10 03 2016

The rebranding of Denmark

Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish ex-PM that took a reluctant Denmark into the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, has not only avoided the dock, where many think he belongs. Unlike what happened in England, he has also avoided any public enquiry into the decision to participate in the invasion and possible war crimes committed. On the contrary, he was promoted to General Secretary of NATO and is now a well-paid speaker at international events. He doesn't have to look nervously over his shoulder to see if somebody is after him. No problem, this is Denmark.

Fogh Rasmussen was a neo-liberal ideologist when he was younger, but when his mentor and party leader Uffe Elleman-Jensen failed to win the 1998 parliamentary election and become prime minister on a clear right wing platform, Fogh-Rasmussen reached the conclusion that it would not be possible to win in Denmark on such a platform. So when he became party leader, he made an astonishing U-turn and suddenly embraced the despised social-democratic welfare state. People believed his conversion, his party won the election in 2001 and he became prime minister (2001-2009) with support from the visceral anti-migration party, Dansk Folkeparti.

Even if the Fogh Rasmussen government oversaw a redistribution of wealth towards the well-off, he did not make any frontal attack on the welfare state, and he actually turned out to be a lousy administrator of the Danish public finances. Public expenditures and public debt increased, and his government happily oversaw and encouraged an unsustainable boom in private property sector, which collapsed with the financial crisis in 2008 (when he was already about to leave for his top-job in NATO).

His biggest successes were actually mostly within the ideological sphere. Among his biggest achievements is the rebranding of Denmark, a legacy that has turned out to be quite durable.

The most visible is the change of the image of Denmark, which, even if solidly placed within the NATO camp and a close US ally, used to be that of a peaceful nation promoting moderation, dialogue and pacific settlements. This has changed. It is now that of a country advocating an “activist” foreign policy, with a penchant for the use of military force. When ex-President Bush Jr. failed to convince Germany and France of the convenience of assaulting Iraq, Fogh Rasmussen teamed in January 2003 up with Tony Blair (UK), Aznar (Spain), Barroso (Portugal), Berlusconi (Italy), Havel (Czech Republic), Medgyessy (Hungary) and Miller (Poland), writing a joint declaration in support of the invasion of Iraq. You can (re)read their ignominious declaration in full extension here. It is actually worth re-reading – it claims the UN had recognized Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (it had not), it makes reference to the terror attack on September 11 (with which Iraq had nothing to do, and they knew that), and so on. A truly incredible document witch had dire consequences.

So Fogh Rasmussen convinced the Danish parliament to go to war, and once “the boys” were out there, a majority of the Danish people started embracing the war too. This was the first war Denmark had participated in since the war in 1864, when Prussia assaulted and defeated Denmark (if we don't count the couple of hours of Danish mock resistance to the German army in 1940 before Denmark formally capitulated). The ideological objective was to rid Denmark of the “1864-syndrome” and place Denmark solidly in the club of war-faring nations. That has been a resounding success. After the Iraq war and its inglorious achievements of meaningless destruction, dead and chaos, a majority of the Danish people has since embraced new adventures with our great American and English allies in Afghanistan and Libya, leaving another bloody trace of destruction and chaos, and a big parliamentary majority has now voted to go to war again in Iraq (once more) and Syria. So yes, Denmark has been profoundly rebranded. We are now a nation of warriors, not defending our sovereignty against hostile powers, but following Clausewitz thesis: “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means” - so this is simply the new way of conducting Danish foreign policy. And this new line has afterwards been faithfully continued by foreign ministers from both the social-democratic, the radical (traditionally pacifist) and the Popular Socialist Party. Well done, Fogh Rasmussen. It is really impressive.

The other main ideological goal was to get rid of the Danish modesty as expressed by the Danish 19th century priest and popular educator N.F.S.Grundtvig, who - following a tradition from peasant authors as Steen Steensen Blicher - paid tribute to hardworking simple people, with an anti-elitist and anti-intellectual tendency, a tradition that has been continued mostly in the Social-Democratic and leftwing parties. This modesty has often been criticized as a product of the “Law of Jante”which, it is said, does not permit brilliant people to prosper because of group pressure (wrongly, I think, probablybecause few people have actually bothered to read Sandemose's book from 1933, but that is another story).The logic seems to be that this penchant for modesty is the reason for the historically strong egalitarian sentiment in the population, which underpins the welfare state and creates resistance to socalled “supply-side” reforms as they were implemented by Reagan and Thatcher. This goal has not been fully achieved, but big progress has been made to get rid of this historical ballast. It is now more willingly being accepted that some people get incredibly rich and show off their wealth. The large majority of the Danish population is now willingly part of the “private property” lottery, where your economic future depends on the moment you happen to get into the volatile market for a place to live. The 1968 slogan about “science for the people, not for the profit” is long forgotten, as the Universities have teamed closely up with the corporate sector. And so on. But the victory is not complete – at least not yet. The biggest hurdle is that a majority of the population still thinks the “broadest shoulders should carry the heaviest load”, so further tax cuts for the rich are difficult to get through, even if should be recognized that the present government has really being trying hard. But that may come.

When the US “coalition of the willing”, which included Denmark, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, El Salvador and 44 other important nations, finally announced that the assault on Iraq would begin, Bush Jr. declared: “The game is over”. To which the then French Foreign Minister Villepin drily commented: “Firstly, this is not a game, secondly it is not over” (quoted by memory), and he turned out to be right. So, perhaps the game is not quite over yet.

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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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