Three questions on Trump's Greenland gambit

Karen Norris/Staff
Greenland is an autonomous territory, part of the Kingdom of Denmark, located between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

The Wall Street Journal and other media reported that President Donald Trump is seriously considering the purchase of Greenland. That prompted scoffing. The Financial Times did a mock assessment of how much the U.S. would have to offer ($1.1 trillion). Denmark’s prime minster said, “No deal.” Mr. Trump responded by canceling an official trip to Copenhagen. But the idea may not be as far-fetched as you might think.

1. Why does Donald Trump want to buy Greenland?

Security, economic: Rare-earth metals are crucial to making mobile phones, computers, and electric cars. China is now the biggest supplier of these metals, and has been buying up rare-earth mines worldwide. Greenland has some of the biggest deposits of neodymium, dysprosium, terbium, praseodymium, and uranium.

Why We Wrote This

The idea of the U.S. buying Greenland may not be as off-the-wall as it may appear.

Security, military. The U.S. secretly offered to buy Greenland in 1946 for $100 million. It’s strategically located in the Arctic Circle between the U.S. and Russia. “Greenland’s 800,000 square miles make it the world’s largest island and stationary aircraft carrier. It would be as valuable as Alaska during the next few years .... It would be invaluable, in either conventional or push-button war, as an advance radar outpost. It would be a forward position for future rocket-launching sites…” wrote Time magazine in 1947. 

Climate change today is opening up Arctic sea lanes once locked in ice, adding economic and strategic value to this part of the globe. 

Prestige. Buying Greenland would put Mr. Trump in the same historic company as President Andrew Johnson, who bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, and Thomas Jefferson, who bought Louisiana from the French in 1803. Trump has called the idea “a large real estate deal.”

2. Why would Denmark consider selling?

Security, financial. Greenland is a semi-autonomous, self-governing state, but Denmark provides defense and foreign policy needs. Denmark also spends about $700 million a year to subsidize Greenland, (less than 1 percent of Denmark’s total annual expenses).  Selling Greenland would alleviate an ongoing expense for Danish taxpayers. But Denmark’s prime minister has flatly stated it’s not for sale. 

3. Why does it matter that Trump’s presidential visit to Denmark was “postponed?”

Relationships matter. Denmark is a longstanding U.S. military ally, albeit a small one. The U.S. Thule Air Base in Greenland (since 1940) has played a key role in watching Russia, and today is a central to monitoring any ballistic missile launches and space defense. Canceling an official visit is unusual. It’s a high-profile snub to Copenhagen. Such acts tend to erode trust. But Mr. Trump has made no secret of his transactional approach to diplomacy. He has alternated between blunt criticism of NATO allies and flattery. As the Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi wrote: “Trump deemed his style of knife-in-the-wound criticism followed by flattery “a very effective way to deal.”  Indeed, postponing an official visit to Denmark may be seen as more of a negotiation tactic (in “a large real estate deal”) than a diplomatic rebuff.  Mr. Trump may see this as part of a longer-term negotiation.

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