There are foreign policy hiccups and then there are inexplicable decisions that defy any sense of logic. The events of the past week; the cancellation of a presidential trip to Denmark, and the coincident announcement that President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE would like to welcome Russia back into the G-7 are stark reminders that this administration has a very difficult time understanding the difference between allies and adversaries.
When the story broke about the president wanting to purchase Greenland, many initially thought it was just the musings from a late-night discussion on strategic bases. After all access, basing and overflight are critical to U.S. global power projection. But in what has become a truly bizarre chain of events, the president was apparently serious about his real estate offer and deeply offended that the Danish government was not considering it with the same gravitas he thought it merited.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen can be forgiven for responding in the way she did because no close ally of the United States could possibly conceive of a scenario in 2019 where the president of the United States was truly serious about purchasing the territory of a sovereign nation. This is the financial equivalent of an invasion. Once rebuffed Trump responded as expected, canceling his trip and hurling what is for him, the usual barrage of invective.
But perhaps the saddest part of calling off his trip in a fit of pique is the offensive slap in the face of a country that is no ordinary ally. After 9/11, Denmark was one of the first allies to offer combat air support for U.S. forces during the planning for Afghanistan. Danish military and civilian personnel have served in hostile environments in Afghanistan continuously as long as the United States.
Denmark put special operations forces on the ground to counter ISIS and other bad actors in Syria and Iraq and have always been willing “to take a bullet” for what they believe is right. Denmark is also purchasing the F-35 and is currently considering deploying ships to the Strait of Hormuz. No Mr. President, the 2 percent in defense spending does not matter nearly as much as what you do with it.
The history of U.S. and Danish cooperation in Greenland is hardly new. There has been a U.S. presence at Thule Air Base in northwest Greenland since 1941. The 1951 Defense Agreement between the United States and Denmark (amended in 2004) provides for U.S. access, basing and free overflight. With deference to Danish sovereignty the U.S. can in practice use Greenland for defense purposes as it deems necessary and be well within the bounds of the agreement. Why even go down the path of purchase when existing arrangements have the same practical effect.
On the bilateral economic front, the area in which Trump believes he is the wisest, the U.S. is Denmark’s largest non-European trade partner with two-way trade just under $11.5 billion. And for a president so focused on job creation, he might be interested in knowing that Danish companies and investments in the United States account for some 75,000 U.S. jobs.
The president has also touted his commitment to exporting U.S. LNG to European markets. One would think that he would take notice that Denmark, unlike many other European countries, has refused to cave to Russian demands for its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a pipeline that could effectively block U.S. LNG exports from ever being competitive in the European market. Once again it is Denmark holding the line.
There is no comparison on any front that would make Russia a more desirable partner than Denmark. Yet Trump apparently has no problem in “dissing” the Danish prime minister and in the very same breath throwing open his arms to Putin, a man intent on thwarting the U.S. at every turn. It is incomprehensible that the president can take such umbrage from a simple no, yet call for Russia’s reinstatement into the G-7, while it still occupies swathes of Ukraine and Georgia.
Mr. President, there is a way to separate the good guys from the bad. Countries that target and shoot at you and your allies, and supply your enemies with the arms and equipment to kill U.S. and Allied personnel are never going to be your friend. Denmark has your back. Russia’s plans for your back will have a far different outcome.
Debra Cagan worked as a career State Department diplomat and Defense Department official from the Reagan to Trump administrations, including serving as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Coalition, Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Disaster Relief; senior director of European, Russian and Eurasian security issues; special adviser for Strategic and Nuclear Policy for Europe; senior adviser to U.S. and NATO military officials. Cagan also led negotiations for a highly enriched uranium agreement with Russia and headed coalition affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan.