Former Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen called President Donald Trump’s reported idea of buying Greenland, a self-governed Danish territory, an out-of-season April’s Fool joke. Trump’s idea may be outlandish (and impossible) but that doesn’t mean there’s no benefit in thinking about reviving the market in sovereign territories, which once made America great.
Besides acquiring Louisiana from France, Florida from Spain, Alaska from Russia and much of its southwest from Mexico, the U.S. nearly bought Greenland and Iceland in the 1860s. The idea was to surround Canada with U.S. territory and thus persuade it to join the U.S.
The time for wooing Canada passed quickly, though, and the U.S. recognized Denmark’s sovereignty over Greenland in 1917 after it bought the Virgin Islands, then a Danish colony. But soon enough, the world’s biggest island acquired strategic importance for the U.S. again, this time as a base for warplanes during World War II. The atomic bomb made Greenland even more strategic. In the pre-missile years, it was especially important to have a base for bombers near an adversary’s borders, and Greenland was close enough to the Soviet Union that the U.S. could threaten all of European Russia from it. It was also an ideal base for reconnaissance flights.
The U.S. tried to buy Greenland again, but a 1946 offer to the Danish government fell on deaf ears, even though the island housed only about 600 Danes at the time. As it turned out, the U.S. didn’t need to buy the island. The formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Denmark was a founding member, and a 1951 bilateral defense agreement allowed the U.S. to establish the military presence it needed in Greenland.
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Now, the U.S. uses its Thule base as part of an early-warning system in case of a Russian nuclear strike. But Greenland’s strategic significance is on the rise again. Russia’s recent build-up in the Arctic, both military and civilian, is leaving the U.S. behind; a stronger U.S. presence in the region than just an Air Force base in Greenland would make it harder for Russia to seal control of the Northern Sea Route and team up with China on monopolizing it. Besides, global warming and Greenland’s rapidly melting ice make for easier access to Greenland’s vast natural resources.
Greenland, of course, won’t be sold to the U.S. On the one hand, Denmark has no reason to sell it. It’s a wealthy country that runs a budget surplus. It can easily afford the annual subsidy of about $500 million that it pays to Greenland, and it sees itself as the island’s sensible steward rather than the unwilling owner of a vast, largely uninhabited territory.
Besides, the 56,000 Greenlanders likely wouldn’t want to switch their allegiance to the U.S. The island’s Home Rule Act, approved by the Danish parliament, gives its autonomous government “fundamental rights in respect of Greenland’s natural resources.” Many locals hope control over these resources eventually will form the basis of Greenland’s independence, and they have no problem waiting for that opportunity under Denmark’s benevolent rule.
To protect U.S. interests in the Arctic, Trump would be better off working closely and constructively with European allies, including Denmark and Norway. Such cooperation can make more economic sense than territorial expansion. Trump may be wrong on Greenland but he unwittingly raised the question of sovereign territory transactions. If they can be used to avoid violence and unnecessary tension and benefit denizens of the territory for sale, why not?