In early August, when President Donald Trump announced his interest in purchasing Greenland, Americans were left on a reactionary spectrum. The purchase of a tiny Arctic country with a population of 56,000 left Americans laughing uproariously, scratching their heads in confusion, blindly supporting the president or just plain angry. This was true regardless of political ideology. The biggest question of all was why Greenland?
But since political divisiveness is the norm in America, there was no room to allow any objective discourse to take place. In the case of Greenland, it was warranted.
The country has long been of interest to the United States. When Secretary of State William Seward was negotiating the purchase of Alaska with Russia in 1867, he was also exploring the purchase of Greenland. This also isn’t the first time a president of the United States has tried to purchase Greenland. President Truman offered up $100 million for it in 1946.
Last year, Republican Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas brought up the purchase of Greenland with the Danish ambassador. And in May of this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would re-establish a diplomatic presence in Greenland. This would be for first time since the 1950s.
So, why Greenland?
Its strategic location makes it an ideal hub for the military. On the one side is Russia, with China right below it. Representing North American on the other side is Canada and Alaska. And that makes the flight path over Greenland the shortest route for Russia and China – for both its bombers and intercontinental missiles. Naturally, this is something that North America would prefer to avoid.
Recognizing Greenland’s importance, China attempted to purchase an old American naval base there in 2016. The Danish government stepped in and prevented that. Then, in 2018, China made an attempt at building three airports before being shut down again by the Danish government (with much cajoling by the Trump administration).
Outside of its location, Greenland has a wide array of resources that hold appeal. So much so, that in a 2014 report from the Brookings Institute, they referred to a coming “gold rush” of energy and mineral resources. The report goes on to note that, as the Arctic ice continues to disappear due to global warming, access to lead, zinc, diamonds, gold and, of course, oil is becoming more available.
Greenland politicians have made the extraction of natural resources and minerals central to its plans to extricate itself from the Kingdom of Denmark. Currently, Greenland receives about $700 million in subsidies annually from Denmark to help keep the country financially afloat. The Brookings report concludes that “large-scale mining” is an eventuality, but admits that it’s about ten years away.
Of those resources, oil is oil; human beings are on a neverending search for more. Finding another country with untapped oil resources would send any oil searching country’s political and capitalistic heart aflutter.
The importance of the other minerals on Greenland is almost incalculable. The country houses some of the world’s largest deposits of rare-earth minerals, like neodymium, praseodymium, and terbium. While not as fancy as diamonds or coveted as oil, these are some of the minerals used in the manufacturing of mobile phones, computers, and electric cars – three markets that China has a strong foothold in.
These minerals are also used in technology and defense – two of the most important, and identifiable, industries for both China and the United States. While the two countries are currently embroiled in a trade war, it’s easy to see why Greenland was appealing to President Trump.
Naturally, Greenland is of particular interest to industrialists across the globe. Tapping into these resources would make any capitalist salivate. In May of 2014, then-Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond repealed a ban on uranium mining. Australian company Greenland Minerals and Energy Limited wasted no time, and began building mines for uranium.
For its part, Greenland has been preparing for large-scale mining projects. However, it’s safe to say that they’ve been moving at a glacial pace. They’ve slowly been building regulatory structures and environmental safeguards. At the same time, they’ve been trying to foster an appealing investment climate for international investors.
As rare as the minerals themselves, it’s not often that “regulatory structures and environmental safeguards” and “appealing investment climate” work in tandem.
The inevitability of this large-scale mining would mean that this country of 56,000 could potentially see thousands of workers from all over the world. To accommodate this influx, the country must first develop the infrastructure to fit that kind of population increase.
While America has had a foot in Greenland for decades, it’s only Thules Air Base that remains. The other bases were abandoned years ago. The United States left Denmark the tab. That country is funding the clean up of all the decaying buildings, vehicles and old fuel barrels that America abandoned after World War II: to the tune of $29 million (US) over six years.
Unfortunately, that $29 million excludes the cleaning up of the deserted American under-ice nuclear missile facility. In 1967, when America realized that the glaciers were moving faster than expected, they just left. This raises the real concern that continued ice melting could bring radioactive waste to the surface.
So while this kerfuffle made for great media mania, on both conservative and liberal outlets, the reality is that purchasing Greenland isn’t a terrible idea. It’s that rarest of things from the Trump administration – a forward-thinking good idea.
At times it appears as though President Trump’s foreign policy resembles a combination of the board games Risk and Monopoly. After being rebuked by the Prime Minister of Denmark, Mette Fredericksen, who said any discussion on the sale of Greenland was “absurd”, the president’s petulant behavior got the better of him, as it often does, and he referred her comment of “absurd” as “nasty” – his favorite word for a woman who has run afoul of him.
Any type of civil discourse about what Greenland’s potential became impossible. It was the presidents’ behavior that ran the news cycle. Which is unfortunate, because Greenland, though perhaps not the purchase of it, warrants such a discussion.
Walking, or Tweeting, away from the table is a typical Donald Trump negotiation tactic. Each time he does this, it strongly suggests that that’s his only negotiating tactic. That may work in the world of real estate, or licensing your brand.
However, two years into his administration, the effect of this type of petulant behavior is, at best, questionable geopolitically.