To Be or Not to Be

Denmark is torn between its duties as a member of the Atlantic alliance and a longing to keep warships with nuclear weapons out of its ports. The dilemma is apt for the land of Shakespeare's tormented Prince Hamlet, but there is more to it than literary symbolism. The Danish quest for a way out is both a low-grade crisis for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a peek into the future as European nations scramble to find political and military policies for a period that may be known in history books as post-Cold War.

The most recent symptom of the Danish dilemma is that Prime Minister Poul Schlueter is out of work--perhaps permanently. Schlueter's own party commands only seven of the 179 seats in the Danish parliament, but he has been able to put together a majority coalition that has voted pro-NATO on defense issues since 1982. In mid-April he called for elections that he hoped would take enough seats away from Danish Social Democrats to make them stop needling him on fringe defense issues. His coalition picked up a few seats at the expense of the Social Democrats, but he still was short of a working majority. Queen Margrethe II has asked a Social Democrat to try to put together a new government.

The basic issue involves Denmark's policy against ships carrying nuclear weapons into its ports. The Social Democrats pushed a bill through parliament in April requiring the Danish government to remind docking warships of that policy.

It was hardly a crippling blow for NATO. Under the new law, as we understand it, a warship's captain can simply thank the Danes for their thoughtful note. There would be no need to break American and British rules by telling anyone whether or not the ship was nuclear-armed.

The change in approach is not nearly as severe as New Zealand's policy of searching ships for weapons--one that led the United States to break off military relations with the Pacific-island nation. But Washington and London both reacted as though the Danes had sold out Western Europe.

In the first place, that is a ridiculous extreme. In the second place, it is a bad way to keep friends and influence people, and keeping friends is the clue here; 70% of Danes want their country declared a nuclear-free zone, but about the same number say that they want Denmark to stay in NATO.

Denmark is important to NATO, primarily because it could cut off Soviet ships swarming out of the Baltic Sea in event of a war. But it is not clear how effectively that job could be done in the first place, and Denmark certainly is not as important to NATO as other allies who will be facing policy choices of their own over the next several months--some of which may go against the American grain. Washington cannot bully NATO into doing what it thinks best for America. Its best hope is to guide political and military decisions with tact and understanding, neither of which starred in its reaction to Denmark's dilemma.

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