One of the joys of Trump driving the news cycle is the sheer breadth of topics that erupt unexpectedly. It being the annual Silly Season, the topic of buying Greenland is a natural fit for the moment, although I’m guessing that most of us didn’t see it coming.
The Wall Street Journal lays the groundwork for us:
The idea of the U.S. purchasing Greenland has captured the former real-estate developer’s imagination, according to people familiar with the discussions, who said Mr. Trump has, with varying degrees of seriousness, repeatedly expressed interest in buying the ice-covered autonomous Danish territory between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans.
There’s more than one reason for this. Liberty Unyielding has cast a glance at Greenland a time or two, most recently in September 2018. After a tense few months, the U.S. at the time was persuading Denmark not to sell concessions to China on Greenland; namely, the authority to operate airport facilities there, a short distance from the coast of Canada and in a location the U.S. can only regard with extreme misgiving.
But keeping Greenland in the style to which it has become accustomed costs Denmark a lot. The Danes spend about $560 million a year to provide 60% of Greenland’s budget, which in the inhospitable climate has to cover expenses for the population of 56,000 that don’t even arise in other parts of the planet.
Denmark has eyed unloading Greenland a few times since World War II. The U.S. had to step in during the war and prevent Greenland from being used by Germany, after Hitler’s forces overran Denmark in 1940. (The U.S. move to fortify Greenland began in earnest only in 1941.) After the war, we had a string of bases on the island, and some of them remained in use as the Cold War deepened. The Air Base at Thule was used for multiple purposes, hosting a strategic early warning system but also supporting reconnaissance aircraft and providing a recovery and refueling station for NORAD fighters.
Denmark is a NATO ally, and the continued use of Greenland for North American defensive purposes has never been an issue.
In 1991, however, the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten reported on a proposal by the U.S. in 1946 to buy Greenland from Denmark. There was some enthusiasm for this in the military, and an actual proposal was presented to the Danes to purchase Greenland for $100 million in December of that year. An earlier discussion specified the transaction should be made in gold, but it’s not clear if that was part of the offer.
According to the AP report citing Jyllands-Posten, there doesn’t seem to be a public record of whether Denmark responded to the offer. Obviously, nothing came of it.
We still have the base at Thule. A small detachment of Air National Guard airmen is maintained at another base, Sondrestrom, which was turned over to Greenland in 1992.
In recent years, other U.S. government personnel have participated in data collection missions in Greenland focused on weather, geology, and climate science.
In 2019, the State Department announced we would be opening a diplomatic mission in Greenland, signifying a renewed focus on our presence and activities there.
Presumably, that development is to be interpreted not just as a reaction to China (as well as to Russia and Russia’s aggressive, somewhat overreaching claims in the Arctic), but in the context of Trump’s reported interest in “buying Greenland.”
The temper of the reaction in social media was interesting when the WSJ report came out on Thursday. There were a lot of sarcastic remarks, but quite a few of them came across to me as if mainstream media reporters were intrigued, rather than ritually horrified.
It’s an interesting problem. Denmark isn’t really the long-term solution for keeping Greenland friendly and out of Russian or Chinese hands. The U.S. buying Greenland would have Russia bouncing off the walls, however, partly because of military considerations and partly because of Arctic claims issues. (Canada would be likely to have some strong opinions too, for that matter.)
A key question is whether there is some concession the U.S. would be willing to make – something important to Russia – to give Moscow an incentive to accept such a deal without getting into a lather. That concession would not involve U.S. territory, of course, and it could not involve selling out an ally’s security. There are a number of ways Trump could play this.
We’ll see if he’s serious. I suspect this is being “leaked” to the media at the moment not to spike Trump’s policy course (a frequent problem in the last two years), but to float the idea and have it “out there” as part of the larger strategic-relations discussion vis-à-vis Russia and China. In that guise, it would be a signal of the way Trump is thinking; i.e., out of the box.
A lot of things are in flux today: the now-defunct INF Treaty, the wheezing New START Treaty, the JCPOA on Iran, the status of the Korean Peninsula, the stasis point for major trade agreements. The future of the EU is in question, whether the EU leadership acknowledges it or not, and the locus of meaning for NATO is shifting around uncomfortably as the character of Europe is transformed.
Basically, the legacy framework of the post-Soviet world is on life-support. And Trump has been signaling for the last three years that continuing to shore the framework up, unexamined, is not his priority.
With an idea like acquiring Greenland, the signal seems to be that the post-1945 assumptions of the U.S.-brokered UN era are no longer an absolute constraint. Most Americans today have forgotten, if they ever knew, that there’s a UN because the U.S. pushed for one. In that self-constrained “internationalist” mode, the United States was not a nation that planned to go around buying up new territory.
Taking on Greenland would be harking back to the America of Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson. On trade policy, Trump has seemed more than willing to adopt that pre-1945-style profile.
Can it work in the modern world, when it comes to settling the fate of territory? Across history, it has been much more common for territory to trade hands from time to time than for it to remain outlined, everywhere, by politically static boundaries. The trick is to do the trading peacefully.
Maybe money will talk. It will certainly give us all something to chat about from time to time. Sadly, I think the aspiring Americans in the Canadian province of Alberta, where there is a movement to join the United States, will have to shelve their delightful idea for the time being.