By Tiberiu Dianu
Greenland, with a population of only 56,000 inhabitants, is the world’s largest island and an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark. In 1985, Greenland left the European Economic Community (EEC) upon achieving self-rule, as it did not agree with the EEC’s commercial fishing regulations.
In 2009, the territory gained self-rule with provisions for assuming responsibility for self-government of judicial affairs, policing, and natural resources. Denmark maintains control of foreign affairs and defense matters. Denmark upholds the annual block grant of 3.2 billion Danish kroner, but as Greenland begins to collect revenues of its natural resources, the grant will gradually be diminished. This is considered to be a step towards eventual full independence from Denmark.
Nevertheless, the United States’ interest in Greenland is not new. In 1867, secretary of state William Seward, then of Andrew Johnson administration, showed interest in purchasing Greenland and Iceland from Denmark. He also negotiated the Alaska Purchase with the Russian Empire for $7.2 million, which was finalized on March 30, 1867. Seward was an ardent expansionist. In the summer of the same year, he was negotiating with Denmark for the acquisition of St Thomas and St John (US Virgin Islands), but the treaty, although agreed to, was never effected.
When it was finalized in January 1917, the selling price was $25 million (the equivalent to $575.61 million in 2018 dollars). In March 1917, the United States took possession of the islands.
As for Greenland, its connection to Denmark was severed early in World War II, when in April 1940 Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany. In April 1941, the United States occupied Greenland to defend it against the invasion by Germany. The U.S. occupation of Greenland lasted until 1945. In 1946, the United States developed a geopolitical interest in Greenland and offered to buy the island from Denmark for $100 million. However, Denmark refused to sell it.
The United States remains highly interested in investing in the resource base of Greenland. In 1950, Denmark agreed to allow the United States to re-establish Thule Air Base, which was expanded between 1951 and 1953 as part of a unified NATO Cold War defense strategy. The treaty between the United States and Denmark has been used by both U.S. Air Force Space command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
Thule Air Base is the US military’s northernmost base, located about 750 miles (over 1,207 kilometers) above the Arctic Circle and includes a ballistic missile radar station. The radar and listening post features a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System that can warn of incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles and reaches thousands of miles into Russian territory.
President Donald Trump has brought up buying Greenland from Denmark on multiple occasions, and the White House counsel’s office has looked into the possibility. The president’s interest in buying Greenland was first reported on August 15, 2019, by The Wall Street Journal, which mentioned that Trump has raised the issue during meetings and dinners, sometime this past spring, asking aides and listening seriously about the possibility and advantages of owning Greenland. He expressed interest in the idea and had questions about the island’s military and research potential.
According to the same sources, Trump told associates he had been advised to look into buying Greenland because Denmark faced financial trouble from supporting the territory. Denmark is struggling to provide financial assistance every year to the 56,000-person territory, valued at $591 million in subsidies.
There might be also other reasons – for instance, the reason to want total dominion over Greenland in order to gain the power to exclude China. China has also expressed interest in the island for an Atlantic base that would put it on America’s and Europe’s doorstep. In 2017, Denmark blocked a Chinese attempt to buy an abandoned naval base there, but the Chinese mining interests in the area are expanding. China plays a long game and its interest for the Arctic region is notorious.
So, the United States has two possibilities to keep the Chinese out: either to rely on the loyalty of the governments of Denmark and Greenland (as Beijing throws more money around), or – why not? – to acquire Greenland and tell the Chinese to scram.
Advisers have said Trump sees purchasing Greenland as equivalent to the 1867 acquisition of Alaska. The purchase would be a potential legacy-builder for Trump, similar to president Dwight Eisenhower’s statehood for Alaska. Buying Greenland would bring the president the glory of adding an 836,330-square-mile (2.1 million square kilometers) island to the United States. This gives him a legacy that neither president Harry Truman’s nor president Andrew Jackson’s administrations could claim after their failed attempts to buy Greenland from Denmark.
Coincidentally (or not), the president will be making his first visit to Denmark in September 2019.