Washington Arctic experts say Trump’s Greenland purchase idea shouldn’t be taken too seriously

But the president's interest does signal an increasing geopolitical focus on the North.

By Melody Schreiber - August 16, 2019
A woman and child hold hands as they walk on the street in the town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 15, 2018. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters File Photo)

President Trump has expressed interest in purchasing Greenland, according to reports that first surfaced Thursday. But Arctic experts and officials in Washington cautioned against taking such an idea seriously.

“We have good cooperation with the U.S, and we see it as interest in investing in our country,” said Rebecca Lynge, first secretary of Greenland’s representation in Washington, D.C. She repeated Greenland’s foreign minister Ane Lone Bagger’s words: “We’re open for business, but we’re not for sale.”

[Greenland to Trump: ‘We’re not for sale’]

According to a Wall Street Journal report, Trump first began inquiring about a purchase last spring, when someone at a dinner mentioned Denmark’s financial obligations in Greenland. Trump, who sees himself as a real estate tycoon, reportedly began asking his advisers and White House counsel about whether purchasing Greenland from Denmark would be a possibility.

It’s not the first time a U.S. president has raised the idea. In 1946, Harry Truman offered $100 million in gold for the island, but Denmark refused.

Greenlanders, Danes and others quickly reacted negatively to Thursday’s news, and inside the Beltway, reactions were equally incredulous.

“You are joking?” said Barbara Bodine, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University and a former U.S. ambassador. “No, countries don’t sell their territory like pieces of real estate.”

The idea is closer to 19th-century concepts of national territory as real estate to be bought and sold, she said, without reference to the people who live there.

“There is neither a reason nor a mechanism for Denmark to sell it; there is not a reason the Greenlanders would welcome it,” she said.

Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that this did not seem like a serious idea from the Trump administration.

Even if such an agreement could be navigated with Denmark and Greenland, Congress would have to approve and appropriate funds, Conley said — something they would be unlikely to do. (Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has long worked with Greenlandic and Danish leaders on Arctic issues, did not respond to inquiries by the time of publication; the story will be updated if she does.)

“I don’t believe the American people would understand why this purchase would be necessary as we already have a very cooperative relationship with Denmark and Greenland as well as a valuable military base,” Conley said.

“I cannot imagine this is under serious consideration,” said Michael Sfraga, director of the Polar Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “I can only assume the president has taken an interest in Greenland because of the growing geopolitical importance of the Arctic — and Greenland’s critical geographic location.”

Greenland has long been an important island for the United States and its allies, with substantial military and research resources maintained there for decades, he said. And with the opening of the Arctic Ocean, Greenland and the Kingdom of Denmark will play a central role in the Arctic’s future.

“So even if the president’s interests/comments were made or taken in jest, it should underscore the importance of Greenland to the rest of the world,” Sfraga said.

In September 2018, the U.S. defense department announced its intentions to invest in Greenland’s infrastructure, including airports, in an apparent effort to edge out Chinese investment in the island.

And in May of this year, the U.S. State Department announced plans for a diplomatic presence in Greenland— possibly a consulate in Nuuk.

In early September, Trump will visit Denmark for the first time, prompting speculation that Greenland would be on the agenda then.

“The Danish government should respond quickly to address this question so that it doesn’t overshadow the upcoming state visit,” Conley said.