In William Shakespeare’s famous play, Hamlet, a Danish prince, amidst chaos, unrest and unpredictability, is depicted with a skull in his hand saying the epic words: ‘To be, or not to be’ when contemplating past and future events. These words have since labelled many attempts to describe problems but in the case of defence, against the backdrop of a – in many ways – predictable Cold War scenario versus the current times of unpredictability, financial hardship, Arab Spring and emerging threats, the words do seem appropriate.
Defence today is very much about continuous and hard choices – ‘To be or not to be’.
For Denmark during the Cold War there basically were no choices, just action and reaction with the nation’s survival at stake. Geographically, we sat right in the middle of the problem on the borderline between East and West. We knew what we were up against, and had most of the answers to the problem, but also recognising that we were not in a position to implement them, just that the situation was static in its own peculiar way. We didn’t need to look into a crystal ball to predict tomorrow’s events. All we needed was the ability to add and deduct; their capabilities versus our capabilities. Size mattered and predictability – again in its own twisted and peculiar way – permeated everything we did as the situation did not radically change from one day to the next. We could rest assured that the defence structures and capabilities of yesterday would be ones needed for tomorrow as well – and indeed for the foreseeable future.
Arguably, during the Cold War Denmark may have acted like a typical small state relying on our strong allies in NATO. We were definitely not in a position to make choices by ourselves, nor would we have wished to do so, as NATO was – and still is – the ultimate foundation of our security policy. But what we did learn through the ‘cold’ years was that strong partnerships based on common values, trust and common approaches are the foundation of any defence.
Over 20 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, the framework for Danish security policy – and many other countries’ security policy – is global. We are all faced with choices against a backdrop of financial uncertainty and unpredictability. Even Hamlet would have been struck by the massive challenges and the hard choices ahead. Threats to our national security or interests no longer necessarily emerge from areas adjacent to our borders. Insecurity, instability and intolerance caused by failed states, non-state actors such as terrorists and pirates, weapons of mass destruction and attacks in cyberspace are some of the new types of cross-border challenges that threaten Danish security and interests. These new challenges not only originate far from European or Denmark’s borders, they are also extremely complex and must be countered by a pallet of civilian and military measures. We must boldly seek to move past old-fashioned thinking and instead be innovative and adopt new responses.
Many of us do face today’s choices with a different mind-set and a different structure of our Armed Forces. We, as Danes, are not unprepared for what the future brings. The Danish Armed Forces have been undergoing an extensive transformation from a traditional mobilisation defence to a modern deployable defence force, but we are, on the other hand, acutely aware of the scale of the challenges and the inherent limitations of a small state.
What we bring with us from the past is first and foremost the lessons learned of strong Alliances and strong partnerships. Defence is by definition an international business. Our mutual dependency becomes stronger every day and so it should be because there are no alternatives. Operations, materiel, personnel; we are all closely linked and interwoven through organisations, the UN, NATO, EU and the OSCE and partnerships in today’s defence. In the age of globalisation, no one is immune to international security challenges and no state can deal with these alone. It also emphasises the need to agree with our partners what the most significant strategic risks are. Clear decision making on priorities and capabilities cannot be made without a shared understanding of the strategic risks that face us over the next decade and beyond – and this is ever more difficult in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.
Our efforts in Afghanistan are a sign that this is understood in many capitals: 48 countries participate militarily and over 60 countries contribute with funds for reconstruction and development. This is a strong sign of commitment, solidarity and a shared perception of the risks to us all. Danish men and women are proud to serve in Afghanistan in support of the international effort and especially alongside our British allies.
That said, most of our Defence Forces are currently presented with ever shrinking budgets on the one hand and rising demands for global engagements on the other. At first sight, a viable solution to this equation seems impossible but there are easy ways out; the acceptance of a gradual decline in overall capabilities or the option of non-commitment, which is to let others face the challenges for you. Clearly none of these options should be acceptable. Hardship fosters innovative thinking; innovative thinking tends to break down barriers which only yesterday seemed to be taboo. Perhaps it is time to cross some of the previous red lines.
There are massive opportunities in recognising that we cannot simply carry on with business as usual – at least we cannot if we wish to continue to benefit from the security we have enjoyed for so long, provided by strong organisations or partnerships like NATO.
But opportunity also carries with it hard choices with inherent pain and in many cases risks. Denmark will make the necessary hard choices needed in the future. We realise that we cannot engage in all conflicts because of our size but we have decided to try and excel in what we do. We have decided to stay engaged and committed in many hotspots of the world with required capabilities despite financial constraints. We have decided to further strengthen the collaboration with strong and trusted partners. We have decided to seek innovative ways of exploiting current and future capabilities through international organisations and partners.
These are some of Denmark’s choices, however we are all at this stage presented with unique opportunities for innovative thinking and collaboration in defence and we must seize the moment.
The choice is ours: ‘To be, or not to be’.