News that U.S. President Donald Trump was thinking about purchasing Greenland was greeted as a belated April Fool’s Day prank or epic trolling of the media. Trump soon confirmed that the reports were accurate, however, adding that it “would be nice” for the United States to acquire the territory. The response of the government of Denmark, the sovereign authority in Greenland, which called the idea “absurd,” outraged the U.S. president, who canceled a visit to Copenhagen next month. This is no way for the world’s leading power to conduct diplomacy.
Diplomats the world over have been aghast since it was reported that Trump was looking at Greenland as “a large real estate deal.” First dismissed as a joke, it was soon revealed that the president was serious. Greenland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with a deft turn, tweeting that the island “is rich in valuable resources such as minerals, the purest water and ice, fish stocks, seafood, renewable energy and is a new frontier for adventure tourism.” But, it concluded, “We’re open for business, not for sale.”
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen had a sharper response, calling the idea “absurd.” That characterization got under Trump’s skin. He called her for making “nasty” comments, adding that “she shouldn’t treat the United States that way … ‘absurd.’ That’s not the right word to use.” He then canceled a state visit to Copenhagen, even though preparations were well underway. (White House officials suggested the remarks were a pretext; Trump does not like to travel long distances and he had two back-to-back trips to Europe in coming days. Frederiksen’s remark was an excuse to cancel.)
U.S. officials commenced damage control. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked to his Danish counterpart, Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod. According to Kofod, they had a “frank, friendly and constructive” talk and the two countries remain “close friends and allies” with a “long history of active engagement across globe.” Frederiksen added that cancellation of the Trump visit would not “change the character of our good relations.”
The prime minister’s reserve was not matched by other Danish politicians. Critics called Trump’s behavior “insulting” and that of “a spoiled child.” The chairman of the parliament’s foreign policy committee said that “a lot of people are angry,” but added that “we should not let Trump impact Danish-U.S. relations” in a negative way.
As the initial shock of the offer wore off, historians conceded that the idea is not unprecedented. In the 1860s — the decade that the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia — a U.S. State Department report concluded that Greenland’s rich fish and mineral resources made it a valuable investment opportunity. In 1946, U.S. President Harry Truman offered to buy Greenland for $100 million in gold. His top military advisers believed that the island was “completely worthless to Denmark” and “indispensable to the safety of the United States.” The Danish reaction was the same then as now: disbelief, followed by rejection.
Greenland’s strategic importance is beyond dispute. It is midway between the U.S. and Russia, and radars and bases there (which the U.S. has) provide early warning and reduced flight times in the event of a crisis. That real estate continues to be an ideal observation post to keep an eye on developments in the far north.
If the threat of a military conflict has shrunk — a debatable proposition given recent trends — global warming and the opening of the Arctic to regular maritime traffic and shipping means that the region has assumed a new importance. China is cognizant of that new reality: Beijing considers itself a “near Arctic nation” and is promoting the “Polar Silk Road” to facilitate the transport of goods from Asia to Europe. China has offered to build three airports in Greenland, projects that would give it a foothold on the island.
Japan is alert to the strategic significance of the Arctic, too. It was granted observer status to the Arctic Council in 2013, and Tokyo released its Arctic Policy in October 2015. A core part of the effort is cooperation with Russia, another Arctic state, to develop gas fields in the region, and to ensure that the product can get to regional markets. Earlier this summer, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for the acceleration of research and development to advance the utilization of the Arctic Sea.
That is a reasonable and thoughtful approach to Arctic issues that provides a sharp contrast to Trump’s impulsive and crude musings. This episode will soon pass, however, and diligent officials will do their best to limit the damage. But lessons are being learned. While it has become clear that Trump cannot be constrained in his utterances, it is nevertheless extraordinary that this is how the world’s greatest power conducts its diplomacy. There can be no preparation for a whiplash foreign policy that lurches from issue to issue without a moment’s thought. America’s partners must be on the alert, ever ready for the lurches and quick to minimize the harm.