According to recent reports, Trump is looking to make a deal, perhaps his biggest yet: the purchase of Greenland. The Wall Street Journal reports that the president has discussed a potential purchase on multiple occasions. Many have laughed at this proposal, and it isn’t likely to happen, but it makes a lot more sense than one might think.
Acquiring new territories has been part of American foreign policy for our entire history: up until 1947, when the United States acquired several Pacific Island chains from the recently defeated Japanese. The world has stabilized tremendously since then, and territorial transfers have become uncommon. There is good reason for this: most of the world is now governed by sovereign states, so there aren’t any “untamed frontiers” left.
A purchase like that of Greenland from Denmark also has historical precedent. In 1917, Uncle Sam bought the Virgin Islands from the Danes for the low price of $25 million — beachfront home values must have not been taken into account. The United States has also floated the idea of purchasing Greenland twice before: once in 1868, shortly after the “Seward’s Folly” purchase of Alaska, and allegedly again during the Truman administration in 1946. Neither of these attempts led to territorial expansion, but the United States built a presence in Greenland during the Cold War and beyond. Thule Air Base, located in the far north of Greenland, was one of the United States’ key airbases during the Cold War. Nuclear bomber wings were stationed at the base, and transpolar missile defense systems were tested and based there. Greenland was a particularly important asset in the Cold War, as control of the Greenland-Iceland UK (GIUK) gap was a primary strategic necessity in the cat-and-mouse game with Soviet submarines. Today, the United States no longer faces these same threats, but Greenland’s importance is rising in other ways.
As an effect of climate change, Greenland’s ice is melting more and more each year, uncovering vast veins of ores and minerals that are used in the industrialized world. Of course, maintaining the island’s beauty and natural integrity are necessary, but that does not mean there should be no development in the region. Across the Arctic Ocean in Russia, Putin has taken an increasingly aggressive approach on both economic and military activity in the region through resource extraction, using the Northern Sea Route and investing in military installations throughout the Far North. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted this new race for the Arctic back in May, but the United States has made little progress in the region during the Trump administration. From both a strategic and an economic perspective, a case can be made for an American Greenland. Seward’s Folly was no folly, and Alaska has proven to be an important part of the United States for its resources, beauty, and culture. Could we be saying the same thing about Greenland in 100 years?
Regardless of President Trump’s wishes, though, a deal doesn’t seem likely. Denmark’s former Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen tweeted this in response to the news of Trump’s interest in Greenland:
It must be an April Fool’s Day joke … but totally out of sesson! (sic) https://t.co/ev5DDVZc5f
— Lars Løkke Rasmussen (@larsloekke) August 15, 2019
“We are open for business, but we’re not for sale,” said Ane Lone Bagger, Greenland’s foreign minister. The Danish People’s Party issued a statement that “If he is truly contemplating this, then this is final proof that he has gone mad.” The Danish/Greenlandic reactions have not been positive, and for good reasons. Why would they sell off over 50,000 of their own citizens and a potential treasure trove of national resources?
Although Trump’s hopes of acquiring the large icy island appear to have been dashed, the Trump administration and the United States should seriously consider upping investment in the region with our longtime Danish ally.