Trump’s Spat With Denmark Could Cost Him Against Iran

The Danes may have been considering joining the United States’ maritime security force—until the U.S. president exploded over Greenland.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen talks to the press after U.S. President Donald Trump canceled his state visit after her government said its territory of Greenland was not for sale in Copenhagen on Aug. 21.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen talks to the press after U.S. President Donald Trump canceled his state visit after her government said its territory of Greenland was not for sale in Copenhagen on Aug. 21. MADS CLAUS RASMUSSEN/AFP/Getty Images

During Jim Townsend’s decades of work on European policy in the Pentagon and at NATO, he never saw the Danes say no to a fight. From the first Gulf War to counter-Islamic State operations, Denmark was always one of the first allies to raise its hand when the United States asked for military support.

“There was never, ‘Oh, we have to think about it.’ It was always, ‘What do you need?’” Townsend said.

But U.S. President Donald Trump’s war of words with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen over his surprise proposal to buy Greenland—and his abrupt cancellation of a visit to the country—may have complicated Denmark’s calculations in joining the United States’ latest international security campaign: a maritime patrol effort to secure the Strait of Hormuz from Iranian threats to commercial shipping.

The proposal, initially dubbed Operation Sentinel, is gaining traction lately after a rocky start. European allies in particular have been hesitant to sign on so as not to jeopardize efforts to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from last year. Many don’t want to be seen as participating in Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Tehran, experts say.

After a flurry of U.S. diplomatic efforts, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Bahrain recently announced they will contribute ships and aircraft to the initiative. Now that a few key allies are secured, experts expect other European, Asian, and regional partners to follow.

“The hardest part is now done,” said Rockford Weitz, the director of the Maritime Studies Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “Once you have a critical mass, then those that may be hesitant for whatever reason, those barriers go down.”

Before this week, experts say, Denmark would have been a natural addition. The Danes have a capable Navy, hold a significant interest in commercial shipping, and are historically pro-American. But Frederiksen’s tart dismissal this week of Trump’s interest in buying the world’s largest island as an “absurd discussion” and Trump’s subsequent cancellation of his visit may upend plans to recruit the Scandinavian nation to the coalition, experts say.

“If we hadn’t had the whole Greenland diplomatic spat, the Danes were on my shortlist to come in even before the French or the Spanish,” Weitz said. “It’s a shame that it does complicate the effort to bring them into the fold when they are predisposed to participate in something like this.”

Trump reportedly spoke with Frederiksen by phone on Thursday, likely the first time the two had spoken since the Danish leader took office in June. The talks were “constructive,” according to Danish media, but the Danish government does not plan to release details of the call.

Denmark has been involved in nearly every one of the U.S. military’s major campaigns in the last 30 years, including the NATO operation over Libya and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Denmark quickly sent ships south during the first Gulf War even though its vessels, built for Arctic conditions, did not have air conditioning, Townsend said.

The Danes also contributed significant assets to U.S.-led efforts to counter piracy off the coast of Somalia starting in 2008, which several experts compared to the maritime coalition today.

Meanwhile, the Scandinavian nation has a significant interest in protecting commercial shipping in the region. As one of the world’s largest shipping industries, Danish companies transport 10 percent of world trade. It is home to shipping giant Maersk Container Industry, the world’s largest container shipping company. Maersk vessels pass through the Strait of Hormuz almost every day, Weitz said.

“The Danes would’ve been on the shortlist, and they would’ve done it with great enthusiasm,” said Townsend, noting the Danish Navy’s “modern” ships. “But now, politically, it would be hard for the Danish prime minister to say, ‘Yeah, we will join this effort.’”

Danish refusal to join the coalition would mark the latest in a series of defeats for the coalition. The reluctance of U.S. allies to get on board is a marked departure from recent history, said retired Vice Adm. John Miller, who commanded the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The last time Iran lashed out against commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf was in 2015, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sized a cargo ship, Maersk’s Tigris, in the Strait of Hormuz. At the time, the United States was able to quickly put together a joint venture with Britain to escort U.S. and U.K.-flagged ships in the Gulf, Miller said.

“What we’ve seen this time around is a lot of difficulty getting anyone on board,” Miller said. “There are some genuine policy differences, particularly between the Europeans and the U.S. in terms of the [nuclear deal] and what the way ahead really is, and then a concern that where we might really be headed is toward conflict with Iran.”

Still, the project has picked up steam in the last few weeks in part due to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s outreach and “confidence-building measures,” Miller said. Hesitant allies likely want to see “not only a desired and stated outcome but then a path to get to that outcome,” he explained.

Despite the political complexities, Weitz said he expects other capable European navies, such as France’s and Spain’s, to eventually follow the U.K. in joining the coalition. Norway and Greece are potential contributors, too, due to their strong naval assets and shipping interests in the region.

In Asia, experts expect Australia’s announcement will put pressure on other nations with capable navies, such as Japan and South Korea—and perhaps even smaller countries such as Singapore—to join on. India is a possibility as well, due to its strong U.S. ties, Weitz said.

The fact that more Gulf allies have not signed on is puzzling given their recent outcry against Iran’s malign activities around the globe. But experts say Middle East partners are in a delicate position due to their geographic location. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two major Middle East players that have not yet joined the maritime operation, want to put pressure on Tehran to change its behavior, but “they are not interested in a fight,” Miller said.

Gulf allies also may want some assurance from the U.S. government that they will have more say in any negotiations for a new deal with Iran, he noted.

Still, Bahrain’s decision to join the effort may open the door for other smaller Gulf nations to do the same, Weitz said. These partners, while they do not have the same naval capabilities of the larger European nations, typically do have several modern ships and aircraft, as well as large numbers of patrol craft.

Symbolically, as well, their participation “gives the whole operation a much better optic,” Miller said.

In Denmark, the Danes could still decide to let bygones be bygones. Miller said Denmark is likely to make a decision based on “national interest and their perceived efficacy of the coalition,” rather their view of Trump and Greenland.

Danish leaders tend to be “forward-looking” and “don’t get hung up on things,” Townsend said.

“Maybe they look at it and just say, ‘This is kind of a strange week for Denmark and its relationship with the U.S., but this too shall pass,’” Townsend said. “We will just chalk it up as kind of a strange week.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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