An island, territory or just a big chunk of frozen ice, which few can even locate on the map, is now again gaining geopolitical attention. When John Kerry should have been helping the Democrats in their presidential election campaign, he was flown to the South Pole. Now the US its turning its attention to Greenland, perhaps on the grounds that it is the same but nearer.
1974 the performance artist Laurie Anderson thought about the North Pole during a New York heat wave and decided to hitchhike up there. She found she couldn’t actually get to the pole itself because it was a restricted area. Nowadays it is more accessible, but also the site of a seasonal Russian base. So perhaps it is no joke that the US wants to extend its influence here too, regardless of the technical difficulties.
Greenland officially belongs to Denmark, being one of the three crowns of the Kingdom of Denmark, in the same way England and Scotland are two separate crowns within one kingdom. It is not therefore a piece of land but a sovereign entity, both in its own right and as part of Denmark. Consequently it is not for sale. However this hasn’t stopped certain people trying.
Last year Danish PM Mette Frederiksen and Greenland’s Premier Kim Kielsen both rejected Donald Trump’s suggestion that he buy Greenland, perhaps to launder more money in a new Trump Tower. Frederiksen called Trump’s offer “absurd.” This resulted in Trump cancelling a planned trip to Denmark.
The trip to Europe would have served as a good distraction from matters at home, as always. But Trump was offended by rejection of his offer because he was dead serious. He wanted to take the region off Denmark’s hands, as if the US was doing Denmark a favour. This is all you need to know about his attitude to Greenland and its people, Denmark and other European nations, and anything and anyone he can use for his own purposes.
Greenland has historically served a strategic purpose for the US, having housed military bases which were part of its “early warning system” during the Cold War. It continues to do so, but on a lesser scale. The “Danish” naval base at Thule is actually a US base, and no one pretends otherwise, whilst at the same time calling it Danish.
But America’s contemporary interest is likely more business orientated; Greenland is said to be rich in gold, coal, oil, gas, uranium and rare earth minerals. Though it doesn’t talk about it, the US is keenly aware that it is a major producer of many of these commodities itself, but still has to import them to survive, a very threatening situation for any commercial entity to be in.
Many of these commodities are critical in making electronic equipment and gadgets like mobile phones. The rise of China has put traditional sources under pressure, as international companies cannot compete well for these resources in places like Africa against Chinese state companies. Global warming and the melting of the poles have also opened up vast resources for exploration, and the US wants to get a jump on Russia and other countries with a larger toehold in the region.
This is not the first time a US president has understood the potential value of Greenland, and gone the wrong way about acquiring it. Harry Truman was talking about buying it back in 1946, according to historic documents found in the National Archives.
On May 24, 1946, William C. Trimble, Assistant Chief of the State Department’s Division of Northern European Affairs, suggested that the United States offer $100 million in gold for the island. In today’s gold price that would be around $1.3billion. Maybe Truman, the Civil Rights advocate who casually used words like “nigger” in conversation, thought the local Inuit population looked like Native Americans, and could thus be bought off and sold down the river in the same way. But we are supposed to have come a long way since 1946, and the US likes to think it has taken us that long way.
“Greenland is not Danish. Greenland is Greenlandic”
Even if the sovereign territory of Greenland were for sale, it is not Denmark’s to sell. As Frederiksen, who was visiting the island to meet its premier, Kim Kielsen, when news of Trump’s offer broke, told reporters, Greenland does not belong to Denmark.
As an autonomous overseas territory, it belongs to itself but chooses to be part of the same state as Denmark. It has had its own legislature since 1979, and wide self-government powers since 2008. It is also protected under NATO and the US defense shield, and inhabited by approximately 55,000 people, making it one of the least populated and best protected overseas territories in existence.
But despite this, the US is trying to get hold of it again, using soft power, and less direct negotiation techniques. As reported by RT, the US is expected to open an office of its Agency for International Development at its new consulate in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk. The US Ambassador in Copenhagen, Carla Sands, has also spoken of Washington being Denmark’s “preferred partner” in the Arctic – a comment which drew sharp criticism from Danish politicians, who are the ones who should be deciding whether this is so.
The new US Consulate, the first in Greenland for over 50 years, is part of a $12.1 million aid package to the territory. The US has admitted that these moves are not about caring for Greenland or Denmark, but against Russian and Chinese intentions in the Arctic.
It is only natural that Greenland is wary of US plans for aid, especially from the notorious drug smuggling and regime change organisation called USAID. Denmark is a fellow member of the EU with Greece, but still knows the meaning of “Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts.”
One does not have to dig too deeply to discover that the US has a history of being a fair-weather friend, whose motives for being one are suspect from day one. Ask the South Vietnamese, or the Taiwanese, or the Tsarist troops in 1917-18.
If things start getting colder, it will fly out as quickly as it has landed. It has obligations to its own overseas territories, such as Puerto Rico. They are not taken care of during hard times, as the recent hurricanes and earthquakes have demonstrated. The US will encourage Greenlandic dependency, but get out as soon as that is established, and then criticise Greenland for being dependent.
Will it be an Anschluss/annexation?
At least the US is not trying to send the Marines—at least not yet. Bu the delivery mechanism of this aid, and this permanent presence in the form of a consulate, is as good as – USAID, the spear point of US policy.
The US wants its aid to pay for things the US believes are good, which is perfectly OK. But when did US aid ever introduce sovereign democracy, human rights, rule of law or a genuinely free market with fair competition?
USAID’s mission has lost any semblance of being about providing foreign assistance, especially when corporate profits are involved. Even Radio Free Europe writes openly that US aid to Greenland looks to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region, without explaining why US influence is better.
In 1984 one of several attempts was made to erect a controversial modernist building designed by the late Mies van der Rohe in London. At one point during the public inquest into these plans, one of van der Rohe’s supporters was shown photographs of a van der Rohe building, and then buildings of the same functional, utilitarian type by lesser regarded architects.
Asked to explain why the van der Rohe building was superior, the supporter’s testimony degenerated into waffle about how everyone knew Mies was a genius, so this was a stupid question. In other words, he couldn’t actually answer it.
Everyone similarly knows why US aid and influence are beneficial, but has a problem explaining why in practice, when they see what they do. The US may think this doesn’t matter to Greenlanders, but it does.
It is worth noting that the last time the US had a strong presence on Greenland, during the Cold War, it left behind upwards of 30 abandoned military bases – some of which have been leaking toxic waste into the land and ocean ever since. Greenland is very sensitive to ecological issues, as what happens there is greatly affected by land, water and ice conditions. With Trump pulling out of Climate Change accords, is it being sent the right message by being asked to house another permanent US facility?
The Thule Air Base on the north-western coast of Greenland is part of the warning system for the tracking of ICBMs and satellites. Are these flying objects aimed at Greenland? If the place is as backward as the US implies it is, what would be the point? If these missiles threaten the US or Europe, would Trump offer to buy, say, Belgium, to stop it being destroyed?
Greenland is another place where China is making inroads by Foreign Direct Investment. Time and again, the US has actively encouraged this all over the world by preaching “free markets” and then praising China, which gains competitive advantage by restrictive practices such as artificially depressing wages through state monopolies.
The threat is not China, but the security of strategic minerals supply lines used by the US and its commercial interests. Those parts of these which are within Greenland are, of course, under the sovereign control of both the Greenlandic and Danish governments.
Locals are not excited over the prospect of becoming another American outpost; one to be bought and sold at will, whether through finance or diplomacy. They fought hard to reestablish self-government from Denmark, but Denmark respects that, and a foreign power such as the US should not think of doing otherwise.
They also know the real reason for the US interest is nothing to do with Trump, who might have been “set up” to make his ridiculous offer to disguise this. The Arctic is opening up thanks to global warming, making it easier for Russia to send ships and supplies through it, and for Greenland to trade. If it freezes again, Greenland will not be in the news. And if the US can invent Agent Orange, it can freeze the Arctic too.
Neither Greenland nor Denmark are going to be sold to the highest bidder. Norway is effectively owned by Statoil, but it put itself in that position, and shares that wealth with its populace.
If all else fails, the US can declare war and enter with a new Marshall Plan, as in The Mouse that Roared. But Greenlanders and Danes are not so stupid as to let that happen, regardless of what the US thinks of them.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.