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When I first read the headlines, I thought it was a joke, some SNL parody that wandered onto the front pages: “Trump inquires about US buying Greenland,” reported CNN mid-August.
The tabloids took it in satirical stride, too. “Trump wants to buy Greenland,” led a New York Daily News cover piece, “But Denmark says he just can’t af-fjord it.”
The preposterous, purchasing the vast island, an autonomous territory of Denmark, turned out to be serious. President Donald Trump admitted he had floated the idea with advisers—including the White House counsel—since last spring. Yet again, the president made parody out of protocol, chiding the prime minister of Denmark for “blowing off the U.S.” and canceling a scheduled trip to Denmark because she wouldn’t sell.
But here’s a news flash for those of you who think I can only say negative things about the Trump White House: Buying Greenland was not a harebrained idea. One estimate put its worth at $533 billion, or about the equivalent of one year’s U.S. military budget. Here’s why the United States might seriously undertake it.
From the vantage point of the North Pole, Greenland sits like a sentry thrust into the Arctic Ocean.
Geographically, Greenland is part of North America, though it’s always been incorporated into Europe. Its land mass dominates the North Atlantic, and 90 percent of its population is Greenlandic (or North American), with only 10 percent Danish or other Nordic people groups. It’s more Canada than Copenhagen.
There’s also precedence for such a purchase. Look only to the other side of the Arctic Circle, where President Andrew Johnson purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for $7.2 million. That’s $125 million in 2019 dollars—only a fraction the value of Greenland, a land mass larger than Alaska, potentially more resource-rich, and situated more strategically inside the Arctic Circle.
From the vantage point of the North Pole, Greenland sits like a sentry thrust into the Arctic Ocean. It occupies a flanking position against the vast coastline of Russia. As the polar cap melts and the rich resources of the Arctic become more apparent, and up for grabs, future Americans might have thanked Donald Trump for securing so strategic a base.
Meanwhile, the United States in all seriousness is losing the Arctic. The most important global issues of coming decades, notes Johns Hopkins professor and American Enterprise Institute scholar Hal Brands, “are the return of rivalry between great powers and the intensification of climate change.” Sitting at the intersection of both trends is the Arctic.
Whether you conclude climate change is short- or long-term, manmade or cyclical, its effect in the Arctic today is undeniable: Greenland has experienced its biggest ice melt this summer, losing a record 12.5 billion tons in a day. It again has faced threatening wildfires. According to new atmospheric monitoring, more than 100 “intense and long-lived wildfires” have burned above the Arctic Circle since June, emitting enough carbon dioxide to equal Sweden’s entire annual emissions.
With a melting polar cap is a race to ply its navigable waters and plumb its resources. Russia and ascending Chinese forces may one day threaten the northern extremities of the American homeland via the Arctic. Already an international battle is underway for control of Lomonosov Ridge, an unusual underwater formation likely to prove rich in oil and gas and other resources. Russia and Denmark have lodged competing claims for sovereignty over it, and a team of scientists in 2015 concluded the ridge is attached to Greenland. The United States appears to be on the sidelines, and could be checkmated by Russia and China together pressing Denmark for concessions.
Into this emerging frontier, the United States has the opportunity to shape the Arctic for good. That’s what happened when it decided in the aftermath of World War II to take on also-outsized projects in Europe and Asia. The Cold War might have taken a different turn without Alaska in American hands.
But in the end, Trump himself turned a serious proposition into a joke again, tweeting a vast Trump Tower superimposed on Greenland’s rocky escarpments with a promise “not to do this” to Greenland.
Indeed. Because in the Trump era we don’t have foreign policy, we have foreign policy episodes. Stay tuned for the next show.