International disputes over territory can be ugly affairs, waged with all the nastiness of a divorce, backed with the force of armies. Just in the past few years, China has built islands topped with military bases to back its claim to vast stretches of ocean, in conflict with half a dozen other Asian countries, while Russia has forged a path of bloodshed and destruction in Ukraine over its annexation of Crimea.
But that’s not how Canada and Denmark roll. Their way of contesting ownership of an uninhabited island in the Arctic would better suit a dinner party than a battlefield: It comes down to BYOB.
Hans Island is really just a large rock, but it happens to lie smack dab in the middle of the Nares Strait, a 22-mile-wide channel of very cold water separating Canada and Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark. The island falls within the 12-mile territorial limit of either shore, allowing both sides to claim it under international law.
Canada and Denmark set out to establish a definitive border through the strait in 1973, but they couldn’t agree on what to do about Hans Island, so they left the issue aside to be resolved later.
The calm diplomatic waters grew choppy in 1984 when Canadian troops visited the island, planted their nation’s flag and left another symbolic marker as well: a bottle of Canadian whisky.
The Danes couldn’t let that stand. The country’s minister of Greenland affairs soon arrived on the island to replace the offending Canadian symbols with a Danish flag and a bottle of Danish schnapps, along with a note saying “Welcome to the Danish island.”
And so began a spirited dispute, one that has lasted decades, with each side dropping by the island periodically to scoop up the other side’s patriotic bottle and replace it with their own. (What becomes of the evicted liquor? No one is — hic — saying.)
Canada and Denmark agreed in 2005 on a process to resolve the status of Hans Island, but the diplomats have made little headway since then. Hoping to encourage the negotiations, two academics put forward a proposal in 2015 to blend realpolitik with real estate: Make the island a “condominium” of shared sovereignty under two flags — and presumably, two bottles.