The US Has No Need to Buy Greenland or Upset Denmark
By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
During the years of U.S. expansion in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Washington set out to take what it could and buy the rest of any territory it coveted in North America. Just prior to the Civil War, the United States and Russia entered into talks for the U.S. purchase of Alaska for a remarkably low price of about 2 cents an acre because Russia needed money.
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It took time, and no shortage of corruption, to make the deal. But the purchase known at first as “Seward’s folly,” after U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward who negotiated the deal, eventually proved to be a great benefit to the expansionist United States.
In the 21st century, the transfer of land between nations may seem like an antiquated idea. But some nations shun the concepts of Western enlightenment and continue to take, or at least claim, land they believe is in their national interest.
Land Grabs: Russia’s Annexation of Crimea, China’s Islands Takeover in South China Sea
Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or perhaps China’s claim of expansive territorial waters in the South China Sea, are examples of what could be considered a land grab. However, the wish to outright purchase territory, in this case the largest island on the planet (Australia is widely considered a continental landmass, not an island), recently came to the fore when President Trump floated the idea of buying Greenland. The idea didn’t sit well with the Danes or the inhabitants of Greenland, an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. That led to a diplomatic spat between Trump and Denmark, which quite honestly, should have been handled better.
Trump may have his reasons for wanting Greenland; he is not the first President to try to buy the island. President Harry Truman secretly pitched the idea to Copenhagen in 1946 as way to thwart Soviet expansionism in the region. But there are two reasons that specifically jump out from a 2019 geopolitical perspective.
The first is the Chinese mining presence. China began mining operations for rare earth elements in Greenland in 2015. Now, in the midst of the trade war with the U. S., China does not have an overwhelming hold on these elements. The other reason is the probability that much of the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free by 2050. Estimates vary, but the extent of summer ice in the northern reaches has consistently shrunk.
Without ice covering the earth’s northernmost oceans, trade routes will offer a considerable way to cut time off international shipping. Furthermore, the Arctic region is thought to have a significant energy and mineral supplies that have the potential to set off a land grab for these necessities. If the U.S. were to have control of Greenland, Washington’s piece of the Arctic pie would increase dramatically.
Greenland Is Shedding an Estimated 200 Billion Tons of Ice per Year
Greenland is located in the far north. The Arctic Ocean is to the north and the Atlantic Ocean is to the south. Canada’s Baffin Bay is to the west and the Greenland Sea is to the east. Although mostly ice covered, Greenland is shedding an estimated 200 billion tons of ice per year, suggesting that much of the island may be ice-free before the Arctic Ocean melts completely.
Greenland has a population of only 56,000 inhabitants. They mostly reside on the coasts in the southern reaches because of the area’s harsh climate. Greenland has several mountain ranges, but they are currently under the ice sheet. Even when the ice recedes, the island will not have any vegetation to speak of other than a small forest in the south. It will take time to establish new vegetation. That means that even without ice, Greenland would have to subsist as it currently does for quite some time afterward. The ice may be decreasing, but life will take time to adjust to the new reality.
As the Ice Recedes, the Bordering Nations Will Look Greenland’s Huge Land Mass
As the ice recedes, the nations that border on the region’s waters – Iceland, Canada, Russia and the Nordic countries – will look to make use of Greenland’s huge land mass. Commerce has already exploited the available shipping lanes, but shaving time off shipping goods internationally will become more of the norm. In time, the nations of the north will look to press their territorial claims. What is not in dispute now will certainly be in the future as the territory becomes more accessible.
The Chinese mining presence in Greenland and the loss of ice hint at what will eventually come to fruition. In the meantime, there will be posturing, but the United States already has a unique advantage.
Any oceanic transportation in the northern region must transit points in the Bering Sea, Baffin Bay or the Greenland Sea. The U.S. has the most capable navy in the world and interdiction or blockade is within the realm of possibility. Even if Russia, which has a recent history of making extensive territorial claims, takes an outsized portion of control in the north, Moscow would still have to rely on the U.S. to keep the sea lanes open.
As for China, the mining operations in place and likely future oil drilling operations in the north present the same problem Russia faces. China does not have a large enough navy to ensure that its current mining operations are secure and free from outside meddling. The U.S. already administers approximately one quarter of Greenland from Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. That gives Washington another tool to reach into the region.
Washington Need Not Buy Greenland to Continue its Dominance
Washington need not buy Greenland to continue its regional dominance, but its continued presence is not assured. The U.S. must continue to use diplomacy as well as its political and military superpower capabilities that it already has. Unnecessary diplomatic dust-ups with Denmark, a longtime ally, over a region that currently has a U.S. military presence serve only to undermine U.S. interests.