FP Guide

Greenland, Red Lights

Trump’s Denmark debacle and what will follow.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen talks to the press after U.S. President Donald Trump canceled his state visit in Copenhagen on Aug. 21.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen talks to the press after U.S. President Donald Trump canceled his state visit in Copenhagen on Aug. 21. Mads Claus Rasmussen/AFP/Getty Images

This summer, Greenland has been in the news over reports that U.S. President Donald Trump had expressed interest in buying the island from Denmark—an offer Copenhagen quickly rebuffed, leading Trump to cancel a planned visit to the allied nation.

As relations between the two countries continue to deteriorate, we’ve collected our top stories on Greenland, its strategic importance, and the logic of Trump’s ambitions to purchase it.

As the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Paul Musgrave points out, Trump is hardly the first American to eye the island. The first attempt to buy it came under the administration of President Andrew Johnson, as Secretary of State William Seward “made bids of varying intensity to wrest Canada from the British Empire and to buy or lease a naval base in the Caribbean. His buccaneering policy finally paid off with the Alaska Purchase, when the Russian Empire, seeking to divest itself of some underperforming assets, finally succeeded in persuading Seward to buy Russian North America. But it also included an attempt to buy Greenland and Iceland from Denmark, which then owned both.”

That attempt came to naught, but during World War II, the United States did occupy Greenland to prevent Germany from taking it over. Although Washington did not succeed in fully absorbing the island, as Musgrave writes, it did “develop several military installations there, including an air base,” which went on to play a pivotal role in deterring the Soviet Union.

Trump’s third bid, Musgrave concludes, probably won’t go anywhere, not least because countries don’t generally buy and sell territory anymore and because Greenland’s people probably wouldn’t be eager to become another Puerto Rico. But the idea, he argues, isn’t silly, “no matter how lightly the president may have proposed it. It’s a dangerous and a telling one that suggests” the president’s temptation to “bring back some of the worst habits” of the old days of international relations.

Beyond that, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman reports, Trump’s spat with Denmark has other implications for U.S. foreign policy, namely throwing a wrench in plans to contain Iran through international patrols in the Strait of Hormuz.

Before the Greenland debacle, “Denmark would have been a natural addition” to the maritime patrol effort. “The Danes have a capable Navy, hold a significant interest in commercial shipping, and are historically pro-American.” But plans to recruit the country may now be upended.

Jim Townsend from the Center for a New American Security argues that “Trump is not wrong about Greenland’s importance to the United States.” The problem was his “fumbling and flippant attempts to buy it,” which, instead of giving the United States more influence, “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.”

That is a problem because the region is increasingly important in world affairs, with both Russia and China vying for control in a melting Arctic. “Given all the Russian (and potentially Chinese) military activity in the area,” he writes, “it would not be surprising if the United States and Denmark were considering expanding the military footprint at Thule [the U.S. air base in Greenland] beyond its current role.” But doing so would have required careful cooperation with Danes and Greenlanders—something that now seems unlikely.

If one good thing came out of this summer’s falling-out, it may be renewed attention on Greenland and its environmental problems. “A journey I made this summer across Greenland was a harrowing reminder of the widespread environmental damage, and political danger, already imposed by climate change,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Laurie Garrett reports. “Glaciers I visited just five years ago have visibly further retreated, with temperatures rising to California levels and new forms of plant life growing where once only ice and rock had existed.” Greenland may be unassuming, she points out, but “it has quietly moved ever closer to the center of geopolitics. Trump probably didn’t know or particularly care about the island’s status as a leading indicator and object of climate change. But the American people should pay close attention.”

Kathryn Salam is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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