Report

Trump Puts Down New Roots in Greenland

Will the new U.S. diplomatic outpost in the Arctic get a warm welcome?

Greenland, where the U.S. plans to open a new consulate under Trump.
An iceberg floats behind houses during unseasonably warm weather in Ilulissat, Greenland, on July 30. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In 2004, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller’s plane to Greenland arrived late for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Greenland’s vice premier, Josef Motzfeldt. Instead of Moller greeting Powell on arrival, as diplomatic custom would dictate, it was Powell who greeted Moller on his own turf as he stepped off the plane. “Welcome to the United States of America’s 51st state,” Powell jokingly said as he extended his hand to greet Moller. 

Everybody laughed at the time, Moller told the Danish newspaper Berlingske in a recent interview. Now, over 15 years later, it’s no joking matter. 

Months after U.S. President Donald Trump made waves with a proposal to buy Greenland, the State Department is laying the groundwork to open a consulate on the sparsely populated island, marking a new diplomatic outpost in a fast-melting Arctic where rivals such as Russia and China are pushing for greater influence. 

The last time the United States set up a consulate in Greenland, it was in response to Nazi Germany invading and occupying Denmark. The consulate remained open from 1940 to 1953. The new push for a diplomatic presence reflects growing concerns in Washington that the United States will lose out on political and economic influence in a fast-changing Arctic, where thawing ice is opening access to vast untapped natural resources and maritime trade routes—and where Russia and China are hungrily staking out their own influence in the region.

“The Arctic is definitely a place where new geopolitical changes are happening, where Russia is becoming more assertive and more present militarily, where China is trying to become more present economically,” said Stephanie Pezard, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp. “There needs to be willingness on the part of the U.S. to make sure they do not fall behind, that the Arctic does not become this blind spot where they realize too late there were important investments to make there that they just didn’t make.”

But the plan for a new U.S. consulate has drawn unease and even suspicion from some in Denmark and Greenland, thanks in part to Trump’s colonial-style bid to buy up the island, which the president acknowledged earlier this year.

The diplomatic outpost could be opened as soon as next year, U.S. and Danish officials and experts confirmed to Foreign Policy, though the plan still must be greenlighted and funded by the U.S. Congress. The intention is to hire at least seven staff members to occupy it—meaning there will be about one U.S. diplomatic employee for every 10,000 Greenlanders. It marks the first time in nearly 70 years that the United States will have a diplomatic presence in Greenland, the autonomously governed island within the Kingdom of Denmark. 

Many, including senior Danish and Greenlandic officials, have welcomed the plan for a new U.S. diplomatic presence on the island. 

“As close allies with many shared interests it is only natural that the US and the Kingdom of Denmark deepen our cooperation in light of these geopolitical developments. We welcome the increased US interest in the Arctic including in Greenland,” Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said in a written statement to Foreign Policy. “I believe that a US consulate in Greenland can be instrumental in US collaboration with Greenland in areas within its competences, such as infrastructure, mineral resources, education, business and culture.”

In August, before the plan for a U.S. consulate in Greenland had first emerged, Trump floated a much bolder idea: buying the island wholesale. “Essentially, it’s a large real estate deal,” Trump said at the time, confirming media reports he was mulling a proposal for the United States to essentially purchase Greenland by taking over the $600 million annual subsidy from Denmark. “Strategically for the United States, it would be nice. And we’re a big ally of Denmark, and we help Denmark, and we protect Denmark.”

Both Denmark and Greenland flatly rejected the offer, leading Trump to cancel a planned trip to Copenhagen over it. But if Trump’s plan stumbled out of the gate, it still accentuated tensions between Nuuk and Copenhagen, experts say, amid some Greenlandic political parties’ ongoing push for full-fledged independence.

“On the surface both U.S., Greenland, and Denmark will say that this move doesn’t mean anything, but below it there’s a fear for Greenland-Denmark relations. That some will use it to drive a wedge between the two,” Troels Riis Larsen, an author and historian at the University of Greenland focusing on international relations, told Foreign Policy

Greenland does have a home rule government that oversees policies such as domestic governance, health care, and natural resources, but Copenhagen is still firmly in the driver’s seat on matters of foreign and security policy. Some in Denmark worry a U.S. consulate in Greenland could change that.

Soren Espersen, a prominent politician in the right-wing nationalist Danish People’s Party, told Foreign Policy he feared Greenland would “go behind the Danish government’s back” and negotiate directly with the United States. “I don’t like the dissolving of the union. There’s something going on and I don’t like it, and it’s a shame because I have always been a big fan of the U.S.,” he said.

Even some in Greenland who support independence view the U.S. consulate opening with wariness after learning about Trump’s designs on Greenland. “What’s mostly troubling to me is probably Trump,” Nuno Motzfeldt-Skovgaard, a resident in the Greenlandic city of Sisimiut, told Foreign Policy. She said she felt now there is more at stake than a simple consulate, after the U.S. president’s attempt to purchase the land.

But many other experts and officials dismiss those concerns as unfounded, pointing to the long and close relationship among the United States, Denmark, and Greenland. “A presence in Nuuk will help the Americans better understand our country and our society, which is a prerequisite for a good and fruitful cooperation in the future,” Ane Lone Bagger, a member of the Greenlandic home rule parliament and senior Greenlandic government minister, said in September, in response to initial reports the United States planned to open a consulate.

Henrik Breitenbauch, a scholar on defense and security issues at the University of Copenhagen, acknowledged there is a “tinge of suspicion” surrounding U.S. plans in Greenland after Trump’s failed proposal. But he said the U.S. push for a consulate is based on good diplomacy and good foresight. “That makes a whole lot of sense,” Breitenbauch said. “It would be great for Nuuk to have more investment from the U.S., it would be a good idea to have a stronger exchanges in terms of education and culture, I think there are many good things to say about this.”

Heather Conley, a former senior U.S. diplomat now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the need for a beefed-up U.S. presence and interest in the region is long overdue. A U.S. consulate in Nuuk is “about making sure that the U.S. is well placed to seize opportunities, whether those are diplomatic, economic, security, or scientific. It’s making sure we are present and it’s filling a vacuum,” she said.

Even before the Arctic began to quickly melt and ramped up Russian and Chinese interests in the region, the United States had maintained a footprint in Greenland. Throughout the Cold War, Greenland was a centerpiece in U.S. defense against threats from the Soviet Union. In 1943, the United States built Thule Air Base on the northwest coast of Greenland. It became one of the United States’ primary missile-watching military installations in the Arctic.

In 1946, U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes offered to buy Greenland from Denmark for $100 million to shore up U.S. positions in the Arctic as it prepared to face down threats from the Soviet Union. As it did in 2019, Denmark politely declined the offer. Shortly afterward, then-Danish Foreign Minister Gustav Rasmussen reportedly told the U.S. ambassador, Josiah Marvel, that while “we owe much to America, I do not believe we owe them the whole island of Greenland.”

Today, the Thule Air Base remains the United States’ toehold in Greenland, as well as the U.S. Air Force’s northernmost base, over 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle. 

The United States isn’t the only country interested in the Arctic, or Greenland, as climate change drastically alters the region. Chinese firms made bids to bankroll massive infrastructure projects in the Arctic, including airports in Greenland. But the Danish government, backed by the United States, feared China was using the infrastructure investments to garner new political leverage and clout in their backyard. Copenhagen blocked China’s offer and instead shelled out the money itself for the infrastructure projects, totaling some $240 million.

China has declared itself a “near-Arctic nation”—despite being 900 miles away from the Arctic Circle at its closest—and Beijing is trying to gain political influence in the region by spending and lending money, a practice it uses in other parts of the world.

That’s drawn concern among top officials in the Trump administration. In May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was dispatched to Finland, where he delivered a sharp warning about Russia and China’s geopolitical designs in the Arctic at an annual meeting of the Arctic Council—an international body where diplomats had previously worked hard to tamp down hard security issues and geopolitical tensions among its member states. Pompeo was scheduled to visit Greenland after, but he cut his trip short.

“The administration is reinvigorating our trilateral relationship with Greenland and Denmark after a period of neglect, and we’ve committed to peace and sustainable economic developments for the long term,” a senior State Department official told reporters in May, ahead of Pompeo’s trip to the region. “And we’re concerned about activities of other nations, including China, that do not share these same commitments.”

Greenland is waking up to the newfound interest from bigger powers further south. With it comes economic opportunities. The largest political party in Greenland, Siumut, has said it is interested in opening up offices in New York and China, Berlingske reports. The emphasis is on trade, one of the few foreign affairs-related policies Nuuk has control over.

The Greenlandic people already have a representative in the Danish Embassy in Washington, but they do not have a fully Greenlandic representation. The Greenlandic government has floated the idea of an office in China before, but the idea fell through due to lack of funding.

“We need more trade with the U.S., and a lot of trade is taking place in New York and not in Washington,” Bagger, the Greenlandic member of parliament and minister, told the newspaper.

The newfound U.S. presence in Greenland, experts agree, will help ensure Washington’s influence in Nuuk. Some Greenlandic politicians have already talked about how the United States can provide an alternative to Denmark’s block grant—a yearly payment that covers over 50 percent of Greenland’s public finances—though Denmark has made it clear it has no interest in changing the status quo, and full independence still seems a long way off. “The U.S. is willing to support our economy with four billion [krone] a year [about $600 million]. The Greenlandic people therefore stand at a crossroads for the first time. We now have a real alternative to the Danish block grant,” Pele Broberg, a Greenlandic member of parliament from the opposition party Partii Naleraq, told the local paper Sermitsiaq this summer.

But this is also what drives the fear among some Greenlanders, particularly given the current U.S. president’s penchant for unpredictability. They fear they could eventually face a choice between the one or the other.

“Are we going to start dividing up our country? ‘Are you with the American side or the Danish side?’” Motzfeldt-Skovgaard asked rhetorically. “I’m worried what the consequences might be.”

Morten Soendergaard Larsen is a freelance journalist based in Seoul who writes about geopolitics.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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