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  • Jamie O'Donoghue

Why Does President Trump Want To Buy Greenland?

The world was shocked last week by President Trump’s announcement that he was interested in buying Greenland. But is the idea as ridiculous as it seems?

In August, President Donald Trump surprised the world by announcing that he was interested in purchasing the Danish-controlled territory of Greenland. The reaction from Denmark was perhaps predictable (the country’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, called the idea “absurd”), while the international press had a field day poking fun at the President’s perceived bluster and cluelessness.

But is Trump’s proposal as crazy as all that? After all, the United States has bought large swathes of land from foreign powers in the past, most notably with the celebrated Louisiana Purchase between Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon. As a result of the deal, Jefferson managed to double the size of the newborn country at the bargain price of three cents per acre. Even Greenland itself has been the subject of negotiations between the U.S. and Denmark. In 1946, President Harry Truman made his own attempt to buy the Arctic landmass, even offering some of Alaska in return. Needless to say, he was turned down.

There are a number of reasons why the United States might benefit from planting the old stars-and-stripes into Greenland’s hard and icy soil, the most salient being the region’s extraordinary natural resources. With a total land area exceeding 2 million square kilometers, Greenland is the world’s largest non-continental island, and lots of it is rich in gold, zinc, diamonds, iron ore, and quite possibly oil. Despite having laid claim to the place for almost three hundred years, Denmark has done relatively little to exploit these resources.

What’s more, Greenland boasts untapped reserves of rare-earth elements, including dysprosium and praseodymium, which are essential to the production of many high-tech commodities, such as lenses, propellers, smartphones, and even electric cars. As it happens, the United States relies heavily on China for these elements (a country, by the way, that’s pushing for a venture of its own into Greenland). In the context of the ongoing trade war between the two economies, the extent of Washington’s dependence in this area is likely to give Beijing the upper-hand in future negotiations. And if we know anything about the current President, it’s that he doesn’t like the upper-hand belonging to anyone else but him.

In fact, the U.S. already maintains a presence in Greenland, albeit a military one. Thule Air Base was established in collaboration with Denmark during the Second World War and remains the most northerly American military base in the world. These days, it’s mostly used for monitoring outer space. However, as climate change takes its toll on Greenland’s landscape, more and more navigable sea lanes are opening up for commercial and military use. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has even said that “Arctic sea lanes could become the 21st-century Suez and Panama canals.” 

So far, any attempt to go ahead with the venture would almost certainly be met with fierce resistance from both Denmark and China. However, there is another group of people who will no doubt form an obstacle to the Trump administration’s ambitions: the residents of Greenland themselves. Though the island is home to less than 60,000 souls -- making it the world’s least densely populated region --  the few people who do live there are proud of their homeland and understandably protective of its natural integrity and beauty. A massive U.S.-led goldrush could do untold damage to the island’s spotless environment, and as well as this, some Greenlanders fear that an influx of mining and energy companies would supplant their traditional way of life, which is still built for the most part around fishing and agriculture.

With so much potential resistance to the idea, it’s unlikely that Greenland will become the fifty-first state any time soon. However, with its vast natural resources, its status as a bargaining chip in the U.S.-China Trade War, and its key position between North America and Europe, Greenland is certainly looking attractive to the Trump administration. Let’s hope that, if the purchase goes ahead, it will be more like a prudent investment, and less like an impulse buy.

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