Why would Trump want to buy Greenland?

The coastline of Greenland in 2018. (Helen, via Flickr Creative Commons)
The coastline of Greenland in 2018. (Helen, via Flickr Creative Commons)

In the span of five days, the idea of the United States buying Greenland went from one step above rumor to grounds for cancelling a state visit to Denmark. 

Talking with reporters on the White House south lawn Aug. 21, President Donald Trump said it was "just an idea," but a good one. He then pivoted to the Danish reaction to the sale of its territory.

"I thought the prime minister's statement that it was an absurd idea, was nasty," he said. "All they had to do was say, ‘No, we'd rather not do that,’ or, ‘We'd rather not talk about it.’ Don't say, ‘what an absurd idea that is.’Excuse me, she's not talking to me. She's talking to the United States of America. You don't talk to the United States that way."

Trump was slated to visit Denmark, but tweeted Aug. 20, "based on Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s comments, that she would have no interest in discussing the purchase of Greenland, I will be postponing our meeting scheduled in two weeks for another time."

How we got here

On Aug. 16, the Wall Street Journal ran an article citing unnamed administration insiders that Trump was showing an interest in buying Greenland. After coming up in dinner table and hallway discussions, the idea had reached the point, the newspaper said, where Trump had asked the White House counsel to look into it.

At first, there was no official confirmation, but Aug. 19, Trump told reporters,  "strategically, it's interesting. And, we'd be interested. We'll talk to them a little bit." 

Trump added, "It's not No. 1 on the burner, I can tell you that."

Trump later offered a visual quip on Twitter, posting a photo Aug. 19 of a high-rise Trump tower set in a bucolic Greenland village, with the words, "I promise not to do this to Greenland!"

Given that the island Danish territory is three times the size of Texas, this would be no incidental American acquisition. Which raises the question, what does Greenland offer that the United States would want?

Pompeo talks shipping, China and Russia

Greenland might have only 56,000 people and be about 80% covered in ice, but the United States sees it as a place to thwart Chinese and Russian interests. A few years ago, Greenland announced plans to build a new airport and expand two others. China stepped in to provide the financing. In 2018, then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis personally intervened.

"When a Chinese state-owned contractor was shortlisted for the airports project, it provoked anxiety both in Denmark and more so in the United States, leading to Denmark stepping in to part-finance and co-own the projects," said Dwayne Ryan Menezes, managing director of the Polar Research and Policy Initiative, a private research group based in the United Kingdom.

As Arctic sea ice melts, Greenland lies along or near two emerging shipping routes, the Northwest and the Northeast Passage. Menezes said the second one could cut nearly a quarter off the distance a freighter from Shanghai to Rotterdam would need to cover.

At a May 2019 meeting of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned of China’s presence and the need to control the shipping lanes.

"Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?" Pompeo said.

In the same speech, Pompeo said, "Russia is already leaving snow prints in the form of army boots" in the region.

Pompeo announced the United States would establish a permanent diplomatic presence in Greenland, something it hasn’t had since the 1950s.

Beyond its geo-strategic role, the Arctic is believed to be rich in gas and oil, and Greenland has large mineral reserves.

"As China copes with declining reserves of rare earth elements, Greenland alone has enough to satisfy at least a quarter of global demand in the future," Menezes said.

Dismissive Denmark

The day that Trump acknowledged his interest, Denmark Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said, "Greenland is not for sale."

Frederiksen was in Greenland that day and went further, calling it "an absurd discussion."

"Thankfully, the time where you buy and sell other countries and populations is over," Frederiksen said. "Let’s leave it there. Jokes aside, we will of course love to have an even closer strategic relationship with the United States."

Trump noted those words as he told reporters on the White House lawn why he cancelled a trip to Denmark planned for early September.

Ice vs. beaches

As Trump and his aides have said, President Harry Truman explored the idea of buying Greenland. In 1946, he offered Denmark $100 million for the world’s largest island. As the Cold War took root, it occupied a central spot between the United States and the Soviet Union. It later became home to a major U.S. Air Force base.

Curiously, the United States’s last land purchase also involved Denmark and an island — actually more than one. The United States bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million. (Under U.N. auspices, the United States acquired several island groups in the Pacific after World War II, but those were not financial transactions.)

We ran the numbers, and protecting against the threat of the Soviet Union didn’t quite match the appeal of the Virgin Islands. Ignoring inflation, Truman offered about $120 per square mile for Greenland and its ice. In 1917, the United States paid nearly $190,000 per square mile for the Virgin Islands and their beaches.

Since Greenland is not for sale, no firm offer from Trump was put on the table.