The geopolitical role of Greenland

In 2019, President Donald Trump offered to purchase Greenland from the Danish government. Embarrassed, the government in Copenhagen rejected the offer because nations are no longer sold in the way the former US president was used to buying New York real estate. What made the offer to buy Greenland particularly awkward was the fact that the United States in certain ways already owns the Arctic island and have done so since the Second World War. Mr Trump’s interest in Greenland probably arose from a briefing the president received about the renewed geopolitical competition in the Arctic and the pivotal role of Greenland in maintaining US interests in the region. In geopolitical terms, Greenland is an American island.

While Greenland constitutes a nation in its own right, and its 57,000 inhabitants are part of the Kingdom of Denmark as an autonomous region heavily subsidized by the Danish government, the island’s 2,166,000 square kilometres has been an integrated part of the North American security architecture since the United States required basing rights from the Danish ambassador in Washington during the Second World War. The US used airbases in Greenland as a refuelling point between North America and Britain, and it was weather data from Greenland that gave Allied commanders confidence to give the go-ahead for operation Overlord (the invasion of Western Europe) in 1944.

During the Cold War, the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States was bitterly cold in the Arctic. Nuclear submarines remained constantly on patrol in Arctic waters ready to provide a second-strike capability in case of a nuclear war, and a radar station in the furthest north of Greenland provided first waring if the Soviet Union were to launch a nuclear attack on North America. After the end of the Cold War, the Soviet bases in Siberia was neglected. The United States withdrew from its bases in Island and maintained a much smaller footprint in Greenland. US attention was elsewhere – fighting the global war on terror with engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the last ten years, the Arctic has returned on the geopolitical agenda. Russia has reinvested in its Arctic bases, and Russia demonstrated it renewed Arctic engagement with a couple of spectacular exercises in the region, included the landing of Russian paratroopers on the North Pole icesheet. Less spectacular, but equally importantly, China shows an interest in the region. Diplomatically, China sought membership of the Arctic Council, thus using the Arctic to demonstrate that as a true global power China has an interest in every region, however remote from Chinese territory. Economically, Chinese capital backed mining firms that sought rights from the Greenlandic government to develop mining projects – most spectacularly, an iron ore mine in the fjord outside Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk.

China also raised the possibility of financing an airport outside Nuuk as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinas civilian interest in Greenland challenged the traditional division of labour between the Danish and the American government which made Greenland a part of the North American defence architecture while the responsibility for the internal affairs and economic development of the island was left to the Danes in cooperation with the local administration. A Chinese presence in Greenland would clearly have security implications, and the Danish government moved decisively to make sure that the airport was financed by the Danish taxpayers and the Chinese backed mining firms never gained mining concessions.

While the Danish government was shoring up internal security, the United States reasserted its commitment to the region. US marines were stationed in Norway in the aftermath of the Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine and the US military has begun to reinvest in Arctic capabilities. Yet, the nature of great power competition today is different from during the Cold War. This is especially true in the Arctic where the present great power rivalry is no longer about positioning for a nuclear exchange, but about how to utilise the new lines of communication and the new access to resources made possible by the thawing of the Arctic because of global warming.

The new climate offers the kind of promises which made Viking settlers name the island. At present the costs of extracting resources from Greenland remains prohibitive and even if the ice is losing its grip on the Arctic Sea, the time when containerships can sail from Shanghai to Rotterdam via the Northern Sea Route remains many years in the future. This future offers a powerful vision which great powers want to be part of, and that in turn offers the opportunity for the government of Greenland to deal in geopolitical futures in same way as you would deal in futures on the stock market.

The mere interest from China thus delivered investments from Copenhagen and an increased diplomatic recognition from the United States which opened a consulate in Nuuk (staffed with diplomats from the US embassy in Copenhagen). The Greenlandic government may use the prospect of Chinese involvement as leverage in the future, but the utility of this strategy decreases each time it is used. The Chinese presence in the region is already waning, as the United States reasserts itself.

The increased US interest in Greenland offers the possibility for the government in Nuuk to decrease its dependence on Denmark by dealing with Washington directly. However, it also demonstrates the very limited freedom of action which the government of Greenland in fact has on matters of security and foreign policy. The United States will never tolerate that Greenland moves outside the North American security architecture – whether the island at one point might gain independence from Denmark is a secondary issue from a US perspective.

In geopolitical terms, everything has changed, and everything remains the same for Greenland. The United States firmly controls the island’s geopolitics and has, with Danish cooperation, firmly rejected Chinese attempts to gain a presence on the island. As the prospects for the Arctic region changes Greenland will become more important in the region, but China and Russia will have few prospects for changing the Island geopolitical connection to the United States.