On Thursday 15 August 2019, reports surfaced confirming U.S. President Donald Trump’s intention to buy the world’s largest island, Greenland. The current autonomous territory of Denmark is richly endowed with natural resources such as water and natural gas, both of which are expected to grow as the Arctic ice landscape melts due to the rapid acceleration of global warming, caused by excessive greenhouse emissions. Hence, the territory is seen as a site of geopolitical contestation among the world’s leading powers – namely the U.S., Russia, and China.
President and Managing Director of think tank The Arctic Institute, Victoria Herrmann noted, “The notion of purchasing Greenland from Denmark is based on an out-dated, colonialist view of the autonomous, Inuit-majority territory.” She attested further, “If the United States is truly interested in increasing economic cooperation with Greenland, the administration should do some summer reading on its history and bring its requests to Nuuk—not Copenhagen.” Foreign Affairs Spokesman for the Danish People’s Party Soren Espersen stated, “If [Trump] is truly contemplating this, then this is final proof, that he has gone mad.”
Whilst the proposed purchase has drawn ridicule, mockery and derision, the proposition to buy Greenland is not new. In 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward who had, that year, negotiated the Alaska Purchase from the Russian Empire, considered the idea of United States annexation of both Greenland and Iceland an idea “worthy of serious consideration.” Seward commissioned A Report on the Resources of Iceland and Greenland, but made no offer to actually purchase the territory. Furthermore in 1910, a proposal for the acquisition of Greenland was circulated within the United States Government by the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, Maurice Francis Egan. In 1946, U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes offered $100 million to Denmark in exchange for Greenland. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, the United States has maintained a military presence in Greenland. Thule Air Force Base, far above the polar circle, was the first line of defence during the Cold War. Today, it remains an important touchstone in U.S.-Danish defence cooperation. The planning and strategy committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff determined that acquiring the island was vital to the United States; while “practically worthless to Denmark,” it would allow staging areas from which to launch military operations over the Arctic Circle against America’s adversaries.
Following the Danish government’s rejection of the U.S. offer, Trump cancelled his state visit to Denmark that had been scheduled for 21 August. The trip would have provided Trump and his Danish counterpart an opportunity to discuss our shared opposition to routing a Russian natural-gas pipeline through Danish waters, our cooperation in the global fight against terrorism, our attitude toward Russia and China—and the U.S. and Denmark’s common security and environmental challenges in the Arctic region. In a geopolitical sense, the recent movements of Trump reflect a clear missed opportunity to get one over on Russia, which is a rising geopolitical threat on the international stage. For example, in 2007, it unilaterally planted its flag on the North Pole, claiming ownership. Now Russia is playing tough with the stretch of Arctic shipping lanes known as the Northeast Passage by building military bases along its vast northern border. In light of this, the United States is seeking to build up the presence of its Coast Guard in the Arctic, and to expand its military capabilities in the region.
The future of the Arctic region encapsulating Greenland is bleak. As more international powers recognize the significance of the region and the geopolitical weight this holds to exert geopolitical power, the mounting pressure to sell Greenland to the highest bidder may become an immediate reality for Denmark – who wield little military, economic and geopolitical power in comparison to those of China, the U.S. and Russia. All eyes will thus be glued to developments in the region in the near future.
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