Shadow Government

Here’s How Trump Should Have Approached Greenland

The United States can build on its strategic toehold without buying the entire country.

NASA avionics technician Lauren Prinski looks out the window of a research aircraft before takeoff from Thule Air Base in Greenland on March 30, 2017.
NASA avionics technician Lauren Prinski looks out the window of a research aircraft before takeoff from Thule Air Base in Greenland on March 30, 2017. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The news that U.S. President Donald Trump was pushing to purchase Greenland probably didn’t take its government entirely by surprise. The United States has long harbored designs on the island—and unlike in the years after the Cold War, when Greenland receded from the geopolitical forefront, climate change has put Greenland, Iceland, and other Arctic nations back on the front pages. New sea routes are opening up through the Arctic, and mineral-rich areas of Greenland are becoming economically accessible.

Trump is not wrong about Greenland’s importance to the United States. But in his fumbling and flippant attempts to buy it, and thereby gain the United States an expanded strategic purchase, he has achieved the opposite effect, needlessly closing the door on more conventional paths to a larger U.S. presence there and insulting Denmark, one of the United States’ closest allies.

The race for Arctic dominance is on, and the Russians occupy a strong position, since many of the new sea routes (and most of the icebreakers) belong to Moscow. Russia has begun to flex its military muscles in the Arctic, resurrecting previously closed Cold War military facilities and deploying forces to them, to show the world that it can control newly available Arctic resources.

China has not been not slow off the mark either. Unfettered access to new, shorter, and less costly sea routes is critical to the Chinese economy. Beijing has tried to make up for its lack of Arctic territory by buying land in Iceland or Greenland, which hasn’t worked—so far. It has also branded itself a “near-Arctic state” and won observer status in the Arctic Council, in which Arctic nations try to work together to establish the rules of the road.

This is the context in which Trump began talking about purchasing Greenland.

While the United States is an Arctic country because of the state of Alaska, it is not geographically part of the European Arctic, which includes Greenland, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway. However, Washington does have a beachhead in the region: Thule Air Base in northern Greenland, less than 1,000 miles from the North Pole. Thule, first built in 1943, hosts U.S. space surveillance, space control, and, most vitally, ballistic missile early warning system radar. Given all the Russian (and potentially Chinese) military activity in the area, it would not be surprising if the United States and Denmark were considering expanding the military footprint at Thule beyond its current role. If that is to happen, the U.S. Air Force will likely need to get a green light from both Denmark and Greenland. Trump must have thought: Why not make the process easier by buying Greenland?

There are many common-sense reasons why that is not an option, beginning with the fact that nations are not for sale in this century. While Denmark calls the shots on matters related to Greenland’s defense and foreign policy, it is largely an autonomous nation in its own right. Even if a purchase were possible, Trump would soon find himself grappling with buyer’s remorse: Greenlanders do not want to go back to being a colony and would not tolerate his abuse.

Given Thule’s increased strategic importance with the opening up of the Arctic, it would make sense for the United States to expand military operations there to support enhanced Arctic surveillance and reconnaissance. Because purchasing the island is nowhere near an option, an increased presence would require close cooperation with the Danes and Greenlanders. However, they are now in no mood to talk, because Trump has spooked the Greenlanders and embarrassed if not angered the Danes. What’s worse is that Trump has picked one of the United States’ most steadfast allies to have this spat with. Denmark has never failed to stand alongside the United States in a fight, sending forces to the Gulf War, the Balkans, Libya, Afghanistan, and the fight against the Islamic States. There are Danish graves to prove it.

Under a more conventional administration, the United States could pursue a number of options to expand its operations in Greenland short of demanding to buy the entire country. In return for a larger U.S. military footprint at Thule, which could include reconnaissance aircraft like drones or the P-8 manned surveillance aircraft, the United States could offer to offset some of the subsidy payments Denmark makes to support the Greenland home rule government through Air Force support contracts with Greenlandic companies. The United States could also offer to host periodic deployments of Danish aircraft at Thule. The United States and Denmark may need to consider opening a joint facility on Greenland’s east coast to help keep an eye on maritime activities in the Arctic Ocean. Any major changes to U.S. military operations in Greenland would be decided through negotiations with Greenland and Denmark.

But unless the United States can clean up the mess Trump has caused with his real estate developer diplomacy, it will be politically impossible for the Danes and Greenlanders to close any sort of practical deal with the United States over its use of the most valuable land in Greenland, Thule Air Force Base—one of Washington’s most important toeholds in an increasingly crowded Arctic.

Jim Townsend is an adjunct senior fellow in the Center for a New American Security’s Transatlantic Security Program. He served for eight years as U.S. President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. Twitter: @jteurope

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