LONDON/COPENHAGEN – President Donald Trump is coming to Europe. And not for the first time, he has embarrassed a U.S. ally and reached out to Russia’s Vladimir Putin before even boarding a plane.
Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel a state visit to Denmark planned for Sept. 2 has sparked outrage in the Scandinavian nation, which although small has been among America’s most steadfast military allies, from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond.
The rationale from the U.S. president for dropping such a grenade into the relationship was startling. Trump said on twitter Wednesday he called off the trip because Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen refused to consider selling Greenland, a Danish autonomous territory in the Arctic. She said it wasn’t Denmark’s to sell.
The U.S. has kept an important military base on Greenland’s icy expanse since the Cold War. The Danish government blocked local plans for China to finance and build a series of airports as recently as November, a project that would have given Beijing a potentially strategic foothold in the Arctic.
Frederiksen expressed “regret and surprise” over Trump’s decision, in remarks to reporters on Wednesday. Still, she said the U.S. would stay a close ally and the invitation for the president to visit Denmark remained open.
Trump’s snub to a close U.S. friend is hardly unprecedented. His transactional approach to allies is now well understood in Europe and elsewhere. Yet the president’s treatment of Denmark suggests this weekend’s annual meeting of the Group of Seven advanced economies in France may prove no more harmonious than the last. The summit in Quebec last year ended in acrimony over trade policies as Trump walked away from a final communique he’d agreed to only hours earlier.
In a by-now-familiar pattern, Trump also told reporters on Tuesday he would like to see Russia rejoin the G7 to re-create the G8. Moscow was kicked out of the club in 2014 after annexing Crimea from Ukraine, and has since only tightened its grip on the peninsula.
“The question on everyone’s lips when I travel overseas,” former State Department official Jon Alterman said in a Center for Security and International Studies phone briefing, “is whether this is a blip or whether it’s an enduring change in the U.S. role in the world.”
For now, neither America’s G7 allies nor Denmark are likely to break voluntarily with Washington, despite glaring differences over trade, climate change and other policy areas like attitudes to NATO.
“I do not imagine this changes anything in the way Denmark handles our relationship with the U.S.,” said Soren Espersen, a senior member of parliament’s foreign affairs committee. Yet even Espersen, a member of the populist, right wing Danish People’s Party, was offended by Trump’s move. He told local media earlier it was “a big insult to the queen.” Queen Margrethe II, who invited Trump, made public her “surprise” at the cancellation.
Denmark offers a test case for the benefits the U.S. gains in exchange for the security guarantees that it offers to much smaller NATO allies.
On Iraq, then-Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen — a later NATO secretary general — was among the first European leaders to commit support ahead of the 2003 U.S. invasion. In Afghanistan, Danish troops chose a combat role, fighting alongside the U.K. in Helmand province. With more than 40 dead, they suffered one of the highest per capita casualty rates of any coalition nation.
More recently, the government has been instrumental in delaying completion of the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a project that Trump has vocally opposed. Nord Stream 2 presents a price-competitive threat to U.S. liquefied natural gas exports to Europe, and would allow Russia to circumvent Ukraine’s transit pipelines, losing Kiev billions of dollars in revenue.
In June, the Russian pipeline project’s chairman, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, blamed Danish delays on U.S. pressure, although as a gas exporter Denmark also has a business case for delay. Nord Stream 2 is seeking clearance for a less direct route that would skirt Denmark’s territorial waters.
Denmark is also currently considering whether to join the U.S.-led coalition to protect commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran has seized oil tankers and has been accused of firing on others.
The U.S. president is still expected to travel to Warsaw in September, the other destination on the schedule of his Europe trip. There he will join Polish leaders for a commemoration of the start of World War II. The ruling Law and Justice Party, which shares many of Trump’s nationalist ideas and has enjoyed a close relationship with his administration, faces parliamentary elections in October.
Elected in June, Frederiksen is a left-of-center leader less politically aligned with Trump than her predecessor — or the Polish government. In his overnight tweet, Trump thanked her for being direct with him and said he looked forward to rescheduling another time.
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