ‘regional game’ in which the ABM Treaty had little role.[lxxviii] The later government report found no ‘convincing arguments supporting the idea that a missile defence should lead to an arms race in Asia’.[lxxix] Negative Chinese comments on MD were downplayed. During the hearing in 2003 a Chinese scholar, Guoliang Gu, did criticize missile defence.[lxxx]. He had been invited to the hearing because he was presumed to represent official views, but the chairman of the Foreign Policy Committee in Copenhagen could nevertheless state a few days later that China was not against MD. Both sceptics and opponents continued stressing the possibility of an arms race, and saw the ABM affair as part of a larger pattern in US behaviour raising the question: Shall we still have an international order based on international agreements or will it be replaced by anarchy? A spokesman for the Social Democrats saw the ‘most conservative and reactionary forces’ in the US as ‘possibly’ being ‘the most significant threat against security and disarmament efforts in today’s world’.[lxxxi]

Opponents raised other possible risks. Several independent experts have referred to the prospect of a hostile power attacking the early warning radar to make missile defence partly blind. But, the government argued, because MD is only directed against rogue states, with just a handful of missiles available, an attacker is unlikely to waste any rockets on a radar site. The government report repeatedly stated that missile defence would protect most of Greenland. But a map from Boeing, the main contractor on the land based MD system, shows that Greenland is not protected against missiles from North Korea, China or Russia, only  missiles from the Middle East can be intercepted.[lxxxii] After the map appeared in the Danish press the government obtained an official US response claiming that Boeing did not have all technical information on the capabilities of the defence system.

The Role of Greenland 

It is doubtful whether the government campaign could have been effectively countered by presenting the radar upgrade more forcefully as a threat to international security. At the height of the debate in Denmark and Greenland the wider potential of Thule for warfare through and in space came up – but with limited impact. The radar itself will play a role in anti-satellite warfare due to its space surveillance and tracking capability (a possible task already for the present MD systems). But more tangibly, present roles for Thule in warfare also came up. A public relations officer at Thule Air Base talked proudly during the war against Iraq about its important role. An often overlooked facility at the base, called Detachment 3, enables satellite communications and, according to the press officer, Thule was the ‘busiest site’ in the global Air Force Satellite Control Network.[lxxxiii] This came as a big surprise for the Home Rule Government in Nuuk, which had declared its opposition to the war. So, would a continued US presence at Thule, with approval from Nuuk, give Greenland blood on its hands as an accomplice in American wars? During a televised debate a far left IA party politician Kuupik Kleist, a member of the Danish Parliament elected in Greenland, responded: ‘I prefer blood on my hands, so I know what is going on instead of blood on my back as in the past.’[lxxxiv]

This sentiment provides a key to understanding how Greenland handled the affair. Throughout the debate politicians elected in Greenland acted as opponents, using all possible arguments against a role for Thule in MD, but ended up as de facto supporters while still preserving an image as sceptics. They followed a two-track strategy: Attacks on MD and the Danish government in the name of world peace gave them a strong moral position while they simultaneously pursued very pragmatic political and economic goals to enlarge Home Rule.[lxxxv] One scholar has even concluded that the whole debate ‘was not about missile defence, it was about Greenlandic self-determination’.[lxxxvi] 

These politicians drew on a pacifist element in traditional Inuit culture. A by now classical description by a then mayor in Greenland, Henrik Lund, pointed to the impact of nature on the Inuits. Confronted with the power of the sea, ice and mountains, humans feel very small and develop a strong desire to protect all living beings. The modern military is thus seen as an ‘alien’ phenomenon. If Greenland could just obtain full self-determination, an ‘Inuit land without military’ would be the natural consequence.[lxxxvii] During the present debate the President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Aqqaluk Lynge, also a Member of Parliament in Greenland, stressed that his people are proud of never having participated in a war.[lxxxviii] Two opinion polls showed a majority against the use of Thule in missile defence.

The strategy also drew on anti-colonial ideology, specifically the Danish handling of security issues behind the back of the native population. This was done most forcefully by Lars-Emil Johansen, member of the Danish Parliament and former Prime Minister in Greenland.[lxxxix] In a March 2001 speech to the Self-rule Commission, called ‘The White States Burden’, he introduced several themes for the upcoming debate. For Denmark, he suggested, the white states burden is, ‘like in all previous colonial policy’, to secure that dependent countries are trained to believe they have ‘the same world view and the same political interests as the mother state’. Have we, he continued, any reason in the past or present to believe that Denmark will tell Greenland the full truth? And because Denmark needs American backing for a desired seat in the UN Security Council, is it not likely that Copenhagen already has ‘pawned’ Thule? Many of his later interventions were equally strong. In one parliamentary debate he compared Danish adaptation policy under German occupation to the present government’s pro-Bush policy – a tradition of ‘submission under the rule of a state at each point in time believed to be the worlds strongest’.[xc] 

A constant theme was anger caused by not being sufficiently informed by Copenhagen. Lars-Emil Johansen denounced the government report as ‘feeble propaganda […] without documentation, but filled with assertions’.[xci] In Greenland the Chairwoman of the Foreign and Security Policy Committee, Jensine Berthelsen, echoed this assessment, calling the report ‘biased’. Her committee sent a list of questions to the Danish Foreign Ministry asking for additional information, and, having received answers, declared them not satisfactory. In this way the representatives of Greenland became champions of democracy, also reinforced by Danish misinformation in the past, pointing to a more truly democratic order if greater self-determination could be established.

When politicians from Greenland used anti-MD arguments it was not a cynical ploy. Concerns about Thule becoming a target, and Greenland having co-responsibility for ‘world peace’ were real. But the fight was against Denmark, and the goal was to enlarge Home Rule, independence being the final aim. Among Greenlanders the United States does not stir up negative memories or emotions remotely comparable to anti-Danish sentiments. And the likelihood of having any influence on Washington’s plans were considered negligible, while a window of opportunity to further independence vis-à-vis Denmark was seen very clearly. Copenhagen, having offered an open democratic process, was forced, reluctantly, to accommodate demands directed against its own sovereignty. In this respect the politics of embarrassment were very effective. It is remarkable how even the strongest diatribes against Copenhagen generally went without a Danish response. Fears of stirring ‘the natives’ up even more were evident. However, this dynamic left many MD issues without substantial answers. From the perspective of those representing Greenland the mere act of raising them was often enough, and the Danish government then just ducked.

In the search for independence the Thule Air Base had long been considered a potential cash cow. If Denmark could cheat for decades on its NATO commitments, using the ‘Greenland card’, saving billions, why should direct income from Thule not be a foundation for an independent Greenland? It is thus not surprising that the hardest issue to solve in negotiations with the United States (Denmark and Greenland sat together at the other end of the table) was how to secure such an income. But, as a matter of principle, the Americans refused to pay cash and let civilian US employees at the base be taxed. Lars-Emil Johansen responded to this refusal by exclaiming: ‘We also accept American Express.’ That, for insiders, was an opening leading to accepting a framework agreement on economic and cultural co-operation instead of cash. But his retreat was packed inside an offensive: Greenland would, he argued, suffer little loss if no deal were made, and the United States then left Greenland because that would only ‘free our people from being hosts to a potential target for terror and bombs’.[xcii] 

Compensation was needed, he argued, ‘exactly’ because of Greenland being exposed to this risk. But the US had a better trump card to counter his threat. The Home Rule Government had early on been advised by the Danish government of the US possibly abandoning the Thule base if an upgrade was not permitted. The radar could, it was claimed, be moved to Canada, or its functions could be taken over by satellites. In both cases very expensive or unlikely alternatives, but the claims were never subjected to a thorough investigation – the original Danish analysis from 1999 is described in a one-page memorandum. If the US pulled out the Home Rule Government would loose about $ 16 million in taxes and other income.[xciii] But this threat was, according to several sources, again raised by Washington when negotiations bogged down, and then had more credibility. The politics of embarrassment clearly had limited utility when used against the superpower.

The agreements signed with Denmark and the US has been broadly hailed as a victory for Greenland after long and hard negotiations. In this view the Itilleq agreements with Denmark promise influence on Danish security- and foreign policy. The tri-party agreement from Igaliku promises insight on American activities at Thule. And Greenland is, when it comes to security issues on its territory, now at least on par with Denmark. But Nuuk had to abandon several demands raised, and some insiders were surprised by the lack of negative reaction from Greenlandic politicians. The 1951 treaty was not torn up – only the clearly outdated elements were modified and Greenland got a promise on consultations before any new US activities at the base. A joint defence commission to supervise security policy in the North Atlantic region was not created. And a fee for rental of the Thule lands will not be forthcoming. The concrete rewards for pragmatism, promised in the vaguely worded framework agreement on economic and cultural issues, are uncertain and up to the good will of American administrations. Even the Itilleq agreement is not very far from the promises given to Greenland by Denmark in 1999, before the Thule radar became a political issue.


The American foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead in a recent study of US hegemonic power establishes three categories: ‘Sharp’ (military) power, ‘sweet’ (attractive) power and in between them ‘sticky’ power – the latter being compared to a carnivorous sundew plant, which attracts its victims with a pleasing scent, and then they are stuck, cannot get away.[xciv] Since the Kingdom of Denmark in 1949 joined NATO and in 1951 signed a defence agreement, giving the US military almost unlimited use of Greenland, Danish governments and their subjects have been stuck. But they have, to a large extent, decided to enjoy the scent instead of struggling to free themselves.[xcv] And thus they have, as the historian William Appleman Williams predicted, made their choices within limits set by the ‘American Empire’. The facts of the relationship have been inconvenient for Danish governments to recognize in public – they contradicted the Danish self-understanding of being a trading state/civilian power with a preference for non-military means. Thus the history of the triangular relationship between the US, Denmark and Greenland has become a story about how a democracy has tried, and often failed, to make reality and self-understanding fit each other.

While reference to a hegemonic or imperial power is a significant explicatory factor for the why of Danish decision-making, it does not give a fully satisfactory framework for analyzing the how – the factors at work behind the apparent societal acquiescence in both Denmark and Greenland, despite polls showing massive rejection of MD. Copenhagen does not have a strong Military-Industrial Complex able to dominate public debate. Fogh Rasmussen had a solid majority in Parliament, but the Danish story is not about a strong executive ignoring opposition to MD. The alliance relationship with the US did play a key role – and other alliance considerations, with NATO or the EU, played a more ambiguous role.

   In looking back on decades of secrecy and restrained debate on the US presence in Greenland, Danish scholars have found two perspectives from political theory on the incompatibility of democracy and foreign policy that are very applicable.[xcvi] They may also be useful in explaining the restrictions on Danish democracy during the Thule debate. One perspective[xcvii] draws its inspiration from sociology and social psychology: the more manifest an external danger, the more curbs are laid on internal democracy. This may be enforced from above (through centralization of decision-making) and in attempts to counter anticipated reaction (through making the press operate in support of government policy, and through cohesion among political parties supporting the executive branch). A perception of external danger during the Cold War goes a long way in explaining Danish policy on Greenland at that time, and both the absence of a similar menace in the post-Cold War period and the appearance of new threats might help in explaining more recent events.

A prediction on the final Danish decision made in 2000 by the former Russian Prime Minister and intelligence czar Jevgenij Primakov proved wrong, and the reasons are instructive. In an interview[xcviii] he compared the upcoming choice with the situation from 1955 to 1957 when the stationing of nuclear weapons in Denmark was on the political agenda. The Danish government at that time said ‘No’, and now Primakov expected a new ‘No’. Fifty years ago the Soviet Union was perceived as a serious external threat, motivating a Danish policy of reservations in NATO. This time nobody took the implicit menace in the remarks by Primakov seriously. In the absence of a clear external danger the government could allow a free and open debate on Thule. And the same absence also reduced the need for reservations, comparable to the nuclear policy in the 1950s.

In an early analysis of the upcoming debate Denmark was said to face a strategic dilemma. Thule in MD would both be a ‘strategic problem’ and a ‘strategic resource’.[xcix] Problems could arise if use of Thule pulled Copenhagen into the big power game. But a Danish ‘Yes’ could also strengthen the relations with the United States.

During the period from 2002 to 2004 Thule was increasingly seen as less of a ‘strategic problem’ and more of a ‘strategic resource’. Numerous factors played a role. If one should be highlighted it is the almost simultaneous occurrence of 11 September and the change of government in late 2001. It could be argued that the new assertive US security strategy after 11 September gave both Greenland and Denmark little choice. A report by a team of European security experts on the EU-US relationship in 2004 argued that the Bush administration’s ‘either you are with us or you are against us’ policy confronted traditional allies ‘with an impossible dilemma of choosing between blind submission and overt opposition’.[c] 

For Greenland this dilemma was especially acute because overt opposition also could mean for Nuuk to pay a price in its relationship with Denmark, where the government never ruled out using its formal sovereignty to grant the US request. For the conservative-liberal government under the Premiership of Anders Fogh Rasmussen the dilemma was more abstract. The limits set by empire and the lack of an alternative security framework through the ESDP were real issues for some decision-makers, but the government was also motivated by a strong ideological emphasis on a close relationship with the United States. A government led by Social Democrats might have approved Washington’s request too, and even defended the decision as the Fogh Rasmussen right of centre government did – but then it would have been much more of an exercise in making a virtue out of necessity. The ideological zeal of Fogh Rasmussen even took Denmark into war against Iraq with a slim majority in Parliament, and ‘delivering Greenland to the United States’ for MD purposes was in this political context a natural and even minor move, using a ‘strategic resource’. 

Having a very free and thorough debate with an open outcome could for this government have been a high-risk undertaking. But the risk was limited by several factors, some also seen operative by scholars in the earlier Danish handling of Thule.

This second perspective employs three principles: negotiating, supreme interests, and remoteness. Negotiations with the US have usually been the responsibility of top bureaucrats with political involvement only at the highest level – openness and internal debate have been seen as diminishing their leverage. Supreme interests have been at stake, retaining US and NATO protection for a reasonable price, and using the ‘Greenland card’ in a secret dual policy, i.e. not allowing foreign bases or nuclear weapons in Southern Denmark while permitting it in the far North. In terms of remoteness, Greenland is divorced from the everyday concerns of most Danes, and only occasionally has a political demand for greater insight been raised.

In the Danish democratic marketplace consumers were simply not very interested when the US request came up for final debate. An upgrade of the Thule radar was primarily seen as a remote issue: If asked directly in a poll people were against, but it was not deemed significant enough to get involved otherwise. With regard to the principle of supreme interests at stake it played a role in several ways. Sceptics were, while in government, caught in a dilemma: If forced to choose, should a good relationship to Greenland or to the United States have priority? In opposition they were faced with a political campaign recalling their 1980s reservations on US and NATO nuclear policy, and a new ‘No’ was seen, especially by the Social Democrats, as too costly because they would be faced with accusations of again jeopardizing supreme Danish interests. They found a way out when Greenland opted for a ‘Yes’. Independent security experts also saw that for the government, supreme interests were invested in a ‘Yes’, and they saw little benefit from challenging government policy – especially since MD for years will mostly be a scarecrow of no military significance. 

Arguments used by opponents were widely seen as irrelevant, originating in an allegedly outdated Mutual Assured Destruction strategy. The case for missile defence rested on a simple question with an obvious answer: Should we not allow the US to protect itself and in that way also serve our own interest? The case against rested on complex issues of nuclear strategy in which MAD has permanence, giving arms reductions and conciliatory gestures in between nuclear powers a (possibly) temporary quality.[ci] A perception of supreme interests at stake clearly guided the government in its information policy – it twisted facts and avoided sophisticated debate on MD issues. The tradition of avoiding large-scale debate while negotiators were bargaining probably also played a role – very little public discussion took place after the spring of 2003, when negotiations on a deal were being pursued, and two parliamentary debates before and after the negotiations did not examine the demands and even outcomes in depth.

But attempts to apply such political theory are probably too sophisticated. If we return to the analysis by Walter Russell Mead a much simpler explanation is found. People do not just consent to American hegemonic power because they think they like it, he states and goes on: ‘They also consent to it because they see it as inevitable, rooted in military power, technological prowess, broad historical development or economic power that cannot be challenged.’ This perspective a Lars Emil Johansen, the Parliament Member from Greenland, would undoubtedly recognize, and it would go a long way in explaining the passivity of Danish public opinion, in spite of polls showing widespread opposition. Lars-Emil Johansen and other leaders from Greenland would also subscribe to an advice from Walter Russell Mead: ‘Their best choice is to exploit whatever opportunities the system affords.’[cii]

Greenland, as the party most directly affected, had an interest in open debate and a thorough investigation of a potential danger arising from the inclusion of Thule in MD. With a population of 60,000 it had limited resources for independent research and had to rely on Danish expertise. At least some political leaders in Greenland saw Danish supporters and sceptics being more united than divided in a fundamental interest: Again using ‘the Greenland card’. They could point to previous occasions where the Social Democrats in opposition had limited debate in order not to jeopardize this interest.[ciii] Greenland did vigorously try to challenge the official Danish information on MD, and the media in Greenland were much more active than the media in Denmark. But the strategic focus, enlarging Home Rule and getting the best possible deal from the US, did not work in favour of a thorough debate, and it also side-tracked the Danish discussion to focus on the relationship with Greenland, not on making the United States consider theoretical arms control issues like the ones contained in the 13-step declaration from the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference. 

Denmark and Greenland both managed to bypass several dilemmas but controversy can erupt again – if the financial compensation does not meet their expectations, if an X-band radar for again becomes part of the MD architecture, and if further development of the MD system is met by vigorous Russian or Chinese opposition.


* This is a preprint version of an article later published in abridged and revised form in Contemporary Security Policy © 2005 Taylor & Francis; Journal Title is available online at: http://journalsonline.tandf.co.uk, article open URL is http://journalsonline.tandf.co.uk/openurl.asp?genre=article&issn=1352-3260&volume=26&issue=3&spage=486 



[i]      Colin L. Powell, Remarks at the Signing Ceremony with Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller and Greenland Deputy Premier Josef Motzfeldt, Igaliku, Greenland, 6 Aug. 2004, <http://www.state.gov/secretary/former/powell/remarks/35019.htm>.

[ii]  Ibid.

[iii]   Josef Motzfeldt, Alle mennesker er født frie og lige, 6. Aug. 2004, <http://dk.nanoq.gl/udskriv.asp?page=nyhed&objno=67869>.

[iv] All documents available at <http://dk.nanoq.gl/NYHED.asp?page=nyhed&objno=66399>.

[v]  Statement by Josef Motzfeldt, Hvis ærinde går Sermitsiaq, 18 Aug. 2004, <http//dk.nanoq.gl/udskriv.asp?page=nyhed&objno=68261>.

[vi]   Open Letter to Danish politicians and the public, dated 21 May 2004 (transcript).

[vii]  The present study is, besides written sources, also based on numerous interviews with actors and observers, conducted throughout the period, the latest in February 2005. Such interviews were often based on a promise of confidentiality.

[viii]   See ‘Per Stig lover åben missilskjolds-debat’, Politiken, 17 Dec. 2002, <http://www.politiken.dk/VisArtikel.iasp?PageID=247938>. 

[ix] The Danish Parliament held seven long debates from 2001 to 2004 dedicated to MD and related issues.

[x]  Denmark and Greenland each had two hearings (2001 and 2003).

[xi]  This study operates with different degrees of democracy: ‘The more representation and participation in the process of policy-making and the more information about it, the more democracy prevails’. See Hans Mouritzen, External Danger and Democracy (London: Dartmouth Publishing Company, 1997), p.20.

[xii]    William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988), p. 55.

[xiii]   See Paul Villaume, Allieret med forbehold (Copenhagen: Eirene, 1995), pp.871, 876 (English summary).

[xiv]   Hans Mouritzen, ‘Thule and Theory’, in Bertel Heurlin and Hans Mouritzen (eds.), Danish Foreign Policy Yearbook 1998 (Copenhagen: Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, 1998), p.79.

[xv]    See Jørgen Dragsdahl, ‘The Danish Dilemma’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.57, No.5 (September/October 2001), pp.45-50.

[xvi] See Kristian Søby Kristensen, Greenland, Denmark and the debate on missile defense, DUPI Working Paper 2004/14 (Copenhagen: Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, 2004). The author refers to Ronald Niezen, ‘Recognising Indigenism: Canadian Unity and the International Movement of Indigenous Peoples’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol.42, No.1 (2000), p.128.

[xvii] Ibid., p.8.

[xviii] The US presence in Greenland was documented and analysed in Danish Institute of International Affairs, Grønland under den kolde krig. Dansk og amerikansk udenrigspolitik 1945-68 (Copenhagen: Danish Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, 1997). For a closer look in English at the negotiations see Nikolaj Petersen, Negotiation of the 1951 Greenland Defence Agreement, DUPI Report 1997/1 (Copenhagen: Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, 1997).

[xix]   See Paul Claeson (ed.), Grønland Middelhavets Perle (Copenhagen: Eirene, 1983).

[xx]    Professor Nikolaj Petersen has during his work on volume six of a series on the history of Danish foreign policy, Europæisk og Globalt engagement 1973-2003 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal Leksikon, 2004), gained access to the Danish archives and reports on this and other controversies.

[xxi]   See Jørgen Dragsdahl, ‘Frygt for at USA-radar i Thule skaber stormagts-konflikt’, Information, 11 Feb. 1985.

[xxii] See Jørgen Dragsdahl, ‘USA’s luftvåben afviste i 1980 ny radartype ved Thule med henvisning til ABM-traktat’, Information, 16 Jan. 1987.

[xxiii] It was a ‘turning point’ in the relative influence of Denmark and the Home Rule Government on international security issues of relevance for Greenland, the then Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Uffe Ellemann-Jensen writes. See his memoir Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, Fodfejl (Copenhagen: Gyldendal 2004), p.222.

[xxiv] See Nikolaj Petersen, ‘Europæisk og Globalt Engagement’, Dansk udenrigspolitiks historie bind 6, 1973-2003 (Copenhagen: Gyldendals Leksikon, 2004), p.336.

[xxv] See Jørgen Dragsdahl, ‘Dobbeltspil kunne fortsætte’, Weekendavisen, 24 Jan. 1997.

[xxvi] Quoted in Poul Brink, Magtens Bog (Copenhagen: Aschehoug, 2002), p.529.

[xxvii] Ibid., p.517.

[xxviii]  Nikolaj Petersen, The H. C. Hansen Paper and Nuclear Weapons in Greenland, DUPI Report 1997/2 (Copenhagen: Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, 1997).

[xxix] Danish Foreign Ministry, ‘Grønland og udenrigspolitikken’, Udenrigsministeriets temaserie 24, March 2004, p.10.

[xxx] Ibid., pp.13-4.

[xxxi] Danish Parliament, Høring om missilforsvar, 25 April 2001, <http//www.ft.dk/baggrund/00000077/00610730.htm>.

[xxxii]  See Peter C. Franklin, Deputy Director, Missile Defence Agency, Initial Integrated Missile Defense Capabilities Brief, 19 Dec. 2002, p.12 (transcript).

[xxxiii]  Ibid., p.24.

[xxxiv]  Ibid., p.25.

[xxxv]  Colin L. Powell, Interview with Jens Moeller of Greenland TV, Igaliku, Greenland, 6 Aug. 2004, <http://www.state.gov/secretary/former/powell/remarks/35018.htm>.

[xxxvi]  Quoted by Danish MP Keld Albrechtsen in parliamentary question (question no. S 2064) on 14 March 2001.

[xxxvii]  Bradley Graham, Hit to Kill. The New Battle Over Shielding America From Missile Attack (New York: Public Affairs, 2001), p.105.

[xxxviii]  Quotations from Niels Helveg Petersen in Jørgen Dragsdahl, ‘Danmark i atomklemme’, Weekendavisen, 29 Oct. 1999.

[xxxix] Graham, Hit to Kill, p.155.

[xl]  Quoted in Dragsdahl, ‘The Danish Dilemma’, p.46.

[xli]  Ibid., p.50.

[xlii]  Petersen, Europæisk og Globalt Engagement, p.574.

[xliii] Sten Rynning, ‘Denmark as a Strategic Actor?’, Danish Foreign Policy Yearbook 2003 (Copenhagen: Dansk Institut for Internationale Studier, 2003), p.24.

[xliv] The Danish Foreign Minister Peter Munch, in office from 1929 to 1940, most prominently expressed this tradition in his declaration: ‘The first and the last demand which we must make to Danish diplomacy is that it shall keep quiet and do its utmost to secure that we may live as unnoticed as possible.’ (Quoted in Hans Henrik Holm: ‘Denmark’s Active Internationalism’, Danish Foreign Policy Yearbook 1997 [Copenhagen: Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, 1997], p.57. Holm stated that although discredited, this low profile tradition ‘has been evident in much of Denmark’s foreign policy tradition in the post-war years’.)

[xlv]   Bertel Haarder (ed.), Hvem holdt de med? (Copenhagen: Peter la Cours Forlag, 1999), p.8. 

[xlvi] Niels Helveg Petersen, the first Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Social Democrat-led government (himself a member of the centrist Radikale Venstre), in 1999 said: ‘The United States’ dominant role in the world and strong engagement in Europe is an advantage for Denmark’, Politiken, 17 Jan. 1999.

[xlvii] Peter Viggo Jakobsen, ‘Denmark at War: Turning Point or Business as Usual?’, Danish Foreign Policy Yearbook 2000 (Copenhagen: Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, 2000), pp.61-85.

[xlviii] Mogens Lykketoft in speech for ‘Det Udenrigspolitiske Selskab’, 23 Aug. 2001 (transcript).

[xlix] In March 2003, he wrote: ‘Who can best guarantee the security of Denmark? My answer is very clear. The security of Denmark is best guaranteed by a superpower in North America instead of a fragile and movable balance of power between Germany, France and Great Britain.’ (Quoted in Ole Damkjær, ‘Den danske sten i Powells sko’, Berlingske Tidende, 1 May 2004.)

[l]  Christian-Marius Stryker, Raketteskjold og Thule-radaren – Strategisk ressurs eller problem?, DUPI Working Paper 2001/2 (Copenhagen: Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, 2001).

[li]  This development is elaborated by Lisbet Zilmer-Johns, Dansk sikkerhedspolitisk profil – tilbage til start?, IIS Report 2003/1 (Copenhagen: Dansk Institut for Internationale Studier, 2003).

[lii]  Udenrigsministeriet, Missilforsvar og Thule-radaren (Copenhagen: Udenrigsministeriet, March 2003), p.6.

[liii] Udenrigspolitisk Redegørelse ved Landsstyreformanden, FM 2003/12 (Nuuk: FM, 2003), p.2.

[liv]  Ibid. p.3.

[lv]  See Betænkning afgivet af Selvstyrekommissionen (Nuuk: Grønlands Hjemmestyre, April 2003), p.11.

[lvi]   See ibid. p.10.

[lvii]  Oplæg til Grønlands Hjemmestyres forslag til modernisering af forsvarsaftalen (Nuuk: Udenrigskontoret, 30 Jan. 2003). 

[lviii] See Vedr. Oplæg til Grønlands Hjemmestyres forslag til modernisering af forsvarsaftalen (Nuuk: Udenrigskontoret, 14 Feb. 2003).

[lix]   Author’s interview with confidential source.

[lx]  Principerklæring, Statement from the North Atlantic Group, January 2003 (transcript).

[lxi]   See Udenrigsministeriet, Missilforsvar.

[lxii]   See Ministry of Defence, Missile Defence: a public discussion paper (London: Ministry of Defence, 2002).

[lxiii] Such public finance had earlier been available through the Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut but as part of a reconstruction of the institute such funds were taken away. Precedence for public financing also can be found in the debate on EU issues.

[lxiv] See Dragsdahl, ‘The Danish Dilemma’.

[lxv]   This was not without foundation. In his 2002 New Year address the Prime Minister launched a campaign against ‘arbiters of taste’, that is: experts who politicise. Also, the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute was closed at the end of 2002, and only partly continued under the umbrella of the Dansk Institut for Internationale Studier. A human rights centre met a similar fate. In both cases political motivations were alleged.

[lxvi] The issue was finally covered in 2005 in Bjørn Møller, Asian Ballistic Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction, DIIS Working Papers 2005/1 (Copenhagen: Dansk Institut for Internationale Studier, 2005).

[lxvii] The defensive claim was refuted in December 2004 by a professor of great standing: Bertel Heurlin, Missile Defence in the United States, DIIS Working Paper 2004/27 (Copenhagen: Dansk Institut for Internationale Studier, 2004).

[lxviii]  Udenrigsministeriet, Missilforsvar, p.4. 

[lxix] Ibid. p.5.

[lxx]   Parliamentary Debate F 60, 26 May 2004, <http://www.folketinget.dk/?/samling/

[lxxi] See Udenrigsministeriet, Missilforsvar, p.30.

[lxxii] Parliamentary Debate F 60, 26 May 2004, <http://www.folketinget.dk/?/samling/

[lxxiii]  See Jørgen Dragsdahl, ‘Jorden er da helt flad’, Information, 12 Dec. 2002.

[lxxiv]  Denmark had of course as late as December 2000 in NATO joined in the alliance report on arms control calling the ABM treaty ‘a cornerstone of strategic stability’, an endorsement of the May 2000 NPT Review Conference Final Document. (Quoted in Press Communiqué M-NAC-2[2000]121, http://www.nato.int/docu/pr/2000/p00-121e/rep-csbm.pdf >

[lxxv]  See Parliamentary Debate F 13, 5 April 2002 (general access), http://folketinget.dk

[lxxvi]  See Udenrigsministeriet, Missilforsvar, p.8.

[lxxvii]   See Parliamentary Debate, 3 May 2001 (general access), http://www.folketinget.dk

[lxxviii]  See Parliamentary Debate F 13, 5 April 2002 (general access), http://folketinget.dk

[lxxix]  Udenrigsministeriet, Missilforsvar, p.28.

[lxxx] See Gu Guoliang, ‘Missile Defense Is No Solution to Missile Proliferation’, written testimony, 23 April 2003.

[lxxxi]  Jeppe Kofoed in Parliamentary Debate F 13, 5 April 2002 (general access), http://folketinget.dk

[lxxxii]  See Jørgen Dragsdahl, ‘Missilrapport misinformerer’, Information, 7 March 2003.

[lxxxiii]  His description of Detachment 3 reflected a briefing by Colonel Lu Christensen, Thule Air Base Mission Briefing, Air Force Space Command, Feb. 2003 (transcript).

[lxxxiv]  Greenland KNR Television, 10 April 2003 (note by the author).

[lxxxv]  This division of the debate in a moral and a political dimension is elaborated by Kristensen, Greenland, Denmark and the debate on missile defense.

[lxxxvi]  Ibid., p.23.

[lxxxvii]  Henrik Lund, ‘Foreword’ in Claeson (ed.), Grønland Middelhavets Perle, p.3

[lxxxviii]   See Jørgen Dragsdahl, ‘Grønlandsk missildans’, Information, 10 April 2003

[lxxxix]  Many of his articles and speeches have been collected in Lars-Emil Johansen, Taler og artikler 2001-2004 (Copenhagen: Den Nordatlantiske Gruppe Christiansborg, 2005).

[xc]    See Parliamentary Debate 29 April 2003 (general access), http://folketinget.dk

[xci]   Politiken, 5 March 2003

[xcii] Lars-Emil Johansen, ‘We also accept American Express’, Weekendavisen, 6 Feb. 2004.

[xciii] The accounting on economic impact is given by Christensen, Thule Air Base Mission Briefing.

[xciv]  Walter Russell Mead, Power, Terror, Peace, and War. America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p.29.

[xcv]  A comparable terminology is developed by Joseph Nye. ‘Soft power’ is defined as the ability to ‘getting others to want what you want’ (Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Bound to Lead. The Changing Nature of American Power [New York: Basic Books 1990] p.31.)

[xcvi] See Mouritzen, ‘Thule and Theory’.

[xcvii] This perspective is developed, using the Nordic countries for case studies, by Mouritzen, External Danger and Democracy.

[xcviii]  See Jørgen Dragsdahl, ‘Venter dansk nej til USA’s raketskjold’, Aktuelt, 9 Sept. 2000.

[xcix] Stryker, Raketteskjold og Thule-radaren.

[c]     Institute for Security Studies, European defence – A proposal for a White Paper (Brussels: Institute for Security Studies, May 2004), p.32.

[ci]    Argued well by Leon Fuerth, ‘Return of the Nuclear Debate’. The Washington Quarterly, Vol.24, No.4 (Autumn 2001), pp.97-108.

[cii]    Quotations in Walter Russell Mead, Power, Terror, Peace, and War, p. 42.

[ciii]   Even the former Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen describes this as a factor during the Thule debate in 1987: Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, Fodfejl, p. 221.


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