Why President Trump’s idea to buy Greenland is not a joke in Denmark and Greenland

Officials in Nuuk and Copenhagen are acutely aware of the delicate balance of interests between Greenland, Denmark and the United States.

By Martin Breum - August 23, 2019
General view of Upernavik in western Greenland, Denmark July 11, 2015. (Linda Kastrup / Ritzau Scanpix via Reuters)

For more than a week, journalists and commentators across the world have been regarding U.S. President Donald Trump’s remarks that he may consider buying Greenland, the world’s largest island, almost as a laughing matter.

Many elements in this spectacle fit the common picture of the president as a  leader who doesn’t forget his track record as a real estate broker, and a president with limited patience with conventions and a willingness to treat other nations with delicate disdain if he finds it in the interest of the U.S.

[Trump calls Danish PM’s rebuff of Greenland idea ‘nasty’ as trip cancellation stuns Danes]

It seems clear now, though, that the U.S. president may be dead serious. It is no longer possible to rule out that the idea of buying Greenland, including all its people and territory, may reflect a wish on the part of the president to take responsibility for a hardened U.S. analysis of Russian and Chinese intentions in the Arctic. The president’s idea to buy Greenland, even if it seems unimaginable, matches in many ways a series of other recent signs, in particular from agencies and institutions involved with U.S. security, of a rapid increase in U.S. interests in Greenland.

A real estate deal

For Denmark and Greenland, serious dilemmas could emerge if Trump is indeed aiming to alter the delicate balance of powers between these two nations and the U.S. in the Arctic. Since World War II, the division of power between Denmark, Greenland and the U.S. in Greenland has been more or less clear: The U.S. takes care of Greenland’s security and runs Thule Air Base in the far north of the island primarily in order to protect the U.S. itself against adversaries on the other side of the Arctic Ocean.

General view of Thule Air Base, Greenland, Denmark October 31, 2018. (Linda Kastrup / Ritzau Scanpix via Reuters)

Denmark guards Greenland’s outer borders, including those at sea, and handles Greenland’s internal affairs in close cooperation with Greenland’s own elected leaders, who are acting with ever more autonomy. So far, this arrangement has generally served to the satisfaction of all, including the U.S., but now, as the last few days have shown, Trump may possibly want to change this intricate pattern. This may, potentially, challenge the fabric of the Danish Kingdom and fragile economic and social developments in Greenland. The whole episode may still, of course, all be forgotten in a few months, but to still more observers here in Denmark this now seems unlikely.

Essentially a real estate deal

On Sunday, Trump confirmed that he is interested in buying Greenland.

“Denmark essentially owns it. We’re very good allies with Denmark, we protect Denmark like we protect large portions of the world. So the concept came up and I said, ‘Certainly I’d be interested.’ Strategically it’s interesting and we’d be interested but we’ll talk to them a little bit. It’s not No. 1 on the burner, I can tell you that,” he said.

“Well, a lot of things can be done,” he said. “Essentially it’s a large real estate deal.” He indicated that a U.S. takeover might relieve Denmark of a financial burden, talking most likely about the annual grant with which Denmark supports Greenland: “Its hurting Denmark very badly because they’re losing almost $700 million a year carrying it. So they carry it at a great loss and strategically for the United States it would be very nice and we’re a big ally of Denmark, we protect Denmark and we help Denmark and we will,” he said.

‘An absurd discussion’

By coincidence, the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, was in Nuuk at the time and her reaction indicated well how precarious the situation now suddenly was. With only 5.5 million inhabitants, Denmark is a small country which can hardly afford even the smallest rift in its relations with the U.S., its second most important trading partner and for more than seven decades its most indispensable NATO partner and military ally. On the other hand, there is no way the prime minister could accommodate even the basic premise of the president’s suggestion that Greenland and its people, who are all Danish citizens, can be treated as a saleable commodity.

In an interview with the Danish Broadcasting corporation she dismissed the whole concept: “This is an absurd discussion, and of course (Greenland Premier) Kim Kielsen has made it clear that Greenland is not for sale, and the discussion stops there”.

The day after, however, at a press conference with Kielsen in Nuuk, she was already at pains to tell Washington and everyone else how strongly Denmark remained committed to the preservation of good relations with the U.S. In particular, she made strenuous efforts to stress Denmark’s strong commitment to continued security cooperation with the U.S. in Greenland. She foresaw “even stronger strategic cooperation”, and she remained open to any American wish to increase the U.S. military presence in Greenland in light of the changing security landscape in the Arctic: “As to the military presence, we have to follow developments,” she said.

At this stage it must have been clear to most watchers in Washington that Denmark remains ready to discuss any U.S. wish to increase its military presence in Greenland or to increase its own military efforts in Greenland. Kielsen, head of Naalakkersuisut, Greenland’s Self Rule Government, also acknowledged Greenland’s growing significance to U.S. security. The first U.S. bases in Greenland were established during World War II and Greenland’s leaders have no problem with the current U.S. military presence as long as it is followed by a respectful dialogue and as long as a reasonable benefits — jobs, infrastructure and so forth — keep flowing Greenland’s way.

No longer a joke

Two days later, however, on Wednesday, Trump cancelled a formal state visit to Denmark, scheduled for September 2-3, on Twitter: “Denmark is a very special country with incredible people, but based on Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s comments, that she would have no interest in discussing the purchase of Greenland, I will be postponing our meeting scheduled in two weeks for another time,” he wrote. (Later, he clarified that he had taken offense also by Frederiksen’s use of the word “absurd”).

The cancellation was unprecedented.

On Sept. 2, Trump was to be received by Queen Margrethe of Denmark, prime minister Frederiksen, by leaders of industry and by Kielsen, but now all was cancelled.

A digital billboard displays a sign reading “TRUMP” in Copenhagen, Denmark, August 20, 2019. Picture taken August 20, 2019. (Nikolaj Skydsgaard / Reuters)

At this stage it is no longer possible to remain certain that the president’s thoughts of buying Greenland was a passing confusion, and again the reaction of prime minister Frederiksen illustrated the pressure the Danish government feels. In her response to a frenzy of global media attention, at a press conference in Copenhagen just hours after the president’s tweet, she spoke again of the close, warm and important relations with the U.S.:

“The U.S. is one of our absolutely most important allies,” she said. Again she focused on security: “Our desire for a more strategic and stronger cooperation with the US on the Arctic is completely untouched, and our invitation to the Americans regarding stronger cooperation remains standing,” she said. Only then did she repeat that Greenland is not for sale. Finally she said it all once again in English to make sure every syllable was legible to Washington.

The day after, on Thursday, official word was issued that Frederiksen and Trump had spoken by phone, but at the time of this writing, little information about the content of the call has been disclosed, and it’s not known who initiated it.   

Greenland as part of America

It now seems that the U.S. president acts on an entirely different perception of Greenland than do the governments in Denmark and Greenland.

According to international law, Greenland is a part of the Kingdom of Denmark. In the views of the Danish government it has been so for at least the last 300 years, or — as many will have it here — since Vikings settled in the south of Greenland in 985. Relations go deep. Many Danish and Greenlandic families are intertwined and the common history plays an important part in the national identity of both Danes and Greenlanders. Danish missionaries translated the Bible into Greenlandic by the 18th century. Danish colonial rule over Greenland, which lasted until 1953, was certainly not without problems, abuse of power and mistakes, but there was no slavery, no systematic use of violence and Greenland today is a well-functioning democratic welfare society mirroring the Nordic countries. About half the population speak Danish as well as Greenlandic.

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)

Greenland enjoys self-rule and a great deal of autonomy, while security, foreign affairs, the royal house and a few other keys to power remain under Danish control. About two-thirds of the electorate in Greenland support the vision of independence from Denmark at some point in the future, but there is no deadline and relations with Denmark remain cordial, close and cooperative. One half of the public expenditure in Greenland is covered by the annual grant from Denmark. A fifth of all Greenlanders live in Denmark and few envisage that Greenland will sever all ties to Denmark, the royals, access to the Danish educational system and so forth, even if Greenland should one day formally become an independent state.

Thus, president Trump’s notion that Greenland, including all of its 57,000 inhabitants with their distinct language, unique culture, democratic institutions and the rest of it could be sold and bought as a simple piece of real estate collided head on with all current views in Denmark and Greenland of normality, the status of the kingdom, the value of history and respectful interchange between peoples as the foundation of the current order of our times.

The dilemma is, as we now have to assume, that to Trump and to those who first suggested the purchase to him, Greenland may mean something different — or at least something in addition to the above.

[Trump’s dream of a US Greenland purchase has a surprisingly long and complex history]

Since 1823, when the Monroe Doctrine was first conceived of in Washington, the U.S. has allowed no other powers to extend their sovereignty onto the American continent. In this sense, Greenland stands out. Trump explicitly recognizes that Greenland is a part of the Danish Kingdom — 99 percent of the Kingdom’s territory to be precise — but geographically and strategically Greenland’s 2.1 million square kilometers constitute part of the American continent. They form a crucial buffer-zone between the U.S. and several nations that are on its list of main adversaries: China, Russia and North Korea. During the Cold War, Greenland and the Arctic was heavily militarized, it was a buffer between the Soviet Union and the U.S., and the geography has not changed.

Also, we have to record that the president’s thoughts of buying Greenland is only the latest sign of rapidly increasing U.S. interests in Greenland. Washington is reopening its diplomatic office in Nuuk after 66 years of absence. The U.S. ambassador to Copenhagen, Carla Sands, is a frequent guest in Greenland; in July she studied uranium and rare earth minerals in the south of Greenland with representatives of the US State Department. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency under the U.S. Department of Defense is currently using satellites to map all ice free land in Greenland — an area the size of Sweden — in close cooperation with Denmark and Greenland. In September 2018, the U.S. Air Force let it be known that it is considering investing in new airport facilities in Greenland. Thule Air Base, including its large radar, crucial to American missile defense, is regularly upgraded.

Russia and China

Copenhagen and Nuuk are well aware that the U.S. is focused on Russian and Chinese activities in the Arctic.

Russia is re-militarizing its Arctic regions. New bases have been established along Russia’s Arctic coast and old bases have been reopened, including on Franz Josef Land, a group of islands some 900 kilometers from the North Pole. From here, theoretically, Russian fighter jets could reach Thule Air Base with conventional weapons and disable a central component of America’s missile defense — the radar at Thule — without igniting a nuclear Armageddon.

U.S. strategists are also focused on China’s push for more influence in the Arctic, access to natural resources and the Arctic sea lanes. China calls itself a “near-Arctic” state and has invested heavily in oil and gas in the Russian Arctic. For a time, China’s largest construction company, China Communications Construction Company, was among those bidding to build two large new airports in Greenland, potentially with Chinese state funding. Chinese involvement was thwarted in 2018 only after after consultations between Denmark and the U.S.

[How a dispute over China and Greenland’s airports worked its way toward a solution]

Several signals from the U.S. indicate that it aims to push back strongly against these Russian and Chinese developments in the Arctic. The U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made a hardline speech in Finland in May to this effect, followed by a June 2019 Arctic Strategy paper from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Now, the governments in Copenhagen and Nuuk are reading Trump’s interest in Greenland in this security context and they remember that this is not the first U.S. offer to buy Greenland.

As an answer to Danish suggestions that the U.S. should vacate its bases in Greenland after World War II, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes in a 1946 meeting with his Danish counterpart suggested exactly the same — that the U.S. should buy Greenland — and he was dead serious.

It was then that the Danish government understood that the US is not likely to leave Greenland ever. Denmark refused the sale, but in the following years the model we know today emerged. Denmark became a member of NATO, and in 1951 an accord, which still stands today as the key binding agreement on Greenland, was reached between Denmark and the U.S. Today, this accord provides the U.S. with rich opportunities for increasing its military presence in Greenland. Thule Air Base can be upgraded as new needs are identified, and new bases can be established as long as Denmark and Greenland agrees. Which — as Denmark’s prime minister and Greenland’s premier has clearly indicated — they are very likely to do.

Open for business

Looking at the bright side, the administration in Nuuk will no doubt celebrate how media from all over the world are suddenly asking what Greenland wants. Greenland is on a permanent hunt for foreign investors; a diplomatic office was opened in Washington in 2014 for this reason, and when the Wall Street Journal first broke the story of Donald Trump’s desire to perhaps buy Greenland, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Nuuk send out the following tweet:

Martin Breum is a Danish journalist and author, who writes on Arctic affairs for Weekendavisen (Denmark), ArcticToday (U.S.), EUobserver.com (Brussels) and Sermitsiaq (Greenland). His latest book, ‘Cold Rush’ (2018), covers Denmark’s and Greenland’s positioning in the Arctic over the last decade. Contact him at martinbreum.dk.