Military Strategy Magazine  /  International Relations in Professional Military Education  /  

From Territorial Defence to Expeditionary Forces. Mastering International Relations and Coping with Different Cultures Has Become a Strategic Necessity for Danish Officers

From Territorial Defence to Expeditionary Forces. Mastering International Relations and Coping with Different Cultures Has Become a Strategic Necessity for Danish Officers From Territorial Defence to Expeditionary Forces. Mastering International Relations and Coping with Different Cultures Has Become a Strategic Necessity for Danish Officers
To cite this article: Nyemann, Dorthe and Staun, Jørgen, “From Territorial Defence to Expeditionary Forces. Mastering International Relations and Coping with Different Cultures Has Become a Strategic Necessity for Danish Officers,” Infinity Journal Special Edition, “International Relations in Professional Military Education,” winter 2016, pages 35-39.

© Sadikgulec | – Danish Soldiers In Iraq Photo

After the Cold War the Danish Armed Forces moved away from their traditional role of territorial defence of Danish soil and the ‘near abroad’ NATO-area in northern West Germany against a symmetric opponent, the Warsaw Pact, towards a role as a globally deployable expeditionary force underpinning the strategic choices of the Danish state. Thus, Danish foreign and security policy in the late 1990s and especially after 2001 followed what has been labeled a “super Atlanticist” course aligning Denmark with the one power which is thought to be able to guarantee Danish national security, namely the United States (through a plug-and-play relationship with the United Kingdom). This strategic choice has had a remarkable effect on the Danish Armed Forces. It has participated in all of the so-called “new” or asymmetric wars[i] that the United States and Britain have fought since the end of the Cold War: Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, and now Iraq again. The armed forces have therefore professionalized in profound ways. It has also had a large effect on the education of the Danish officer corps, especially within the realm of international relations and political science. Not due to a deliberate strategic choice within the Defence Ministry or the Ministry of Education, but due to an incremental change over the years following a ‘demand-supply’ logic because of the war-participation – and with a certain time lag, as the war-participation made the long need for revisions to officers’ education clear to all. The shift towards expeditionary forces deployable in far-away places within multinational alliance structures made it a matter of necessity for the officer corps at all levels to develop a better understanding to cope with complex strategic settings, featuring a number of stakeholders as well as numerous causes, drivers and triggers. Thus, the role of the officer was widened to include not only the traditional “warrior”, the leader in combat, the business leader, as well as the trainer and educator of soldiers, but also the role of “the diplomat”, an officer capable of working in international missions in multinational and multicultural organisations. Now, the education of the Danish officer corps is changing once again. But this time, it is not because of a change in the security outlook as an effect of what is perceived as a reawakened Russia – that is, back towards territorial defence – but because of simple austerity measures following the financial crisis in 2008. This article explores the course of these changes and the logics behind them by following the changes made in the officer’s education at the Royal Danish Army Academy (RDAA).

Relevance and resources

For many years the teaching of the topics of political science, international relations and international law was a rather autonomous practice at the Royal Danish Army Academy (RDAA). A small group of professional teachers decided on their own what needed to be taught to the young cadets. There seemed to be two important questions that guided the decisions on what to teach: relevance and resources. The question of relevance was mostly answered in the frame of the overall interest in security and democracy. The cadets needed knowledge and understanding of our own democracy and the role they were to play in it (and most importantly – what role not to play). They needed to know the legal ground rules in the relations among states and they needed to know the overall dynamics of stability, instability, security and conflict in the international system. They also needed to understand the current issues and ongoing conflicts, mostly seen from a Danish perspective as a small state in a Northern European setting.

During the Cold War – and on through the start of the 1990s – the focus was on territorial defence against a symmetric adversary: the Warsaw Pact forces. If war came, it would be a war for national survival, most likely involving tactical nuclear weapons used on Danish soil. Thus, the role of the young officer was first and foremost to lead men in battle and most likely to die trying. Secondly, he was to be able to train his soldiers – often unmotivated draftees – and prepare them for battle. That battle, for most of the Danish land forces, would have taken place in the southern part of Jutland or in the northern parts of West Germany, trying to stop a presumed overwhelming attacking force from the Warsaw Pact. The tactical education was therefore attuned to traditional military tasks such as clearing, attacking, patrolling and guard service. Focus was on operating stand-alone units under sovereign Danish command. Only staff officers of higher rank would work more closely with other NATO forces during exercises. The conscripts, the corporals, the sergeants as well as the young officers would have little or no contact with other NATO forces. Overall the education had many more dimensions than it has today. Physical training was to a lesser extent focused on preparing for battle (which seemed unlikely), but instead focused on individual physical durability exercised through running or swimming, and on building team spirit, through team sports such as soccer. The role of the officer as business leader made the topic of business administration necessary. Language study did not just focus on English as it does today, with cadets also choosing between French and German. Leadership was also an important part of the education as was psychology. The list was long. Each discipline gave the cadet competence within its field, but the curriculum was not focused on providing the cadets with the ability to conduct strategic thinking and action drawing on knowledge from the entire spectrum of disciplines in future tasks. The education mirrored the international environment: the officers had to be ready for a task all expected would never come or would be over within days. With that prospect, it was hard to stay focused.

For the faculty in IR the question of resources was answered in negotiations with teachers from the many other disciplines – how much time and focus could political science and international relations consume this year compared to last year? It was an ongoing competition and the resources available could always be used. In trying to give the cadets the very best, the discussions among the faculty teaching IR often took as their point of departure how to pass on as much of what the faculty had been taught in civilian universities as possible. The philosophy seemed to be “the same but easier”. What was taught needed to be more simple, easier to understand, faster to comprehend, with less complexity but still useful for coming officers. In finding the right textbook, the right academic articles, the right approach in the classroom, this was central. At the very end of the course, what the faculty wanted to accomplish was to give the cadets an overall understanding of the disciplines of political science, international relations and international law. This way of teaching and selecting topics for the cadets had many fine qualities and the ongoing discussions did provide a good and rich understanding of the political environment surrounding the officers’ room for maneuver. As the international environment changed and Danish officers faced difficult challenges in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s it slowly forced the staff at the RDAA to transform towards a more focused and more responsive curriculum. Relevance began to mean something different than before and the traditional way of planning and teaching political science and international relations came to an end.

A matter of state power

As early as the Danish Defence Agreement at Parliament in 1960 it was policy that the Officer Academies in Denmark must teach the cadets about democracy. The explanation is – as is often the case in political science – basically about power. One of the important lessons to be learned from history’s many coups, rebellions and revolutions, is that the decisive factor for a successful revolution is often that the leaders of the revolution or rebellion manage to get the country’s military forces, especially the officer corps, on the side of the revolution – the Russian Revolution in 1917 being a case in point. In other words, it is in the interest of the state to ensure that the officer corps broadly shares what in international relations theory is called “the idea of the state”.[ii] That is, the founding ideas of the state on which the state bases its power and legitimacy. And since Denmark is a representative democracy, the state has an interest in ensuring that the officer corps broadly shares this foundational idea of the state. It is of course not the task of the RDAA or the other Officer Academies to turn our cadets into good democrats. We are to turn our cadets into good officers. However, we build on the democratic foundations laid by the whole of the public education system, which starts with the values conveyed in Kindergarten, in Primary school, in citizens’ general “upbringing” in associations (forenings-livet), in conversations about this and that within the family, in discussions among friends and acquaintances, and in discussions in the media.[iii] Thus, the content of the syllabus on Danish Politics concerning democracy was merely a “brush-up” course in how selected parts of the Danish political system work, supplemented with classical discussions on Plato and Socrates, as well as discussions on Danish thinkers on democracy such as Hal Koch and Alf Ross. Also, the domestic political process – the key elements of the parliament’s decision which precedes the deployment of a military contingent in an international conflict – was touched upon.

An expeditionary army demands strategic thinking officers

Since the end of the bipolarity of the Cold War, Denmark has followed a foreign policy path branded “foreign policy activism” or “military activism”.[iv] Successive Danish defence committees concluded that there was no longer any conventional military threat towards Danish territory.[v] Thus, during the 1990s Denmark moved from territorial defence/deterrence and the occasional UN-led “peacekeeping” role[vi] during the Cold War and developed into a self-declared “strategic actor”, which participates directly in combatting declared enemies through military and other means.[vii] While the governments of the conservative Prime Minister Poul Schlüter (1982-1993) and the social democratic Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen (1993-2001) had already chosen to steer Danish foreign policy closer towards the United States[viii] , the pro-US line in Danish foreign policy was markedly enhanced under the leadership of Prime Minister and later NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (2001-2007) after the 9/11 attack on New York and Washington.[ix] The Atlantic orientation which had characterized Danish foreign policy thinking since the end of World War II was replaced by what some have labeled the “super Atlanticism” of Anders Fogh Rasmussen.[x] Relations with Washington went from having been warm in the 1990s to become unprecedentedly close after 2001. Along with Britain, Denmark became America’s favorite partner in Europe.[xi]

The proponents of foreign policy activism have primarily argued that with the absence of a direct military threat to Danish territory, the raison d’être of the Danish armed forces was to function as an expeditionary force to be used as a foreign policy tool of the Danish state, in order to underpin the special relationship with the one power that can guarantee Danish national security (through NATO), namely the United States. Following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, Denmark has thus followed the “path of the United Kingdom and played the part of the loyal ally staunchly supporting the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The two countries deployed to the same areas of operations and adopted the same positions and policies across a broad range of issues affecting the transatlantic relationship”.[xii] Therefore, there has been a shift in focus away from deterrence of great power wars to handling of wars in weak or fragile states. Today, the Danish army, navy and air force are all geared and equipped for global deployment, in order to handle threats far away from Danish territory. But the Danish army, air force and navy are no longer able to fulfill the role of conventional military deterrence and as such can no longer defend Danish territory.[xiii]

In order to function as officers in an expeditionary army taking part in multinational operations far away from Danish soil, the Danish officer corps first had to develop an understanding of the basic international legal and political conditions for the deployment of military forces in international conflicts. The rationale was that junior officers must also have a solid background knowledge of the conditions prevailing in the mission area and on the regional and international dynamics at play in the conflict. What regional powers affect, for example, conditions in Afghanistan, what are their interests and what is the reason for this? Here subjects like IR and international law come into play. For the “new wars” – the so-called asymmetric or hybrid wars that Denmark has participated in since the end of the Cold War – have one feature in common, and that is that the legitimacy of the war is not a foregone conclusion, even if the Danish population in successive polls over the years has shown persistent support for Denmark’s participation in all of these wars (notwithstanding public debate about the political and judicial legitimacy of the war in Iraq). The new wars are not fought for the nation’s survival, but in order to convey a US-led political will framed within global (Western) values. In the “new wars”, war is an instrument of the (Western) international community’s intervention. Where armies previously only had to win, in the “new wars” armies must prevent breaches of international law, ensure human rights and maintain the basic principles of a Western-led, global world order.[xiv] Thus, in the “new wars”, legitimacy does not come automatically. Danish citizens’ security perceptions are only rarely affected by events in the far away countries of conflict, where Danish soldiers are deployed nowadays. The wars’ rationales are therefore weighed against numerous other community issues – should we rather spend our money on new nurseries, new schools or new highways? Could we follow a more peaceful path towards securing Danish national interests? The core of the matter is that the legitimacy of the “new wars” must be won and maintained. This not only makes it paramount that Danish soldiers on international missions have a firm grounding in Western values, in international law, in the Laws of War, and that they know the contours of the dynamics of the international power games that are at play in the missions. It also makes it paramount for the young officers to be able to make their case. One of the cultural side-effects of the Danish democratic tradition – if you ask a man like the anthropologist Prakash Reddy – is that Danish society is “characterized by a strong equality urge. The idea that everyone has the same status, whether they are subordinates or work with highly specialized things, is accepted completely by the Danes … This extreme equality urge is why no Danes recognize that anyone stand above them”.[xv] This is a sentiment which is even more pronounced among young people today than it was at the beginning of the 1990s. And although soldiers obviously belong to the military system, and officers thus have the privilege that they can order a subordinate to do what is commanded, Danish soldiers of today are also characterized by this cultural sense of equality because of the simple fact that they are Danes. This means that Danish officers are expected to be able in most cases to convince their subordinates of something, most often using good arguments and factual reasons instead of issuing direct orders. And this makes a strategic outlook a basic necessity for a Danish commanding officer. Thus, one of the central tasks of Political Science at the Royal Danish Army Academy is practicing argumentative skills for a given position. Political Science is home to rational, factual arguments. And it is also home to the fine nuances, ambiguity and suspended judgment that may be paramount in forming a sustainable argument.

The year 2006 – culture matters

As already mentioned new demands on officers in an expeditionary army created a need for a solid understanding of Danish national interests among the officers and awareness and application of international law and the laws of war. However as complicated as this is, events during the year 2006 showed that it is not enough to make sure that future officers are properly prepared for missions abroad. Knowledge of cultural differences is essential too.

Awareness of this came from experiences first in the war in Iraq and later in the ISAF missions in Afghanistan. However, what really opened the Danish public’s eyes to this new globalized reality were the events following the publication of 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005.[xvi] The crisis that followed in the beginning of 2006 after the exposure of the Mohammed cartoons was in many ways a result of globalization. The phenomenon had of course been on the public agenda for years – and it had also been included in the IR teaching at the Academy. Now it struck Danish society as “a true fact”, a reality that felt different and much more acute than “just talking about it” in general terms. What at first glance for most people appeared to be maybe offensive, but still largely irrelevant drawings in the conservative newspaper Jyllands-Posten depicting the Prophet Mohammed mattered greatly to a group of minorities within Danish society, and after a while it mattered even more abroad.[xvii] The drawings spread worldwide fuelled Muslim outrage, resulting in at least 200 dead worldwide. The Danish and Norwegian diplomatic missions in Damascus in Syria were set on fire, in Beirut in Lebanon rioters burned down the Danish diplomatic mission, and in Afghanistan security forces killed protesters who tried to storm the American air base at Bagram. There were also riots in many Western capitals, although less violent. Denmark was in its greatest crisis internationally since World War II and reactions among Danish decision makers to the events included elements of panic. One of the conclusions drawn among the staff at the Royal Danish Army Academy was that a lack of knowledge of other cultures in the Danish society as a whole but also in the officers’ ranks was obvious and deeply problematic. In addition, our officers’ experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan pointed to the fact that knowledge of other peoples’ culture, religion and values was essential to success in multinational missions in weak or fragile states far away from Danish soil. Other militaries had of course known this for many years[xviii] , but for Danish officers this was a new experience. These were our first global missions where support from the local population was an essential part of success but not a given fact. Thus, it was decided that cultural studies was needed for the future officers. Cultural studies were to become an integral part of understanding international society, the way other states function, etc. It also became clear that understanding other cultures was an essential part of working in international missions in order to get in contact with the local population. It was part of the strategy to find out what the important issues are in local communities. Cultural understanding should become an essential guideline for the behavior of soldiers in contact with locals in “search and arrest”operations, in information gathering operations and in negotiations with the heads of communities. Among the officers in the Danish army there has been a long historical tradition, stemming from the German “Auftrag Taktik”, which more or less translates to “mission command” – the idea that giving the commander close to the actual action some or even extensive room for maneuver within the overall frame of the mission gives the best results. The closer the battle comes to the people, the more the battle is about hearts and minds and about changing or transforming societies towards Western values and institutions, the more we need a culturally aware and strategically thinking officer as leader of small units. Junior officers are the key actors in transforming political will into practical solutions on the ground.

After a while, it became clear that for us at the RDAA cultural studies was to be taught less as a discipline in its own right than as a sub-discipline supporting strategic thinking in a military environment. More often cultural studies had the function of bridging a wide range of disciplines that up until now had been completely separated in the classroom: English, leadership, tactics and IR. Our conclusion was that cultural understanding was important for the officer corps in coming to grips with the political situation in a given state, in tactical planning of operations, in leadership, as well as concerning contact with locals and even more so in training, mentoring and partnering with local army and police forces. Effective cooperation in multinational staffs also requires some understanding of how other nations work, prioritize and socialize. In many ways, the issues of culture became the interdisciplinary link that had been missing in the education of junior officers at the RDAA earlier on. For the disciplines of political science and international relations, the Mohammed cartoons and the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan took the question of relevance of the topics for the cadets in a new direction. The overriding themes were still matters of security and democracy. But it became more than that. The cadets still needed a solid knowledge of democracy in order to understand their own society and the role of the armed forces therein, but they also needed this basic understanding of democracy in order to understand the strategies for development in the countries where Denmark was now engaged. The matter of security was still relevant in understanding the global dynamics of the international system. But in teaching matters of security it also became relevant and necessary to be able to apply the logics of security on the regional, national and even group level in order for the cadets to use this knowledge in a more practical way than was ever expected earlier on. One might say that the level of taxonomy in IR and Security Studies needed to perform the expected duties of a young officer was heightened markedly.

Planning a syllabus for cultural studies was rather difficult. How were we to prepare for the next mission, which could be almost anywhere in the world? And how did we move beyond teaching “appropriate behavior” to a deeper understanding of culture and how it affects the mindset of us and the communities we engage in? What has been tried so far is a short introduction to anthropology and an introduction to a few important theories on what culture is and how it evolves combined with a few case studies giving the cadets the chance to reflect on their own views on culture, on their own prejudices and values and on what role culture plays, when we try to change other societies by doing capacity building, nation building, trying to establish “rule of law” or just building a local school for both boys and girls.

Discovering cultural studies as the interdisciplinary link between the different subjects at the RDAA did also change the education in a more fundamental way by introducing 2 interdisciplinary “synthesis” courses of 5 weeks towards the end of the curriculum. The basic idea was to ask the cadets to solve a tactical question that required the use of analytical tools from the rest of the disciplines in order to give a good answer. One scenario was a UN mission in the eastern part of DR Congo. The other was an ISAF mission in Afghanistan. During the 5 weeks the cadets faced continuous challenges that made it necessary to gather knowledge about the conflicts in the state and on its borders and the history leading up to this. They had to use their knowledge about leadership and about physical resilience and training, and they were to conduct negotiations with locals using interpreters. They were to conduct patrols and other assignments using skills from tactics, leadership and cultural studies in combination. The idea was that this would enhance the cadets’ multi-dimensional competences and strengthen their role as strategic thinkers and doers.

New educational reforms

The international financial crisis in 2008 had a great impact on the Danish economy and a lot of reforms have swept through the public sector the last few years. The area of defense has not gone untouched. At the end of 2012 it was decided to reform the entire educational structure for officers. The principles that led these changes were the following: firstly, what can be achieved in the civilian educational system should not be take place at academies for officers. Consequently future officers will not attend the Academy unless they have a civilian degree either at bachelor’s level or an (equivalent) shorter educational program combined with experience as a sergeant. The second principle that is to guide the new educational structure for officers is the principle of “just in time” and “just enough”. In order to save money and achieve efficiency it was decided to divide the “package of education” for future officers into small parts that are only given to the ones who need it when they need it in order to take on new assignments or tasks. The end result is a structure where the officer academies provide a Diploma in Military Studies, which takes about half the time – three semesters – to obtain in comparison with the previous education (Bachelor in Military Studies), after which the individual can take a wide range of extra courses if needed, dubbed “a running sushi”.

The first cadets started in August 2015 so at present we do not have much experience. What many are anxious about is the expected lack of military experience and tactical understanding that the future officers will end up with, when they are shipped out on their first missions. international humanitarian law, political science and international relations have faced an extensive cut back. Also the enhanced focus on cultural studies, so central for participating in international missions, has been cut markedly. In the future we must be even more on the spot when it comes to debates about what a young officer needs to be able to do his job. As this paper has shown the “wars of choice” have actually amplified the requirements of the young officers in the last 15 years, in order to secure legitimacy among his subordinates, in order not to make mistakes at the tactical level with negative strategic results when it comes to international law or cultural understanding, but also to keep the officers aware of underlying logics in weak states in the pursuit of nation building, security sector reform or other developments set out at the political level but often carried out by the military on the ground in difficult environments. Logics of “just in time” and “just enough” may not correspond very well with the demands on the officer listed above. And it certainly does not correspond well with the idea that the ability to engage in strategic thinking and action should be taught and developed while the cadets are still young.


[i] Herfried Münkler, The New Wars (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005).
[ii] Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear. The National Security Problem in International Relations (London: Harwester Wheatsheaf, 1983).
[iii] Thus, the understanding of democracy followed here is informed by the classical writing of the Danish thinker Hal Koch. In his book “What is democracy?” from 1946, he argues that democracy “is a mindset, a way of life, which you first acquire by the fact that you live through it in the narrowest private life, in your relations to family and neighbors, as well as in the external relations with the larger community, and in relation to your compatriots, and finally in the relations to other nations”. Hal Koch, Hvad er demokrati? (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1991), p.13.
[iv] Anders Henriksen and Jens Ringsmose, Hvad fik Danmark ud af det? Irak, Afghanistan og forholdet til Washington, DIIS Report 2011:14 (Copenhagen: DIIS, 2011).
[v] See for example De sikkerhedspolitiske vilkår for dansk forsvarspolitik, 2003, p.9, which argues that the “direct conventional threat towards Danish territorium has disappeared in the foreseeable future”. Or see The Danish National Defense Commission in 2008, which argues that “Denmark will in a foreseeable future not be confronted with direct, conventional military threats”. Dansk forsvar - Globalt engagement. Beretning fra Forsvarskommissionen af 2008 (Copenhagen: Forsvarsministeriet, 2009), p.60.
[vi] Rasmus Brun Petersen, “Danish foreign policy activism: Differences in kind or degree?”, Cooperation and Conflict, Vol. 47, No. 3, (2012), p.335.
[vii] Sten Rynning, “Denmark as a strategic actor? Danish Security Policy after 11 September”, Danish Foreign Policy Yearbook 2003, (Copenhagen: DIIS, 2003).
[viii] Poul Villaume, Denmark and NATO through 50 Years, Danish Foreign Policy Yearbook 1999, (Copenhagen: DUPI, 1999).
[ix] Anders Wivel, Between Paradise and Power: Denmark’s Transatlantic Dilemma, Security Dialogue, Vol. 35, No. 5, (2005), pp.417-421.
[x] Hans Mouritzen, Denmark’s Super Atlanticism, Journal of Transatlantic Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, (2007), pp.155-67.
[xi] Anders Henriksen and Jens Ringsmose, Hvad fik Danmark ud af det? Irak, Afghanistan og forholdet til Washington, DIIS Report 2011:14, (Copenhagen: DIIS, 2011).
[xii] Peter Viggo Jakobsen and Jens Ringsmose, Size and reputation – why the USA has valued its ‘special relationships’ with Denmark and the UK differently since 9/11, Journal of Transatlantic Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2, (2015), pp.135–153.
[xiii] Peter Viggo Jakobsen, speech at the Royal Danish Military Academy, April 16, (2015).
[xiv] Katrine Nørgaard, Stefan Ring Thorbjørnsen and Wilhelm Holsting, Militær Etik og Ledelse i Praksis, (Copenhagen: Forsvarsakademiet, 2008), p.9.
[xv] Prakash Reddy, 1991, here quoted from Tim Knudsen, Dansk Statsbygning, (Copenhagen: Jurist- og Økonomforbundets Forlag, 1995), p.94.
[xvi] Ulla Holm, Muhammed-tegningerne debatter om liberale værdier i europæiske lande, Den ny Verden, Vol. 39, No. 2, (2006), pp.21-29.
[xvii] Michael Kimmelman, A Startling New Lesson in the Power of Imagery, The New York Times, February 8, (2006).
[xviii] Montgomery McFate J.D., Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of their Curious Relationship, Military Review, March-April, (2005).