The islanders knew his talk of buying Greenland was not a joke
MOST DANES thought it was a joke when President Donald Trump said America might buy Greenland, a self-governing island that forms 98% of Danish territory. Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, dismissed the idea as “absurd”. When Mr Trump reacted by calling her “nasty” and cancelling a visit to Copenhagen, his would-be hosts were stunned. But many Greenlanders were not.
“I knew from the start this was to be taken seriously,” says Aleqa Hammond, a former prime minister of Greenland. It was not the first time an American president had suggested such a purchase. In 1946 Harry Truman offered $100m for Greenland ($1.3bn in today’s money).
Today the island has only 57,000 inhabitants, yet it is of growing strategic importance, as Russian submarines reappear in the Arctic and China dreams of a “polar silk route” through newly ice-free seas. Denmark is responsible for Greenland’s external affairs and defence. NATO membership once allowed Greenlanders to sleep easy, but since Mr Trump has undermined that alliance, their security is less certain.
Greenland’s feisty legislators, including Kim Kielsen, the current prime minister, all agree that the island’s sovereignty is not for sale. But they are flattered that outsiders are interested, and insist on their right to parley with all comers. As Ms Hammond says: “If Mr Trump wants to discuss Greenland, let him come here, not to Denmark.”
As Mr Trump observed, Danish taxpayers send Greenland more than $600m a year in subsidies. But that dependence does not deter the island’s politicians from pursuing their own bargains. Last year Mr Kielsen found Chinese contractors for an upgrade to the island’s airports. That terrified NATO, and Denmark pressed Greenland to find Danish contractors instead. One of the parties in Mr Kielsen’s coalition marched out in protest. Greenlanders who want independence say that widening the range of economic partners could wean them off Danish aid.
Aqqaluk Lynge, a veteran leftist, said the spat with Mr Trump might make Danes and Greenlanders appreciate one another more. It might, for example, remind Danes who moan about subsidising their Arctic cousins not to take them for granted.
Today Greenland exports mostly seafood. When Mr Trump joked that he did not want to build a skyscraper with his name on it in Greenland, he was surely telling the truth. The real economic opportunity is that vanishing glaciers are opening up its mineral resources, including rare earths and possibly oil and gas. Minik Rosing, a Greenland-born geologist, noted the irony in a man who once called global warming a “hoax” coveting territory that owes its rising value to melting snows. Yet he also thinks a more tactful American leader might persuade Greenlanders to upgrade their links with the United States at the expense of their Danish ones.
Perhaps. But were they ever to decide to become part of America, which for now seems highly unlikely, they would get a culture shock. Not only do Greenlanders have Nordic ideas about social welfare; they also ban private ownership of land.