Trump’s Budget Puts Down Stakes in Greenland

Trump’s plan to buy the vast Arctic island fell short. But his administration is allocating half a million dollars moving ahead to build a U.S. consulate there.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The town of Ilulissat, Greenland
Icebergs loom behind the town of Ilulissat, Greenland, on July 30, 2019. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The United States is one step closer to establishing a permanent diplomatic outpost in the Arctic by allocating money for a consulate in Greenland, the vast island that President Donald Trump once openly suggested buying, according to a federal budget proposal revealed this week.

The administration’s budget proposal allocates $587,000 to construct the new U.S. consulate, reflecting the administration’s growing concerns with Russia’s and China’s designs on the Arctic. 

Greenland, the sparsely populated autonomous island governed by Denmark, was thrust into the national media spotlight after Trump floated a colonial-style plan last year to buy the island from the Nordic country. The president abruptly canceled a planned trip to Copenhagen after the Danish and Greenlandic governments made clear Greenland was not for sale, causing a brief and unusual strain in the U.S.-Danish relationship and unease in Greenland. Despite the tensions, the Danish government has expressed support for the United States establishing a consulate in Greenland. 

The newly planned consulate underscores how the United States is looking to boost its presence in the Arctic, where climate change is rapidly melting ice and opening new access to potential maritime trade routes and lucrative untapped mineral and energy reserves. For the Trump administration, one of the top concerns is how China and Russia will take advantage of the changing Arctic conditions. 

Russia is rebuilding its Soviet-era military installations in the Arctic Circle and ramping up military exercises and activities in the Arctic, while the United States and its Western allies have thwarted Chinese bids to bankroll massive infrastructure investment projects in the Arctic region, including Greenland. 

“We have to restore our physical presence in the Arctic,” said Heather Conley, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations and Arctic issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. Building a U.S. consulate in Greenland “is one small step in that direction,” she said.

The U.S. military maintains a small presence in Greenland at the Thule Air Base, the Air Force’s northernmost base in the world, 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The State Department is weighing plans to house the new consulate in an already existing compound in Greenland used by Danish forces in Nuuk, Greenland’s administrative capital, according to current and former officials. 

When approached for comment, a State Department spokeswoman said, the United States remains committed to increasing our already robust engagement with Arctic allies and partners.  Our strong partnerships with the people of Denmark and Greenland help us better coordinate our efforts in this strategically important region.”

Trump’s federal budget proposal calls for steep cuts to the State Department and foreign aid. It faced sharp criticism from lawmakers, who have final say over the budget. Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, slammed Trump’s budget as “a waste of the paper it’s printed on,” saying cuts to the State Department and aid would “weaken our security and leadership around the world.”

Nevertheless, the funding for a consulate in Greenland appears to have broad support in Congress, several congressional aides say, which increases the chances Congress will enact that proposal. 

“China and Russia are both increasing their influence in the Arctic. Establishing a consulate in Greenland, both a strategic location and close to the U.S. homeland, is an important step in this context,” a Republican Senate aide told Foreign Policy. “The opening of a consulate, which is expected in the near term, is a positive development.”

A Democratic congressional aide said State Department officials briefed congressional staffers on the plans in recent months and “argued emphatically that it was driven by broader Arctic/counter-China/Russia policy objectives and not Trump’s land purchase ambitions.”

Update, Feb. 14, 2020: This article was updated to include comments from a State Department spokeswoman.

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