There are rumours — of varying degrees of legitimacy — that Donald Trump has floated the idea of buying Greenland from Denmark. This wouldn’t be the first time the USA had increased its territory by direct purchase (the Louisiana Purchase was a thing, after all), but it would be the first time it had happened in a long time.
Reaction to the situation has been mixed, with some people saying it’s outright crazy and others saying it makes at least some sense; it would increase the USA’s claims to the Arctic, and would allow exploitation of Denmark’s natural resources, but whether Denmark is likely to sell — and at what price, and what would happen to the current residents of Greenland (namely, whether it would become a state or a territory or something in between) — are important questions that as yet have no answer…
So what’s Greenland’s current status?
Complex. Legally, it’s what’s known as an autonomous region of Denmark: one of two, in fact (the other being the Faroe Islands, north of Scotland). Scotland is actually a pretty good reference point for how Greenland operates; the ELI5 version is that certain decisions are devolved — that is, they’re made autonomously in Greenland — and others are made by the Danish Government. Citizens of Greenland are citizens of Denmark, however, and have a Danish passport. In short, it’s Denmark that any deal or decision will be made with.
A little side note about Greenland, and a brief ramble into the wonderful world of cartography: Greenland is big — really big — but it’s not as big as you think it is. If you look at most maps, you’ll see that Greenland appears to be roughly the size of Africa. In actual fact, it’s about one-fourteenth the size. The reason for this is because most maps use what’s known as the Mercator Projection (as a result of having to distort a round globe onto a flat surface). There are different ways of distorting it, but no way of making it perfect; in the Mercator Projection, things at the poles look a lot bigger than things at the equator. (This suited European and American mapmakers just fine, because it made American and Europe look pretty hefty — and was useful for navigation before satellites became a thing — but it doesn’t really hold up when you’re looking at a direct comparison. The West Wing does a pretty good job of explaining it).
Either way, Greenland is actually about 2.1 million km2, or 836,000 square miles. That makes it comfortably the world’s largest island — Australia and Antarctica are generally considered continental landmasses — and it is bigger than the USA’s (current) largest state, Alaska (at 1.7 million km2). However, thanks to being relatively inhospitable, it only has a population of around 56,000 — about 18,000 of whom live in the capital, Nuuk — making it one of the least densely-populated territories in the world.So why are we talking about this now?
As far as I can tell, the story was first broken by the Wall Street Journal — not traditionally one of the papers that Trump saves most of his ire for. In the piece, they note that:
In meetings, at dinners and in passing conversations, Mr. Trump has asked advisers whether the U.S. can acquire Greenland, listened with interest when they discuss its abundant resources and geopolitical importance and, according to two of the people, has asked his White House counsel to look into the idea.
Some of his advisers have supported the concept, saying it was a good economic play, two of the people said, while others dismissed it as a fleeting fascination that will never come to fruition. It is also unclear how the U.S. would go about acquiring Greenland even if the effort were serious.
That’s a pretty good summary of events as they stand at the moment. It’s not as though it would be particularly out of character for Trump to become fixated on grand ideas that seem to have various degrees of workability (see also: Space Force), but this one has caught the public attention — and the attention of the media — since the story first appeared.
As yet, no one from the Trump administration nor the Danish government have publicly commented on the story.
Is he serious?
Maybe. At the moment, no one seems to know. The WSJ article noted that the idea was mentioned — seemingly as a joke — after Trump reported that an unnamed associate mentioned at a dinner that Denmark was having trouble meeting the $500 million-a-year subsidy it pays to Greenland, and floated the idea of Trump buying the territory for the US: ‘“What do you guys think about that?” he asked the room, the person said. “Do you think it would work?”’ The unnamed person went on to claim that Trump meant it as a joke. (Whether you believe it was a joke — or whether you believe he was testing the waters more seriously — is left as an exercise to the reader.
Trump is no stranger to claiming that unnamed people told him things, from the people he — allegedly — sent to Hawaii to investigate Obama’s birth certificate and ‘cannot believe’ what they found, right through to the many strong men who cry when they thank him for ‘saving [their] country’. It’s not an uncommon rhetorical device from him, is what I’m saying.) However, the idea has apparently taken root, with requests to White House Counsel to examine the legality and possible mechanics of it.
On the surface, it seems like a pretty outlandish idea — the notion of just buying something bigger than Mexico — but there’s actually quite a convoluted history with the US and Greenland, dating back about 150 years.
This wouldn’t be the first time the US has touted the idea of buying Greenland, although it would be the first in a while. The most recent came from Harry Truman in 1946, which was revealed in documentation declassified in the 1970s and reported on in the Copenhagen press in the early 1990s. Various other options were considered, including giving Denmark an oil-rich chunk of Alaska (which, while they would have owned the oil, they would have had to sell it to the US), but eventually an offer of $100 million was made, or around $1.3 billion today. (For comparison, when William Seward arranged the purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million in 1867, that would have been worth about $109 million today for a piece of land only about 20% smaller.) Either way, it wasn’t reported in the documents whether the Danes formally rejected the offer, or whether they just didn’t respond.
The mid-1800s was a prime time for American expansion, however. Just off the back of the Civil War, also in 1867 Secretary of State William Seward — that’s David Strathairn in Lincoln, for you film buffs — put forward an idea to buy Greenland and Iceland from Denmark as a way of ensuring telegraph communications across the Atlantic and as a way of (potentially) isolating Canada and (double-potentially) making it want to join the United States. (Consider that North America was a very different place at the time; Canada had caused the US some major problems in the War of 1812, just fifty or so years ago; the US only had 37 states; even Greenland had only relatively recently passed into Danish hands, and would be a continued issue between Denmark and Norway until 1933.)
However, unlike the relative success of Seward’s Folly — he bought Alaska for what would be worth around thirty cents an acre today, a steal in anyone’s book — the attempt to buy Greenland was… less warmly received. (For anyone interested in a more in-depth analysis, /r/AskHistorians ubermod /u/Georgy_K_Zhukov did a write-up here that’s well worth a read.) In short, it didn’t happen.
So that’s the history dealt with. For more on the current situation, click here.
So why does the US want Greenland anyway?
A couple of reasons. Firstly, as in 1867 and 1946, Greenland is in a pretty strategic position in the middle of the Atlantic. The US already has an Air Force Base there — Thule is actually the USA’s northernmost base — and in May 2019 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US would be setting up a permanent diplomatic presencein Greenland for the first time since the fifties. (It was also the site of a plan by the US to build a series of nuclear missile launch sites under the ice sheet, all without telling the Danish government. That’s going to be a significant problem if the ice sheet thaws and any nuclear, chemical or biological waste comes to the surface. No bueno.)
There’s also the question of who else might want access — and in this case, as in so many cases, the answer is China. In 2018 the BBC reported that China was bidding for contracts to build three large airports in Greenland. (Currently, Greenland has only two airports capable of handling large airliners: Kangerlussuaq, and Narsarsuaq.) It withdrew the bids in June 2019, after Greenland sided with Denmark over Beijing, but it’s not difficult to see this as a pattern of Chinese investment all over the world; China is also investing in mining in the region, specifically for uranium and rare earth metals. (China is, itself, one of the main producers of rare earth elements.)
It’s also worth noting that James Mattis, then-Secretary of State, also voiced concerns about China’s investment in the area before he left/was fired from the Trump administration. These worries were apparently not unfounded; in 2018, China declared itself a ‘near-Arctic nation’ — despite the fact that it objectively is not — so it’s clear that Beijing definitely has designs on the area.
There’s also the issue of climate change. At the moment, Greenland is pretty much locked up in ice, and as such is suffering more than most from the effects of global warming. However, the issue is not just limited to land ice, but also to the seas. As more of this sea ice melts, more of the area around Greenland will become available for shipping — which will make it an important position to hold. (Consider the current disputes in the South China Sea: if you control the land, you control the sea; if you control the sea, you control the shipping trade routes.) At the moments, it’s not exactly feasible… but ten years from now? Twenty? Fifty? With the rate that climate change is progressing, northern trade routes might become extremely valuable.
This could also lead the freeing up of resources. The Arctic is known to have large reserves of oil, and Greenland itself is a source of coal and valuable metals. However, this is made somewhat trickier by the fact that these resources are buried under a thick — for now — layer of ice, and thus are largely unattainable. The Trump administration’s approach to ecology and climate change has been somewhat worrisome, let’s say; early in his Presidency, Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accords, and gutted protection designed to save endangered species by making it so that ‘economic considerations’ would be taken into a count before declaring a species endangered. With that approach to climate change — after all, this is the President who once declared that ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive’ — they might not be buried forever, and the US would surely value having access.
Finally — and a little more speculatively — there might be a personal reason for Trump’s interest. Trump is currently coming towards the tail end of his first term in office; it was a slim victory in 2016, and current comparative pollsdemonstrate that he’s behind compared to a number of contenders in the Democratic primary. He may very well be nearing the end of his time in office, and he’s doing so without a signature legislative achievement: the ACA stands, The Wall does not; yes, he put two new faces on the Supreme Court, but there haven’t really been any big, shiny, incontrovertible wins for Trump personally in the past two and a half years. (His attempts at going back to the moon by 2024 — by the end of a hypothetical second term, enough that he could point to it as definitively his victory — are a non-starter; Space Force is barely mentioned.) Increasing the size of US territory by over two million square kilometres, on the other hand, would definitely be something for the history books.
So… is it likely to happen?
No. I mean, it’s not impossible, but there are a couple of serious things getting in the way:
Denmark: Trump claimed that Denmark was having trouble paying the $500 million a year it sends to Greenland. However, there’s no indication that Denmark is in any way looking to sell its territory.
Cost: Even if Denmark was looking to sell, Trump is a Republican, and Republicans tend not to be too big on the idea of big purchases. The cost of buying a territory the size of Greenland would be significant. Quite besides which, there’s a strong case that other nations might want a piece of that pie — and if it went up for sale, who’s to say that China wouldn’t outbid the US?
Sovereignty: Greenland had fought hard for the right to self-rule, and only achieved it in 1979; in fact, there was a 2016 survey that showed that 64% of Greenlanders would choose full independence. (It’s also worth noting that a year later, a majority opposed independence if it would mean a fall in the standard of living, so it’s far from cut and dried.) Even if Denmark agreed to sell, the chances of it trading hands without the say-so of Greenlanders seems vanishingly remote.
Culture: Greenlandic culture is much more closely aligned with Europe than the USA.
Wealth: Greenland isn’t exactly what you’d call rich. It’s GDP per capita sits at about $49,400, which would put it fairly near the bottom if you took each state by itself. Greenland may have resources that will be useful in the future, but the infrastructure isn’t currently in place; it would require a big investment.
But what would happen if it did?
Say, for curiosity’s sake, that Trump did manage to seal the deal and buy Greenland outright — then you’d have to raise the question of what happens to the people who live there. Now granted, Greenland only has a population of about 56,000 people — that’s less than the population of Utica, New York, filling a territory the size of Mexico — but would they become US citizens? Would they keep their Danish passports? Would they be subject to the USA’s rules on double taxation? Would they be allowed representation in Congress or the Senate, even in a non-voting capacity? Would this do anything to bolster the campaigns for Puerto Rican or DC statehood?
Et cetera, et cetera
Now I know this has been a lot of reading, but please do be aware that there’s no actual reason to believe this is anything more than the flightiest of pipe dreams. Even the WSJ article couldn’t decide whether to take it seriously or not, and with good reason: this happens a lot. For whatever reason, Trump (and to a lesser extent the Trump administration as a whole) runs from one enormously expensive project to another, letting the media mull it over for a little while before the next one overtakes it.
This one has even less basis than most, and while it’s fun to speculate, it’s not really something that should be taken as a serious proposal — at least not without significant further developments. That said, Greenland is a region that people have been paying a lot more attention to over the past few years, both in the USA and abroad. The USA doesn’t need to buy it outright for it to increase its strategic importance, and it’s worth being aware of it.
Increasingly, the world appears to be looking north. Whether that’s for resources or trade access, Greenland will probably be of a bigger concern in the next twenty years than it was in the last twenty.