Donald Trump, the real estate tycoon, loved to buy stuff: brownfield lots; skyscrapers; casinos. Donald Trump, the US president, apparently loves to buy countries. A Wall Street Journal report revealing rumours about Trump’s alleged willingness to purchase Greenland – the world’s largest island and an autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark – has triggered immediate rebuffs from both Copenhagen and the Greenlandic government. “Of course, Greenland is not for sale,” a spokesperson for Greenland’s premier Kim Kielsen wrote in an emailed statement.
The timing of the story – coming ahead of Trump’s official visit to Denmark in early September – is weird enough to elicit suspicions that the president might just be trolling. But his interest in establishing a stronger American presence in Greenland is likely genuine. The melting of ice sheets in Greenland and across the Arctic is a global tragedy, but for steely policymakers in Washington it is also an opportunity.
An iceless Arctic would open up new trade routes; it would make natural resources accessible (US government estimates expect 22 per cent of the world’s natural gas and oil to be in the Arctic); and would kick-start a new era “for expanded great power competition and aggression,” as declared in the US Department of Defence’s 2019 Arctic Strategy.
Essentially, everyone from Russia to China to Canada and the Nordics is swooping down on the Arctic to suck up its oil and engage in some muscle-flexing; the US does not want to miss the party. Its only Arctic foothold, Alaska, might not be enough.
“It is logical for Trump to be interested in Greenland,” says Elisabeth Braw, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “It is between the Russian Arctic and the East Coast of the US. It’s essentially on the other side of the globe [from Alaska].” The US already has a military presence in Greenland, the Thule Air Base, an air force installation built back in 1943. (Shortly afterwards, in 1946, the Truman administration also tried to buy Greenland from Denmark for $100 million (£82m); Denmark refused.)
So, what’s going on now? According to Lassi Heininen, a professor emeritus at the University of Helsinki, “the trigger” of Trump’s shopping fancy might have been, in a word: China. Over the last few years, Chinese economic presence on the island has been burgeoning.
“Chinese companies have been investing a lot in various enterprises in Greenland, especially in mining. China is now a very notable presence in Greenland,” Braw says. In 2017, Denmark nixed a Chinese mining company’s bid to buy an abandoned naval base in Greenland, worried that Beijing could use that as a springboard to establish a military presence. That incident might have roused the US’s interest in Greenland.
“[Buying Greenland] might be an easy way of competing with China and making it extremely difficult for Chinese companies to be active in Greenland,” Braw says.
One fact that makes that scenario improbable is that “to buy” is an awkward verb to use in this context. Sure, the US bought Louisiana from France, for $15m (£12m), in 1803; it bought Alaska from Russia, for $7.2m (£6m), in 1867; and snapped up the Virgin Islands, paying Denmark itself $25m (£20) in gold in 1916. But today, the idea that countries, and the people in them, can just be bought like potato fields sounds insensitive and sinister.
“Donald Trump’s alleged idea of buying Greenland seems to be rooted in an outdated worldview, where colonial masters exchange pieces of land,” says Marc Jacobsen, a senior fellow at The Arctic Institute. The principle of self-determination of peoples means that it would be for the Greenlanders to decide whether to become part of the US, rather than for the Danish government to accept or reject a Trump’s cheque.
“Such a proposal should be addressed to [Greenland’s capital] Nuuk, not Copenhagen,” Jacobsen says.
Wording apart, if Trump was serious about having Greenland join the US, the feat could be theoretically pulled off. Since 2009, the island has enjoyed self-governing status, and it has been slowly but steadily marching on a path to independence since. The law allows for full independence to be achieved through a referendum; what has been holding Greenland’s 56,000 citizens from going solo is that the country’s budget depends heavily on Danish aid.
Every year, Copenhagen sends up to the Arctic territory about $591m (£486m) in subsidies. As The Atlantic underlined, the US shells out an average amount of $12 billion (£9.8bn) on grants to each of its 50 states every year. Having to bankroll Greenland’s finances wouldn’t be too dramatic for Washington. Trump’s best bet would be to try and lure Greenland first to independence, and then to joining the US, by promising a generous subsidy scheme.
Of course, this is probably never going to happen, not least because of the brash undertones of Trump’s alleged designs on the country. It is worth wondering how a buyout proposal would be received if it came from someone like Barack Obama, or Bernie Sanders, the democratic presidential hopeful who has often sung the praises of Nordic social democracy. The US-Greenland shopping saga is not over.
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