President Trump “Buying” Greenland?


Most of the press thinks this is a red herring, misplaced joke, presidential pipedream or clever distraction – but is it?  President Trump last week suggested he may be interested in negotiating to “buy” Greenland from Denmark.  What do you think?

In the 21st Century, there have been few conversations between nations about acquiring land, not least because people live on most of the world’s surface and they have views too.

On one end of the spectrum, US territories since World War II often tipped toward independence or statehood, although some remain territories.  Internationally, the trend has held. On the other end of the sovereignty spectrum, post-Soviet Europe and Asia saw the birth of new nations, and post-Soviet Russia irreverently invaded Georgia and Ukraine, earning international condemnation.

But what about an above-board, mutually agreeable purchase of land?  The idea has not been current for a while.  Ironically, Democratic President Harry Truman entertained the idea with respect to Greenland, as did Andrew Jackson – a predecessor with whom Trump is compared. 

In 1946, Truman – blunt, brash and a poker player – took a page from Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase panache, offering Denmark a cool hundred million dollars in gold for the strategically valuable tract of land, Greenland.  Although declined, the idea stuck around.

Greenland is more ice and snow than its colorful name suggests, but the land has value – sitting atop the globe with close proximity to Europe and Russia.  As China builds artificial islands in the South China Sea for power projection (in the name of defense), and Russia continues to make threats on neighbors, the idea of a US territory close to the pole is attractive.

Is the idea realistic?  Probably not.  On the other hand, very few thought the Louisiana Purchase, the US acquisition of Alaska, or a US flag on many current territories was legally feasible, let alone very likely – until these all happened. 

Terms for realistic discussion would have to be mutual, and almost majestic in size, and magnanimous in nature, with the added caveat – in a time of controversy – that they would need to be uncontroverted.  In other words, the world may have outgrown peaceful, market-based exchanges of land.  After all, when the Louisiana Purchase was concluded – and even at the time Alaska became part of the United States – the number of people living in both places was few, legal strictures and international norms different.

That said, those who think the idea tomfoolery may be wrong.  First, there are mutual benefits which sometimes convert the most unlikely turn of events into a serious discussion; in this case, those benefits are economic, geopolitical, and security focused.  Second, nothing formally prohibits two political sovereigns, and subparts of their respective territories, from discussing, voting on or otherwise entertaining any number of border issues. 

Third, history is a teacher worth consulting.  In 1946, at a time when European borders had just been redrawn, that continent was being reclaimed from the dead, and George C. Marshall was promoting the Marshall Plan, all things seemed possible.   

In that moment, the idea of acquiring Greenland seemed almost sensible, a strategic buffer for the United States, more burden than benefit to Denmark.  Accordingly, “practically every member” of the Joint Chiefs of Staff committee studying the question favored the idea.

Denmark, on the other hand, was not so sanguine.  Just as some thought Germany should be broken up after World War II – an idea swiftly ditched, Truman’s enthusiasm for Greenland got nowhere with the Danes.  Money was one thing, national pride another. 

The era of all-powerful kings and emperors cutting vast deals with bold US Presidents over bottles of good French wine were gone. Even in the relative fluidity of national borders post-WWII, the idea of acquiring Greenland got no purchase.  Denmark was not interested, thank you.

So, all things considered, for reasons historical, national, geopolitical, practical, financial, qualitative, quantitative and intangible – the chances of another star on the US flag for Greenland are objectively infinitesimal.  Still, the idea is not without patrons, promise or peculiar appeal. 

There are existing – and likely growing – strategic reasons for the US and Denmark, not to mention Greenland, to stay close and get closer.  From shared geopolitical objectives and longstanding security agreements to environmental concerns and Thule Air Base, we have long been cooperative.  On the other hand, close cooperation and national sovereignty are different things; the first seldom leads a change in the second. 

Net-net, lofting the purchase of Denmark’s least populated tract – a northern outpost for viewing of the aurora borealis – may have popped on a slow news day.  The idea is not new, Greenland not green, and the Danes likely not keen.  Still, one never knows where an idea will lead.  If any president were well-suited to make a land deal, it is Donald Trump.  The Danes may just call.  Until then, we can probably pivot to China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and other leading stories.   

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