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Donald Trump's failed plan to buy Greenland, explained

He’s not even the first president who’s tried, but the island is not for sale.

Greenland: Every Day Life And General Imagery Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A planned presidential visit to Denmark was hastily called off Tuesday evening, putatively because the prime minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, publicly disavowed any intention of selling the island of Greenland to the United States.

Trump’s interest in purchasing the island sounds kind of silly, but it makes perfect sense if you happen to share his indifference to environmental issues and indigenous rights.

Greenland is believed to contain a lot of natural resource wealth that is difficult to exploit due to the large amounts of ice and permafrost in the way.

But the planet is getting warmer. A vision of American public policy that is neither interested in halting the warming process nor concerned about the environmental impact of exploring the resources would naturally want to acquire such a potentially rich land. Many Americans, of course, do not share that policy philosophy, but it is very much the Trump worldview.

But the practical problem is that Greenland is not for sale — and there is no indication that Greenland’s inhabitants want to see their island strip-mined by Americans.

“We are open for business, but we’re not for sale,” the island’s foreign minister, Ane Lone Bagger, told Reuters when it called for some follow-up reporting.

So the whole thing is almost certainly a nonstarter. It is, however, a window into some interesting history (the United States has tried to buy Greenland before!) and, more fundamentally, an example of how many wealthy and powerful people see climate change more as an opportunity for profit than a problem to solve.

What is Greenland?

If you know anything about Greenland, it’s probably that it’s not actually green. It is, rather, icy and frigid.

But it got that name, according to The Saga of Erik the Red, from a Norse explorer who was trying to give it a more appealing marketing name than Iceland. Erik’s son, Leif Erikson (Viking names are fun like that), later sailed from Greenland to a place called Vinland that was long believed to be mythical but that modern-day scholars believe was actually New Brunswick, Canada. That means Erikson’s Norsemen sailed to the New World centuries before Columbus, and that America’s history has long been intertwined with Greenland’s.

Greenland is also notorious for looking gigantic on flawed Mercator Projection maps when really, though it is a large island, it is a lot smaller than Australia. (On many maps, it appears to be about the same size as Africa.)

All that being said, typically you can’t just buy a country.

Trump’s perception that Greenland could potentially be for sale likely stems from the fact that it was for a long time essentially a colony of Denmark, which could, in principle, have sold it off.

However, this does not reflect Greenland’s current status in the Kingdom of Denmark, whose constitution stipulates that the future of Greenland’s sovereignty is up to its population to decide in a referendum.

To acquire it (legally, at least), you’d need to convince Greenlanders to want to join the United States — not buy it from the government in Copenhagen.

So what’s the story with Greenland’s constitutional status?

Greenland was settled by Norse explorers who in the 11th and 12th centuries had several small autonomous settlements in the southern coasts of the island. At the same time, proto-Inuits belonging to the Thule culture lived in the northern part of Greenland.

In 1261, the Norse Greenlanders agreed to submit to the authority of the Kingdom of Norway — though, in a practical sense, given the communications and transportation difficulties, they were largely autonomous.

Over the 14th century, the temperature began to cool substantially during what’s known as the Little Ice Age, and the settlements on the southwestern coast were abandoned. A more easterly settlement was, however, still inhabited by Norsemen in the early 15th century. But sometime in the middle of the century it was abandoned, and nobody really knows what happened to its inhabitants (Jane Smiley’s speculative fiction novel The Greenlanders covers this period and is a great read).

This same cooling dynamic led the Inuit to move south and take de facto control of all of Greenland. In a technical legal sense, however (at least as far as Europeans were concerned), it remained part of the Kingdom of Norway — which, in turn, became part of the Kingdom of Denmark, until everything was shaken up by the Napoleonic Wars hundreds of years later.

In the second-to-last phase of the Napoleonic Wars, known as the “War of the Sixth Coalition,” Denmark was allied with France, while Sweden (whose king at the time had formerly been one of Napoleon’s top generals, but that’s a long story) was allied with Great Britain. Denmark lost the war and in the Treaty of Kiel agreed to give Norway to Sweden in exchange for Swedish Pomerania (don’t ask).

But Denmark insisted on hanging on to the Norwegian colonies in the deal. Then everything went awry. The Norwegians rebelled rather than accept Swedish rule, and the Swedes refused to hand over Swedish Pomerania, which wound up going to Prussia instead. The Swedes won the war against Norway, but Norway won a great deal of autonomy in a new union with Sweden.

But the important thing for our purposes is that Greenland ended up being part of Denmark as a result of the botched swap.

All was going well until 1940, when Denmark proper was overrun by the forces of Nazi Germany. At the time, Greenland was extremely sparsely populated, and the Danish colonial authorities were concerned that Norwegian military forces stationed in exile in Canada would mount an invasion (really). Instead, they invited the United States to intervene, which it did in a light way, with many more American military personnel moving in later once the United States entered the war.

Then, after Allied victory, the Truman administration decided that it liked the wartime military bases on Greenland so much that it would offer to buy Greenland for $100 million — or about $1.3 billion in today’s money. The Danes turned down the offer and in 1953 changed Greenland’s status so that the island would be a regular integral part of Denmark rather than a colony.

But Greenland’s population remained majority Inuit, and in 1979 they successfully obtained “home rule” from Denmark, meaning most domestic affairs were handled by the Greenland government rather than from Copenhagen. In 2009, Greenland’s voters approved the Self-Government Act, a transition plan to have all power except for foreign affairs and defense transferred to Greenland locally.

Why does Trump want to buy Greenland?

Historically, America’s main interest in Greenland has been obtaining space for military bases. And though the Truman administration’s plan to buy the island was rejected, the US did end up establishing the extensive Thule Air Base there.

Modern-day interest in Greenland, however, is more about drilling and mining.

As Tim Boersma and Kevin Foley put it in their 2014 Brookings Institution report, “as the Arctic ice continues to melt due to global warming, Greenland’s mineral and energy resources — including iron ore, lead, zinc, diamonds, gold, rare earth elements, uranium and oil — are becoming more accessible.”

If Greenland were to become part of the sovereign territory of the United States, then the US government could dispense rights to these mineral and energy resources as it sees fit, which might be lucrative for various interested parties.

Of course, Greenland’s population is also aware that people would like to mine these resources, and the island’s plan of action is for Greenland’s government to control this process.

Currently, Greenland is incredibly poor and dependent on subsidies from the Danish mainland to maintain its living standards. The plan, however, is for the subsidies to phase down and for Greenland to achieve economic self-sufficiency — and perhaps full political independence — based on exploitation of these natural resources.

Naturally, there is domestic political disagreement in Greenland about the future of the relationship with Denmark and about the balance between resource extraction and environmental protection as a regulatory framework for mining is established.

But “just let America have it all” is not a very attractive option, and under the terms of Greenland’s self-government act, it does not appear that Denmark could sell Greenland even if it wanted to.

The US could, of course, try to offer a cash payment to the government of Greenland to persuade it. But by the same token, American mining and oil companies could just pay Greenland for mineral rights. It’s not obvious what the upside of selling itself to the US would be.

Is buying countries even a thing?

Absolutely!

The United States originally contracted with the government of Denmark to buy the present-day US Virgin Islands for $7.5 million in 1867 — but before the US Senate could ratify the treaty, the islands were struck by a devastating hurricane, leading senators to balk at the price. Then in 1900, the US agreed to buy the islands again, this time for the bargain price of $5 million. But then the Danish parliament balked. Under pressure from World War I, the deal finally got done in 1917, and the US bought the islands for $25 million.

The US bought Alaska in 1867 for $7.2 million, bought most of the middle of the continental US from France for $15 million in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, and bought Tucscon, Arizona, and some surrounding areas in 1854 for $10 million.

In other words, there’s nothing absurd per se about the idea of one country buying land from another. And, indeed, under earlier forms of Greenland’s legal status, this would basically be a bargaining question.

Truman offered to buy Greenland but Denmark said no — for a higher price, it might have said yes. But as Greenland is now self-governing specifically because its mostly Inuit population doesn’t want to be a colony of Denmark, the idea that Greenland’s government would want to join the United States in exchange for money seems kind of far-fetched.

Enough about legal realities, how would this change the Senate?

The other reason Trump would probably back away from this idea if he looked too closely at it is that Greenland’s politics are very left-wing.

They currently send two members to the parliament in Copenhagen; one sits with the Danish Social Democrats and the other sits with a further-left party. Important currents of Danish politics are kind of Trumpy in terms of anti-immigrant sentiment, but on economic policy, the entire Danish political spectrum is way to the left of the US debate, and Greenland’s voters are on the left-hand side of that spectrum.

Consequently, it seems very likely that Greenland’s 56,000 or so residents would be sending Democrats to Congress.

Of course, Greenland could be part of the United States without being a state. But, again, even under its current self-rule status inside the Kingdom of Denmark, it gets political representation in Copenhagen, so it would be strange for it to settle for colonial status as part of the United States.

How is it that we’re talking about this? Really?

Look, this is pretty absurd. And according to Damian Paletta’s reporting for the Washington Post, Trump’s aides seem to think it’s absurd too.

But everything is relative.

Last week, the president successfully lobbied Israel to prevent two Democratic members of Congress from entering Israel. He went on a Twitter rant against his own appointee to chair the Federal Reserve. And he moved to undermine the Endangered Species Act.

Exploring the possibility of buying Greenland in order to drill for oil is, by those standards, a sober act of statesmanship that suffers more from technical flaws due to the details of Danish constitutional law than anything else.

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