Let’s (Not) Make a Deal: Geopolitics and Greenland


President Donald Trump’s offer to buy Greenland, a semi-autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, came as a bolt out of the blue, causing global astonishment and no small amount of ridicule. For many of his detractors, the offer once again demonstrated the president’s lack of diplomatic knowledge and his tendency to offend his allies unnecessarily, especially once he cancelled a state visit to Denmark upon learning Danish leaders were uninterested selling Greenland. Many of his supporters, meanwhile, saw the president’s offer as a potential diplomatic masterstroke that would solidify the United States’ position in geopolitically important territory.

As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between these extremes. Trump’s offer to buy Greenland is not a wild-eyed fluke. Instead, it reflects a steadily increasing American interest in Greenland that is spurred by fear of Chinese and Russian encroachments. At the same time, however, a quest to purchase Greenland is not the optimal way to achieve American security interests, as it is unlikely to succeed, and even if it did, it would be far more expensive than other, more sensible approaches. Instead, the United States should engage with Denmark and Greenland to find common ground on shared concerns.

It’s All About Military Geography

So why is Greenland important in the first place? Location, location, location. It is located between Russia and North America, close to the straits that connect the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic. The United States has been present in Greenland since World War II. When Denmark was occupied by Germany in 1940, the United States seized control of Greenland (with permission from the Danish embassy in Washington) to prevent Germany from using the island for weather measurements and as a stepping-stone for an invasion of North America. American forces stayed in Greenland after the war. In the early Cold War, Greenland continued to be important for weather forecasts that were a crucial aspect of military planning. It was also used for strategic bombers that would attack Soviet targets with nuclear weapons in the event of a great-power war. When missiles replaced bombers as the primary delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons, the ballistic missile early warning radars at the American air base in Thule in northwestern Greenland became the primary U.S. asset. In addition to Thule Air Base, Greenland was also valuable for tracking Soviet submarines in the waters between the north and south of Iceland (the Greenland-Iceland-United-Kingdom gap) that could threaten shipping in the North Atlantic in the event of a great-power war.

Many of the same dynamics are still at play on the island today. The radars at Thule remain the main American asset, especially since they were upgraded and made part of the American missile defense system. Greenland’s shores, ports, and airports could be important for hunting submarines. As part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress has asked the armed services and the Maritime Administration to find a new strategic port in the Arctic, and several sites in Greenland could be viable options. Greenland’s significance is thus still tied to its militarily important location between Russia and North America. As a former American diplomat a colleague and I interviewed in 2016 put it, the American interest in Greenland is about “geography, geography, geography!”

However, while much is the same, a few things have changed. Two new challenges have arisen: new Russian Arctic bases and increased Chinese economic influence. Both are playing out in the context of climate change, which is changing the geography of the Arctic.

New Russian Capabilities

In 2007, Russia resumed flights with strategic bombers in the Arctic. Since then, it has reopened old Soviet bases and building new bases, landing strips, and radar facilities, while replacing its Soviet-era submarines with more potent vessels. Although many of these new capabilities most likely serve a defensive purpose, allowing Russia to operate in its Arctic seas that are opening due to climate change, they could also have an offensive potential. One of the new Russian bases is Nagurskoye in the Franz Josef Land archipelago, which will be the world’s most northern operational air base once finished. According to the Danish Defence Intelligence Service, Russian combat aircraft will be able to attack Thule Air Base from Nagurskoye, thus potentially creating a gap in the American missile defense and early warning system. Responding to this threat involves bolstering the air defense at Thule by investing in new anti-aircraft radars and missiles and ensuring that fighters can quickly be deployed to Greenland in the event of a crisis.

The United States cannot make the decision to enhance these capabilities unilaterally. It requires consent from both Denmark and Greenland. The two nations have divided the responsibility for different issue areas. Foreign, security, and defense policy is Denmark’s responsibility and the Greenlandic government controls a host of other issues, such as transportation and resource policy. However, when issues fall between these categories, they are typically decided either through a compromise or a legal fight between Denmark and Greenland.

These complex procedures affect the response to the Russian threat. Fighters require at least two airports with the right hangar installations, runways, and other facilities, as well as weather conditions that permit frequent flights. Currently, the airports at Kangerlussuaq and Thule can fit these requirements once minor upgrades have been made. However, the Greenlandic government controls transportation policy and is eager to build new airports closer to its main population centers, which could involve closing Kangerlussuaq Airport. Denmark, Greenland, and the United States are currently trying to come to terms about which airports will be open in the future, what facilities they each need to have, and how much each country needs to pay into the projects.

Lurking Chinese Investments

While Russia has strengthened its military capabilities, Chinese interest in Greenland has also been on the rise. Chinese private and state-owned companies have invested in mining projects over the past decade. However, low world-market prices and high production costs have meant that most of these projects have yet to become operational. Furthermore, in 2016, a Chinese investment company was reportedly interested in buying a former naval station, and in 2017 the Chinese government applied for permission to build a satellite receiving station (Greenland has yet to make a decision). Last year, China Communication Construction Company, a state-owned construction company, made a bid to build Greenland’s new airports. The airport project caught Washington’s attention and at a 2018 meeting then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis warned his Danish counterpart Claus Hjort Frederiksen that such investments could have security implications. Soon after, the Danish government announced that it would be providing 1.6 billion Danish kroner ($240 million) worth of funds and low-interest loans for the airports. The Chinese company withdrew its bid earlier this year.

As Rebecca Pincus and Walter Berbrick have argued, the Chinese interest in Greenland poses two problems for the United States. First, many of the facilities that attract Chinese investments are dual-use, meaning that they could become part of the Chinese military infrastructure in the Arctic, e.g. by serving as refueling stations for military vessels. Second, because the Greenlandic economy is very small, Chinese companies could  easily make up a significant share of the island’s economy, giving China leverage that can be used to pursue political-military interests, such as interfering with the American presence.

An effective American response to the Chinese involvement also requires consent from Denmark and Greenland. Like transportation policy, resource policy also falls within the Greenlandic government’s purview. Restrictions on Chinese investments will only be possible if Greenland is somehow compensated for the revenue streams it will be missing.

The Real Estate Deal that Wasn’t

But would it not be easier to simply buy Greenland? If Greenland became an American territory, the United States would not have to deal with two other parties. It could simply pass laws restricting Chinese investments and ensuring that it had the military airports it needed to rebuff the Russian aerial threat. These are good arguments and likely the rationale behind the president’s recent offer. However, this is a suboptimal strategy for at least three reasons.

First, Denmark and Greenland are not willing to sell. The vast bulk of the Danish political elite has accepted that Greenland’s fate gets decided by the Greenlanders. The current law governing the relationship between the two countries, which draws broad support from both sides of the Danish parliament, stipulates that the Greenlanders “constitute a people under international law with a right to self-determination” and basically spells out the steps Greenland would have to take to become independent. That is why the Danish prime minister’s response to the president’s offer was, “Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland.” At the same time, gaining full independence is a project that unites most of Greenland’s 56,000 inhabitants. Polls show that the Greenlanders overwhelmingly favor independence and all but one small party in their parliament want to become a sovereign state. They would hardly be satisfied with simply replacing being part of one country (Denmark) with becoming part of another (the United States).

Second, even if it were politically viable, buying Greenland would not make fiscal sense. In the current situation, the United States can pursue its interests in Greenland. Securing the American position may require new initiatives to strengthen the bond with Denmark and finding ways to indirectly support Greenland economically. But the overall cost of these initiatives will be well below the annual economic support Greenland needs (currently 4.3 billion Danish kroner, or $640 million) that the United States would suddenly have to cover if it bought the island. Arguably, the current setup gives the United States the best of both worlds: control over a militarily important territory without the hassle and expenses involved in running a welfare state under Arctic conditions.

Finally, public discussions of this idea undermine America’s relationship with Greenland. There is a long history of Greenland’s not being consulted when Danes and Americans make sweeping decisions with wide repercussions for the locals. This was especially the case during the Cold War, when indigenous communities were moved from their homes and hunting grounds with only a few days’ notice to make room for an American base, and nuclear weapons were placed on the island in secret. The idea that Denmark could sell Greenland in “a large real-estate deal” reinvigorates these memories. It gives the impression that the United States will once again ignore the opinion of the Greenlanders, making them less open to American overtures.

What to Do?

Instead of offering to buy Greenland, the United States should pursue an engagement strategy that combines targeted concessions with clever diplomacy to get the Danes and Greenlanders to cooperate. Luckily, if approached correctly, both nations are very interested in supporting U.S. security interests, as they are broadly shared — especially in Copenhagen. The key will be to see this not as a zero-sum game, but as a win-win-win situation.

Keeping the United States involved in Europe and maintaining a close relationship with Washington are the core interests driving Danish foreign and security policy. Consequently, all recent Danish governments, regardless of their ideological persuasion, have viewed the American-led wars of the past decades as opportunities to demonstrate the value of continued cooperation within NATO and a good bilateral relationship with Denmark specifically. Denmark has thus been among the most active European countries in these conflicts, losing more troops per capita (43 out of a population of 5.8 million) in Afghanistan than even the United States.

Copenhagen sees Greenland as another arena in which it can forge a stronger relationship with Washington. Denmark will be interested in linking its efforts in Greenland to the wider burden-sharing debate in NATO. Denmark will see initiatives that protect the American presence on the island as being in its own interest, if it can use Greenland to lessen the American critique of its low defense budget (scheduled to reach 1.5 percent of GDP in 2023). The United States should also reassure the Danes that they will not be sidelined from discussions about Greenland or kept in the dark about U.S. activities on the island.

Greenland is interested in international recognition and foreign investments. Being recognized as an equal partner is essential for the Greenlanders, who are sensitive (and, given their history, often rightly so) about being left on the sidelines, when decisions about their future are being made. At the same time, Greenland needs foreign investments. The island’s poor fiscal situation is the one thing keeping it within the Kingdom of Denmark, as it cannot sustain itself without economic and administrative support from Copenhagen. Chinese companies have long been the main outside investors on the island, but this is more the result of a lack of options than a deeply felt connection to Beijing. Greenlandic governments have previously announced that a future independent Greenland should become a NATO member and the United States would therefore be a natural partner if the interest were reciprocated.

There are three cost-effective options for the American efforts. First, the United States should offer to pay for the infrastructure it needs to secure its position and it should ensure that these facilities can also be used for civilian purposes. Civilians already use some of the current military installations. On an island with sparse infrastructure, access to dual-use facilities can give an important boost to the local economy and make it obvious that Greenland can benefit from the American presence.

Second, the United States should ensure that what’s known as the service contract at Thule Air Base is once again given to a Danish-Greenlandic company. The service contract functioned as an indirect side-payment from the United States to the Greenlandic government (which co-owned the company that had the contract). Through a series of diplomatic mistakes made by all three parties, the contract was awarded to an American company through a Danish subsidiary in 2014. This issue has been an unnecessary source of tensions between Denmark, Greenland, and the United States ever since.

Finally, the United States should seek concrete ways of enhancing cooperation between Greenland and American public and private institutions in areas such as education, health care, science, and business development. A framework for trilateral talks about such issues — the Joint Committee — has existed for fifteen years, but it has never led to concrete outcomes, much to the disappointment of the Greenlandic political class. Reinvigorating the Joint Committee and using it as a way to get American investments into Greenland would be an easy way to strengthen American-Danish-Greenlandic ties.

Greenland is once again becoming a crucial issue on the American security agenda and it is time for the United States to secure its position on the island. However, offering to buy the island is not the best way to achieve this goal. Not only will it be unlikely to succeed, it will make the United States worse off than it is today. Only proper engagement with Denmark and Greenland can produce a win-win-win situation.

Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen is an associate professor at the Royal Danish Defence College. Among his publications are Greenland and the International Politics of a Changing Arctic (Routledge, 2017, with Kristian Kristensen). The views presented here are the authors’ own, and do not represent the views of the Royal Danish Defence College or the Danish Armed Forces.

Image: Defense Department