Ulrik Trolle Smed and Anders Wivel, University of Copenhagen
The piracy problem in East Africa gained international attention in particular from 2005 and onwards. In this international setting, Denmark, a small state with strong maritime interests and tradition, experienced a surprising amount of tailwind for its counterpiracy efforts and policy proposals.
Small states are traditionally characterized by their lack of influence and capabilities. They have less military and economic power than great powers, smaller territories and populations and fewer diplomats and private citizens available for influencing international affairs. In the case of piracy off the Horn of Africa, small maritime states such as the Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka are the states most vulnerable to the threats and challenges following from piracy. They come to the negotiation table seeking solutions of common interest but lack the necessary capabilities to play a decisive role. At the same time, they are usually the first to feel the consequences of new threats or indecision.
What did Denmark do to influence the international counterpiracy agenda? What lessons does the Danish experience hold for small states in the Indian Ocean aiming to minimize the risk of piracy in the region and influence international counterpiracy policy?
A smart state strategy for counterpiracy policy
The early twenty-first century rise in piracy off the coast of Somalia posed an important problem for Denmark. With approximately 100 Danish-controlled merchant vessels navigating off the Horn of Africa at any given time, the Danish maritime industry was highly dependent on the freedom of the seas. But states inside and outside the region viewed piracy as a national problem and flag states were expected to protect their own vessels. For the US, France and other powerful states, piracy was an irritant rather than a strategic threat, and there was no effective way of persecuting pirates, which meant few would do something about it.
As a response, Denmark set out to convince the international community that piracy should be viewed as an international problem requiring immediate and collective international solutions, which needed to be pragmatic, cost-effective and sustainable for the regional states rather than all-encompassing international and idealistic. As a small state, Denmark would be unable to handle the challenges on its own, but this approach secured some influence on the international counterpiracy agenda by combining diplomatic, military and economic means in into one comprehensive strategy.
From the beginning, Denmark worked diplomatically to position itself centrally in any negotiations. Knowing that it had no chance of challenging the dominant discourses of strong institutions and states, Denmark played into both UN discourse about a political and humanitarian crisis for Somalia and US discourse viewing piracy as ‘terrorism at sea’ to do this. As a recently appointed chairman of a working group, Denmark then tapped into dominant development discourses on stabilizing fragile states such as Somalia. The chair brought in technical expertise and worked closely with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Nairobi and another small state, the Seychelles, to achieve its goals as an honest broker with its own lesser policy preferences.
Follow the money
‘Follow the money’ is a catchphrase popularized by the 1976 Hollywood hit movie All the President’s Men. It has merit in both international and domestic politics: whoever finances activities is likely to have a say over the form and content of these activities. However, like in the case of military contributions, capacity and capability is not all that matters. Denmark focused its economic contributions on negotiating a shift in focus among the donor states towards building local maritime security capacities by creating a fund of 150m DKK for stabilization, rebuilding and capacity building projects in conflict areas.
Military contributions matter
Finally, in security policy, military contributions matter. Traditionally, this has been a problem for small states, because military hardware is expensive. But security policy is not just about hardware; it is also about politics. Off the Horn of Africa, Denmark’s limited military capacity became an advantage, since any Danish deployment to international operations would send a strong signal domestically and abroad (when communicated in the right way). Therefore, when the Danish Parliament decided to deploy an old Arctic inspection ship in the first three months of 2008, carrying 80 troops, special forces and speedboats, this showed that combating piracy was a Danish national priority. On top of this, much larger nations such as France and the U.K. were contributing vessels of roughly the same size and capability as Denmark. Even though the vessel returned to Denmark after three months without encountering any attacks, the Danish response time and the willingness to contribute, despite limited capabilities, helped create a strong forerunner reputation, which Denmark could use later in the diplomatic process that followed. The Danish commitment was cemented when Denmark deployed its brand-new frigate-sized vessel as command ship for Combined Task Force 150 (CTF150) in August that same year with a robust counterpiracy mandate from the Danish Parliament. In the following years, Denmark made the most of its limited military capacity by primarily rotating crews rather than ships. This allowed Danish vessels to serve for 50 months by 2014, equaling four years of deployment over a six-year period, and in addition to providing 22 months, or almost two years, of continuous task force leadership.
In sum Denmark achieved influence by: 1) signaling commitment; 2) actively seeking a mediator role; 3) using technical expertise to underpin arguments; 4) focusing economic resources to underpin core preferences; 5) Never alienating any of the most powerful actors by challenging their agendas while never working too closely with one of them to preserve independence.
Lessons for small states in the Indian Ocean region
What lessons can small states in the Indian Ocean region draw from the Danish experience? And what are the differences between Denmark and those states? Two conditions set the stage. First, small states in the Indian Ocean region are smaller than most of their European counterparts. They have little or no significant military capabilities and a much smaller economy. For these reasons, they will have to do with fewer instruments in the toolbox and focus on improving their situation with the ones they already have. Second, they are East African and South Asian, not European. This is a double-edged sword, because it means they are poised to have weaker government networks in Europe and the West but stronger ones in the region. One lesson from the “small but smart” state strategy pursued by Denmark is to rely on inherent strengths instead of trying to mend weaknesses. Instead of primarily seeking solutions from Europe, small maritime states in the Indian Ocean region should strengthen their own regional networks, which can grant access to key policymakers and more information. The better they are connected and informed about the maritime security dynamics of the region, the better a partner they will be for the international community. If piracy should ever return in force to the Indian Ocean, providing international partners with a plug-and-play information system about the threat and how it works will ensure a quicker solution to the problem. Therefore, they should present themselves as the natural entry point for the international society and as a reliable partner, which understands international actors and wants to facilitate a smooth process.
The best thing small maritime states in the Indian Ocean can do is to keep their relations in the region warm and the level of information high, so the international society can plug right back into the extend needed. How do you create such a framework in practice? Small states in the region have to present themselves as honest brokers. They can do this by creating venues for regular meetings on maritime security, where they can interact with international organizations like the UNODC, informal policymakers such as the OBP and key regional players like the US, UK, France, India and China. As a norm entrepreneur, they can help shape the debate on regional challenges by sponsoring policy papers, research and using their regular meetings as venues for discussing these with their regional allies. Acting as lobbyists, they can set aside money for piloting good ideas for scalable projects, then work hard to make them successful and finally disseminate the lessons learned in the right forum. First show that you can do a difference with 100,000 USD yourself, then scale it up to 1m USD with a partner, and finally invite an array of international partners inside, such as the World Bank. With this approach, even small states can have both a real impact on the ground and win a good deal of international credit.
Small but smart
The Danish results show that “small but smart” state strategies increase the influence of the small states – especially, if they are employed with the blessing of great powers and the international community. Power and influence does not always have to be concerned with other states but can also be concerned with influence over events, non-state actors and stability. The piracy problem in the Gulf of Aden would probably have been solved eventually without the help of Denmark. But would it have been solved as quickly and in an equally sustainable manner? This is counterfactual and hard to answer but good to contemplate. The matter of the fact is that if small states in the region do not take responsibility for creating strong networks in their own backyard with regards to maritime security information and working relationships, then the international community will have a much harder time to help solve any future piracy problem, and economic and human capital will suffer unnecessarily.
Small state influence
Moving from the practical lessons to the abstract, the Danish experience holds three lessons for small states seeking to influence international agendas. First, unable to set the agenda itself the small state needs play into the dominant discourses of the great powers. The interests and preferences of the small state needs to be formulated in a way, which is not only consistent with the views of the dominant powers, but also presenting a solution to the challenges that these powers seek to meet. Second, in order to do so and not lose sight of its own interests, the small state needs to rank its preferences. What is the primary policy objective of the state? What is negotiable and what is not? Small states can rarely influence international affairs by their economic or military capacity alone. Therefore, policy-makers need to identify the main objective, the diplomatic context and its comparative advantages and then allocate the necessary resources. These may be material contributions, but they may also be less tangible assets such as the willingness to act when nobody else does. Finally, the small state should take a leading diplomatic role in negotiations by taking on the role of an ‘honest broker’ mediating between different parties of interest and thereby positioning itself centrally for both getting information and exercising influence.
About the Authors
Ulrik Trolle Smed, MSc, is the Executive Vice President at the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association and a former research assistant at the Centre for Military Studies, University of Copenhagen. His research interests include maritime security, small states and international security.
Anders Wivel, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. His research interests include small states, foreign policy and international security.
Our work was supported by the Centre for Military Studies, University of Copenhagen, and by a travel grant from the Danish Maritime Foundation (2015-038, KU; IFS-20239900).
References and further reading
Archer, Clive, Alyson J. K. Bailes and Anders Wivel. 2014. Small States and International Security: Europe and Beyond, London: Routledge.
Bailes, Alyson J., Thayer, Bradley A., & Thorhallsson, Badur. 2016. “Alliance theory and alliance ‘Shelter’: the complexities of small state alliance behaviour.” Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal 1(1): 9-26.
Browning, Christopher S. 2006. “Small, smart and salient? Rethinking identity in the small states literature.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 19(4): 669-684.
Danish Defence. 2015. Overview of Danish participation in military operations in Gulf of Aden, Copenhagen: Danish Defence.
Grøn, Caroline Howard, and Anders Wivel. 2011. “Maximizing influence in the European Union after the Lisbon Treaty: From small state policy to smart state strategy.” Journal of European integration 33(5): 523-539.
Smed, Ulrik Trolle and Anders Wivel. 2017. “Vulnerability without capabilities? Small state strategy and the international counter-piracy agenda.” European Security 26(1): 79-98.
Smed, Ulrik Trolle. 2015. “Small states in the CGPCS: Denmark, Working Group 2, and the end of the debate on an international piracy court.” Working paper of the Lessons Learned Project of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS),
Smed, Ulrik Trolle. 2016 “Maritime security and development in Africa: Three narratives for a strategy for Denmark.” Report for Center for Military Studies, University of Copenhagen,