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Foreign Policy

The Lingering Effect of US Greenland Offer

Dec 04, 2019
  • Chen Zinan

    Assistant Researcher, Maritime Strategy Studies, CICIR

In August, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, tweeted his interest in buying Greenland from Denmark. The proposal was roundly rejected by the Danish and Greenlandic governments.

The international community was shocked. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen described the notion of buying Greenland as “absurd,” whereupon Trump canceled his planned state visit to Denmark as a sort of retaliation.

Relations between the two nations suffered a big setback, but they later managed to put an end to the awkward situation with a telephone call between the leaders. The incident has since faded, but its impact on the Arctic geopolitical situation lingers. It is visible mainly in three ways:

First, the U.S. has turned its Arctic strategy into an action plan. Trump’s idea of purchasing Greenland made a big splash and nearly triggered a diplomatic crisis. However, the incident awakened the international community to the extensive diplomatic blitz by the U.S. government toward Arctic nations, and its systematic exertion of influence.

On Aug. 18, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone with Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod about Trump’s postponed visit. They also discussed how the two nations could strengthen Arctic cooperation.

Then, on Aug. 22, Pompeo visited Canada, discussed Arctic cooperation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and stressed the importance of joint defense of the Arctic. On Sept. 4, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Iceland and spoke with President Gudni Johannesson. He thanked Iceland for providing the United States with security and military assistance, and stressed stronger relations with Iceland, a U.S. ally, under the NATO framework.

On Oct. 2, Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto and Trump discussed security cooperation in Europe, as well as Arctic security cooperation, during Niinisto’s U.S. visit.

Within a few weeks, the U.S. was engaged in a series of high-level visits, all of which focused on Arctic security. This unprecedented phenomenon indicated that the U.S. plan to purchase Greenland was not an isolated incident but part of a broader U.S. Arctic strategy.

The strategy has progressed to the stage of implementation, with the aim of improving and upgrading diplomatic and security cooperation with Arctic countries and curbing the influence of competitive rivals.

Second, independence forces in Greenland are emerging. The government has been seeking to break away from Denmark, with nearly 70 percent of the population of 56,000 in support. Four of the seven political parties in Greenland’s parliament favor independence. Although Trump’s plan to purchase the island failed, it further fueled the independence movement.

Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, a Greenlandic member of the Danish parliament, said Greenlanders have been highly dissatisfied with Danish indifference. Pele Broberg, another Greenlandic member of the Danish parliament, urged the island’s government to negotiate independence in accordance with Section 21 of the 2009 Act on Greenland Self-Government.

The Danish prime minister, under pressure from all sides, stated several times that the Greenlandic government would be given greater say in Denmark’s foreign policy relating to the island but made it clear that the Greenland could not have an independent foreign policy of its own — which was meant to defend a “red line” against independence.

Currently, the U.S. is actively preparing to open a consulate in Greenland, and has bypassed the Danish government in directly carrying out cooperation with Greenland in the fields of trade, infrastructure, education, science and research. The political future of Greenland and its role in the U.S. Arctic strategy merit continuing attention and scrutiny.

Finally, rifts between Nordic countries and the U.S. in their Arctic strategies have deepened and widened. In the Arctic Council, the five Nordic countries — Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark — have identical interests and similar stances. They advocate maintaining“a low level of tensions” in the region’s geopolitical environment and remaining open and proactive with respect to practical cooperation between countries in and outside the Arctic region. They also advocate vigilance against the participation of countries outside the Arctic region in regional governance, particularly on issues related to regional security.

After the Greenland purchase brouhaha, the stance of the five countries changed slightly. For example, they became more averse to the dominance of Arctic issues by a big power. Influenced and agitated by the U.S., the five countries tended to regard China and Russia as “destabilizing factors” in the region.

When Trump announced the U.S. desire to buy Greenland — which may have infringed on the sovereignty of Denmark — the five countries finally came to have a somber and clear understanding about the harms of dominance of a single big power in Arctic affairs. They realized the importance of unity and cooperation to achieve the strategic goal of balanced geopolitics in the region.

Unusual moves, such as Iceland Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir’s refusal to meet with Pence and the open criticism of the U.S. Arctic policy by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, all indicated indignation and discontent over bullying by the U.S. and showed that the northern European nations had become more united.

On the other hand, the desire to cooperate on Arctic governance with countries outside the region has grown. On Aug. 20, leaders of the Nordic countries invited German Chancellor Angela Merkel to join in discussions about development and climate change in the region, and also urged Germany to play a bigger role. The Swedish foreign minister even proposed that China, Russia and the U.S., under the framework of the United Nations, “work together to build an international rules-based order for the Arctic.”

During the seventh Arctic Circle Forum on Oct. 10, the prime ministers of Iceland and Finland explicitly stated that it should be considered whether or not the Arctic Security Council could get involved in “hard security” issues.

This indicated that the five Nordic countries had adjusted their stance on a series of regional governance issues, such as the reform of the council and the role of countries outside the region. It also indicated that the countries wanted to substitute regional competition with institutional cooperation, and wanted to use participation by countries outside the region to balance the bullying of a big power.

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