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August 26, 2019
By Taylor Day
When President Trump’s comments about buying Greenland were first made public, it seemed to confuse a lot of journalists that salivate at the chance to regard any Trump idea as “wacky.” Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen quickly said that the notion was “absurd,” and Trump responded by cancelling a meeting with her, leading her to publicly admit regretting her own rudeness.
Is it really a crazy idea pulled from the thin air, though? Most pundits try to scrutinize Trump’s maneuver as a chance to exploit valuable resources in Greenland. Others suggest a geopolitical battle with China, which has previously tried to invest heavily in airports and mining in Greenland to the horror of the Danish government. However, there is a bigger reason they are all missing that makes Trump’s Greenland Deal a truly vital one.
Greenland via Denmark is currently one of the eight members of the Arctic Council, an organization set up in 1996 to aid coordination with the countries that neighbor the Arctic Circle. The other countries are obviously Russia as well as Sweden, Norway, the U.S. (thanks to Alaska), Canada, Finland and Iceland. While for a few years the cooperation was relatively peaceful, relations started deteriorating in the early 2000’s. Russia became focused on investing and expanding rapidly in the Arctic, even planting their own flag on the North Pole. Their military buildup has been quick and efficient and so far, greatly outpacing even the U.S.
The Arctic’s global value is increasing yearly. The Arctic ice cap seasonal melting allows faster ships to opening up new trade routes, which are shorter thanks to the spherical shape of the Earth, in 2016 it was assessed that just the portion of the Arctic that could be measured was hoarding almost 25% of the world’s known oil and natural gas reserves. Consider this: wars have been waged for a lot less.
Claims to that wealth are being argued with greater hostility and Russia is seriously investing in protecting and projecting their share. Members of the Arctic Council, the U.S. included, are now regularly engaging in war games on each other’s borders. According to this 2015 VICE article that corresponded to their HBO special called Cold War 2.0, Russia is winning:
“Among Russia's plans are the reopening of numerous Cold War-era bases, the placement of surface-to-air missiles optimized for use in the region's freezing temperatures, and even the possible implementation of specially designed Arctic drones. There's also a big disparity in search-and-rescue capabilities — Russia has 41 icebreakers compared to America's two, and Russia is planning 10 new search-and-rescue stations. Finally, there is the fact that the US and its allies are dealing with ever-increasing tensions with Russia pretty much everywhere south of the Arctic Circle as well.”
Russian postage stamp commemorating the nuclear icebreaker Yamal (source)
Now in 2019, it is safe to say that if we had any other president than Trump, who has already shown no reservations about humiliating the Kremlin in Syria, Russia would probably be bolder about military exercises just a few miles north of Greenland. The annexation of Crimea was only meant to be the beginning.
In April of 1940, the Prime Minister of Denmark agreed to give U.S. the military control over Greenland in the face of German occupation. A treaty was signed exactly one year later called The agreement relating to the defense of Greenland in Washington, D.C. which, although denounced by then Nazi-occupied Danish government, states “the United States [is] to operate military bases in Greenland for as long as there is agreement that the threat to North America exists.” In the early 1950’s, the U.S. Thule Military Base was completed and the WWII treaty was then ratified; the only significant change being a mandate that the Danish flag was to fly next to American flags on the bases.
The Thule Base is still active and U.S. military expansion in Greenland continued over the years. Currently, the large island is the host of NORAD, Strategic Air Command installation and a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, making it not just a vital location for America but for our allies in Canada and Europe as well. The U.S. currently outspends Denmark on military support for Greenland by a factor of eleven, and our presence alone is a great deterrent to nations like Russia and China that would rather have the island supporting their ambitions instead.
Greenland itself has been actively trying to gain autonomy from Denmark. In 2008, a referendum was held with 75% approval for the Act of Greenland Self-governance. Part of that was not letting Denmark control Greenland’s foreign policy, so when the Danish Prime Minister speaks on behalf of her province, she’s only reinforcing their desire for independence. Greenland’s desire for independence is prevalent over the last few decades, being one of the first nations to pull out of what was becoming the European Union.
How practical is acquiring Greenland? It’s definitely not as crazy as an idea as what is being reported. While offers to buy Greenland in 1946 by President Truman were turned down, even though only a Danish colony at the time, Denmark hasn’t been opposed to selling to America before. In 1917, the Danish government essentially traded their colonies, what is now the U.S. Virgin Islands, on conditions that the U.S. relinquished their territorial claims to parts of Greenland and a modest $25 million. Greenland didn’t become an official province of Denmark until 1953.
Trump is using his own strategies from his own book, The Art of the Deal, by walking away from the table. He could be planning on making his absence more profound by making the Danes foot their own bills for military support of Greenland. That way when they nosedive and Greenlanders are feeling growing pressure from Russian hostility and abandoned by their own protectors, they may wish they took the generous offer Trump is willing to make now. It could also be argued that if Denmark fails to maintain military defenses, Greenland becomes a national security risk and U.S. military occupation becomes a common-sense solution. NATO partners would be choosing between whether Greenlanders plan on learning Russian, Mandarin or English. Either way, Greenland, U.S.A. does have a nice ring to it.