The Wall Street Journal shocked the world Thursday with a report that President Donald Trump has, on multiple occasions, spoken to aides about purchasing Greenland, a semi-autonomously governed territory ruled by Denmark.
While conflicting media reports have emerged regarding whether or not the president is serious, Greenland’s government has made clear it is not for sale.
“#Greenland is rich in valuable resources such as minerals, the purest water and ice, fish stocks, seafood, renewable energy and is a new frontier for adventure tourism,” Greenland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted Friday. “We’re open for business, not for sale.”
Leaders from both Greenland and Denmark have scoffed at the idea of a U.S. purchase of the territory.
“If he is truly contemplating this, then this is final proof, that he has gone mad,” said Søren Espersen, the foreign affairs spokesman for the Danish People’s Party, as reported by Reuters.
“I am sure a majority of Greenland believes it is better to have a relation to Denmark than the United States, in the long term,” a Danish member of Parliament from Greenland told Reuters.
We’ve Tried To Buy Greenland Before
If Trump were to make an offer to buy Greenland, it would be the third time in American history the United States has made a serious effort to acquire the land.
The first attempt to purchase the territory came in the 1800s, when President Andrew Johnson’s secretary of state, William Seward, who had taken the post under Abraham Lincoln before the president’s assassination, tried to buy the territory from Denmark about the time of the Alaska Purchase in 1867. Seward’s plans for the United States to mount a competitive offer for the Danish islands were dropped, however, after a plan to purchase the Danish West Indies failed to pass the Senate.
The most recent attempt came in 1946, as tensions between the United States and Russia began to flare at the start of the Cold War. The Truman administration secretly offered Denmark $100 million in gold to purchase the land but received no response.
While seen today as a gigantic chunk of ice melting away as it succumbs to climate change, the land holds a vast amount of natural resources and a strategic location vital to U.S. security interests in the Arctic. It was a prime area of importance during the Cold War.
Greenland sits right in the center between major cities in the U.S. and Russia. As a hot war in the Arctic between the Soviet Union and the United States looked increasingly likely in the 20th century, leaders in the Pentagon saw Greenland as an important asset that could deter Soviet power and provide an important site to monitor a potential Soviet attack or launch counterattacks were the Russians to strike.
Pentagon officials also sought control of the island to conduct crucial military research that would allow the Defense Department to better understand how weapons and monitoring systems would work in the frigid climate if the Arctic became the site of such a conflict with the Soviet Union.
Looking at the Arctic as a potential theater of war, Western researchers wanted to know how storms moved around the region, how quickly ice melted and froze with the seasons, how the aurora could impact radio communications and navigational equipment, and how the ocean currents could impact naval maneuvers. Researchers also wanted to better understand at the time whether the climate was really warming and whether the ice cap somehow masked seismic signals that were resulting from Soviet nuclear testing.
Greenland Is Valuable
Today, Greenland has no less significant military advantage than it did 60 years ago, as tensions between Russia and the United States remain as high as they have been since the end of the Cold War. Historian Ronald Doel of Florida State University also noted that in addition to its military advantages, the island has been historically famous for its supplies of “critical, hard-to-find resources” used in manufacturing and that more of these abundant resources are becoming increasingly available as Greenland’s ice sheets melt, enhancing the land’s value.
“Natural resources on the island are becoming easier to access because the climate is becoming warmer,” Doel told The Federalist. Doel added that the island played an important role in World War II for providing the rare mineral cryolite used to make airplanes. Greenland was also instrumental in serving as a halfway point for boats and planes traveling from the United States to Europe during the war.
Don’t Buy It
Any effort to buy the land today, however, is almost certain to go nowhere, and foreign policy expert Luke Coffey of the conservative Heritage Foundation said there’s no reason to make an offer when the U.S. is already carrying $22 trillion in debt.
“In my opinion, there are no advantages,” Coffey told The Federalist of Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland. Coffey argued a U.S. acquisition of Greenland would provide America with few new benefits and would only carry an additional burden. The Heritage expert pointed out that the island has virtually no infrastructure and still depends on Denmark for more than half of its budget, as its roughly 58,000 citizens struggle with the societal problems of high rates of alcoholism and suicide, similar to communities in Alaska.
“No two cities or towns in Greenland are connected by road,” Coffey said.
Furthermore, the U.S. already gets strategic military advantages from Greenland, with access to much of the land for military testing and with the Thule Air Base, which was built during the Cold War in the northwest part of the island. The air base, which was constructed in secret with more than 12,000 troops working on the project, remains one of the air force’s largest bases in the world.
While Coffey says the U.S. should steer away from buying the territory, the land is still “absolutely vital for the security and the defense of the North American continent,” particularly when it comes to monitoring systems for missile defense.
Even if Denmark wanted to sell the land to the United States, Greenland would still have to consent to the purchase as required by the self-government arrangement with its host nation made in 2009. Given the reactions of its leaders this week, that sounds almost impossible.