In the summer of 2019, the Trump administration voiced an attention in buying Greenland indigenous Denmark. The historic background because that this stretches at the very least as far ago as a case lugged by Norway in ~ the international Court in 1933 once it was determined that Denmark had complete sovereignty over Greenland. Because then, Danish federal governments have involved in reformulations and re-negotiations through respect come Greenland’s can be fried rule, consisting of the 1979 home preeminence agreement and self rule in 2009. It is arguable, however, the the US had actually de facto sovereignty for durations of the 20th century. Because that example, a defense pact in 1941 allowed the US considerable rights to army bases in Greenland in exchange for army protection when mainland Denmark was occupied by Germany. This resulted in the Truman management making an actual bid to purchase the world’s largest island in 1946. Throughout the Cold War, Denmark relied on the us to protect Greenland. If today, after ~ obtaining self dominion in 2009, the is recognized that Greenland has actually the best to come to be independent if the so wishes, inquiries of the sovereignty remain. These were highlighted by the current diplomatic spat between Trump and the Danish prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, indicating the the sovereignty concern will proceed to it is in contested and also pose a considerable difficulty even because that a completely independent Greenland of the future. Greenland has actually been and continues to it is in a critical strategic asset, not least to the united state - and also perhaps even more so due to the possible effects of climate change.

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10 September 2019byThorsten Borring OlesenIntroduction: the strategic worth of Greenland

Today, delegations from everywhere the world, state representatives as well as private, queue up in Nuuk to place themselves as prospective partners and contractors because that the future bonanza of sources that Greenland appears to offer. What cause the interest is Greenland’s possession – supposed or certified – of vast deposits of life materials, among them oil and also a variety of rare and also strategic minerals and also soils, in combination with the reality that impacts of the ongoing worldwide climate adjust will do it much easier to accessibility these materials. Part of this increased accessibility is linked to the vision that climate adjust may shortly make the so-called north Sea Route, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic seas through the north Arctic, a reliable and also (partly) ice-free waterway. If this happens, we might indeed concerned conceive that Greenland together the ‘Pearl the the Mediterranean" (Middelhavets Perle).


Greenland together "The pearl of the Mediterranean" to be a hatchet coined by Paul Claesson in his 1983 book around Greenland"s strategic place in the an international arms communication and also monitoring solution ("Grønland-Middelhavets perle" (Copenhagen; Vandkunsten, 1983)). Photo:Courtesy of Forlaget Vandkusten.

For military analysts and strategists – and for some political leaders too – Greenland has possessed this strategic worth for some time already. And, again, interest has actually apparently come to the fore with the trumped administration’s current scheming come buy Greenland, which was made windy in august 2019. In the brand-new power battle over the Arctic, increase by the possibility of climate change, Greenland’s strategic prestige is considered an essential both as an asset to manage for its own purposes, but additionally as an area, especially in the American view, come which competitors and adversaries have to be refuse access.

This reasonable was already at work throughout the Cold War and also even the 2nd World War. Greenland acquired a pivotal place in the nuclear arms gyeongju as the progression in both nuclear bomb an innovation and in connected delivery technology (the breakthrough of long-range bombers and missiles) in the postwar duration greatly boosted Greenland’s importance for us defense and military strategy. Already in 1941, the Danish ambassador in Washington, Henrik Kauffmann, signed a defense pact permitting the US considerable military base civil liberties in Greenland in exchange for armed forces protection if mainland Denmark was lived in by Germany. Once there, the American military never left, although armed forces rights and also defense exclusive right have changed somewhat end the year and, favor today, the American interest in buying Greenland was especially tabled in 1946-47 once the Danish government wanted to end the 1941 agreement.

However, there is a vast difference in just how the US’s technique was handled and also perceived in 1946-47 and also in 2019. This is as result of the reality that there has actually been both a profound change in the mode of policy-making in the united state itself, and a adjust in the perception of manifest destiny in the human being in general and also in the status and position of Greenland within the Danish Realm an ext specifically. Let united state see how.

The us bid to buy Greenland in 1946 came as a countermove to the Danish great to terminate the earlier commitment from 1941. The idea to be presented come the Danish federal government when foreign minister Gustav Rasmussen payment a visit to Washington in December. His US tantamount James Byrnes gift three choices on that occasion:

an extended base agreement enabling the us to build various military base and defense area in Greenland with complete US armed forces control and full flexibility of activity within this areas; a defense agreement entrusting the US through the task of defending Greenland (essentially one outsourcing model); and, finally, the revenue of Greenland to the united state – the preferable option, together Byrnes made clear.

According to us sources, Gustav Rasmussen was totally taken aback by the third option. As Rasmussen allegedly and quite pointedly told the us ambassador to Denmark one month later: “While we owe lot to America, I execute not feel that us owe them the whole island of Greenland”. On the surface, this reaction resembled the Danish element Minister Mette Frederiksen’s public reaction characterizing Trump’s 2019 bid together “an absurd discussion”.

This 1946 occurrence is amazing for at the very least two reasons: The American wish to buy and the Danish refuse to sell. If we think about the American view first, that is famous that the purchase of land to be by no way a novel alternative in the political device box of the US. Development both in mainland America and also elsewhere, e.g. Alaska and the us Virgin Islands, had regularly taken place through purchase agreements. However, as soon as seeking to organize a brand-new international stimulate after human being War II, the USA sought to position itself together the champion the a brand-new post-colonial world and put pressure on European states to end colonial domination overseas. Severe press on the Dutch government to grant independence to Indonesia is a particular case in point.


A picture of bother Truman (left) and JamesByrnes(right) shaking hand from roughly the very same time (1946). Photo: US national Archives. Windy domain.

Nevertheless, the united state did not shy away from attempting a early american bargain v the Danish government over Greenland – without including the indigenous inhabitants that the territory. In the American view, Greenland was positioned in ~ the borders of the Monroe theory and, together such, other rules applied, particularly when strategy considerations were as salient as in the case of Greenland; in a looming nuclear age, united state strategists and decision-makers concluded the Greenland’s strategic worth would likely increase and also this overruled all various other concerns.

The strategy taken through the beforehand postwar governments in Denmark no to sell is also more facility to decipher because in plenty of ways selling Greenland would have actually been a helpful solution – a equipment which grew in attractiveness in step with the intensification of the Cold War. By selling, Denmark would have freed chin from the management of a true Cold War hot spot. There was a widespread are afraid in the Danish federal government that the US claim to Greenland would certainly prompt the Soviet Union to rise the pressure on Denmark at a time once it had only just left the Baltic island of Bornholm after nearly a year the occupation. There is no Greenland, one can argue, the would have been less complicated to seek the timeless Danish protection policy alternative of steering a course that did not count on bloc alignment.

Furthermore, selling Greenland must have been tempting because that purely economic reasons. Together actual negotiations to be in truth never initiated, we do not know what the price would have been: in ~ the time, rumours in Copenhagen argued that the would have actually been one billion dollars – or virtually four times as lot as Denmark’s Marshall Aid. Although this rumours may have actually overstated us generosity, there is no doubt that a revenue would have funnelled a comprehensive sum of united state dollars right into the Danish treasury in ~ a time when virtually all european countries, including Denmark, to be desperate come close the cultivation ‘dollar gap’ and also to accomplish both investors and also consumers in the domestic market. Yet, the government did no take the bait. Why so?

In his immediate an answer to the American bid, Danish international minister Gustav Rasmussen in December 1946 countered the US argument that Greenland to be no economic asset to Denmark by stating that neither money nor financial considerations in a wider sense established the partnership with Greenland. What counted, that stressed, to be the truth that Greenland to be attached to Denmark v tradition and also history. The was appropriate in the sense that Greenland hardly contributed to the Danish Treasury in a hopeful sense. However, in the early on post-war years, the Danish government was preparing to allow greater access to trade and also resources in Greenland which to be a break through the restrictive, monopolizing strategy that had been the dominance previously. This to be done with a view to raising and opened up the Greenlandic sector in resource exploitation (among them fishing), construction and also trade (an invest approach, which additionally required further state move to Greenland). Thus, despite the truth that climate change was by no method a theme in the late 1940s, there was widespread expectation the Greenland might have much to offer in the future in regards to resources and also raw materials.


Hans Hedtoft in Greenland in 1947 native Viceadmiral A. H. Vedels photograph collection. Photo:Danish Arctic Institute.

That said, the tradition and background argument was nonetheless valid in two ways. First, the rhetoric that cherishing the centuries-long relationship in between Greenland and Denmark was not merely component of a discourse legitimizing colonial rule. In both broader Danish culture and amongst top administrators and also politicians, one can detect a genuine sense that commitment and concern because that Greenland and its population, albeit in a paternalistic feeling resembling Kipling’s remarks concerning the ‘white male burden’. Thus, sentimental and emotional bonds actually did exist – probably additionally reciprocated by sections of Greenlandic society, although Greenlandic nationwide self-awareness was on the rise. The paternalistic strategy was influential in the government’s understanding of the issue, yet it is additionally obvious the the new Social Democrat federal government under Hans Hedtoft (who took office in late 1947) wanted to place the Danish-Greenlandic relationship on a more contemporary footing. Follow to Hedtoft, discussions worrying the new organization the Greenland’s status and also the modernization the its economy, i beg your pardon the government was intent on see through, “would develop a base for a lasting relationship in between Denmark and Greenland which will certainly be lot stronger 보다 sentimental numbers of speech about common national feelings.”

Second, and also in mix with the paternalistic rhetoric, the possession that Greenland had one more historical quality, namely, lending a particular element the grandeur to a state that had actually otherwise only well-known loss of region in current centuries. In this sense, Greenland could be likened come the ‘brightest jewel’ in Denmark’s crown together India had been in its relation to good Britain. Interestingly, the time of India’s independence in 1947 was precisely the time as soon as the USA informally floated the idea of buying Greenland from Denmark.

Denmark retained its empire and also refused come let go, even with the promise that a substantial influx of much-needed dollars. Nevertheless, the Danish success to be obviously an ext apparent than real, since the refusal to sell Greenland had actually not fixed the straightforward issue that successive Danish federal governments wanted to end the 1941 covenant in bespeak to minimize the US presence in Greenland. All the same, in the irradiate of US purchase pressure, they now shied far from advertise the issue. Firstly, due to the fact that they did not want the concern to it is in politicized and internationalized together this can present the Soviet Union through a pretext because that engaging in counter-pressure; and, secondly, due to the fact that it came to be increasingly clean to decision-makers the Danish Cold War security in the last circumstances relied on us defense commitment and also capability. ”Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” seems to have been the strategy in place. Because that a short period, the Hedtoft government thought that Danish member of the Atlantic Pact can produce a satisfactory solution. Its appeal put in the a multilateralization the the defense of Greenland in ~ NATO would minimize the us presence and also prevent Denmark native confronting the united state on its very own in bilateral discussions.

All the same, this hope quickly proved to it is in in vain, because this was no what the US federal government had in mind. The united state wanted to maintain a maximum of national control over the worry of Greenland and consequently to just negotiate a bilateral solution. In the end, they had actually it their way. This manifested when Denmark and the United says agreed a brand-new treaty concerning the defense that Greenland in 1951, instead of the previous commitment from 1941. The significant character the US army rights in the rather huge defense locations designated by the treaty and also the just token respect because that Danish sovereignty are both manifestly express in article II, ar 3(b):

“Without prejudice come the sovereignty of the Kingdom that Denmark over together defense area and the herbal right that the skilled Danish authorities to totally free movement almost everywhere in Greenland, the federal government of the United states of America, without compensation come the government of the Kingdom that Denmark, candlestick be licensed has been granted within together defense area and also the air spaces and also waters adjacent thereto: ... Come construct, install, maintain and also operate facilities and equipment ... And to keep supplies.”

On the communication of such liberties it is no wonder the a Pentagon official, in a report to chairman Eisenhower in the late 1950s, detailed that the Danish government had been “very cooperative in allowing the united States rather a free hand in Greenland.” In Greenland, there was obviously part distance in between fact and also fiction as soon as it pertained to determining sovereignty.

In a case called through Norway in 1933, the international Court that Justice rule that complete sovereignty end Greenland resided v Denmark. This does no tell the full story of who has actually held de facto sovereignty in Greenland, however. Danish-US negotiations on permitting the US accessibility to and also base rights in Greenland to be a bilateral Danish-US affair the did not involve the Greenlandic population. When foreign minister Ramussen declined the US offer by stating that, “while us owe the united state a good deal, I execute not think us owe castle the entirety island that Greenland”, the “we” described Denmark and the Danish government. That did not encompass the Greenlandic population. It to be a colonial deal where nobody discussed the US appropriate to buy and also the Danish right to sell without involving the Greenlandic people. This is the substantial difference in between the situation in the at an early stage postwar duration and today.

Over the years, Danish federal governments have constantly engaged in reformulations and also re-negotiations the sovereign ascendancy in relation to Greenland and the Greenlandic people. The key reason behind these reformulations has actually been that two grand historic trends or structural transforms within worldwide history intersected and converged top top Greenland, namely, the Cold battle clash in between East and West, and the fraught and an altering nature that the relationship between North and also South, expressed in the an international trend in the direction of decolonization. Both of these dynamics severely tested Danish sovereignty in Greenland.


The Greenlandic flag flew for the an initial time top top 21st June 1985 on Greenland"s nationwide day. The flag is attracted by the artist Thue Christiansen and represents the increasing sun end the polar ice. The colours room the exact same as the Danish national flag, the Dannebrog, to represent the connection with Denmark and also Norden. Photo: Colourbox.

There is hardly any kind of doubt the Danish federal governments felt that they to be able to control the challenge brought about by decolonization in a much more satisfactory manner than the challenge stemming native the Cold War. They likewise believed that they were at some point successful in keeping the two difficulties separate, e.g. By do the us accept a ‘fraternization ban’ on contacts in between US military personnel and also Greenlanders. In terms of power, there was a clean asymmetry involved in both challenges. In the Danish-Greenlandic relationship, it to be the Danish government who hosted the appropriate of initiative, set the rules and also fundamentally dictated a modernization strategy, i m sorry aimed at accomplishing (and controlling) Greenlandic self-determination v closer integration right into the Danish Realm. In the Danish-American relationship it was really much the other means around.

Concerning the Danish-Greenlandic relationship, it might be suggested that the modernization that the country during the 1950s in fact came to be the roadway to enhanced Greenlandic self-determination. In 1979, a so-called home preeminence agreement came into force and also in 2009 self rule to be introduced, definition that Denmark this day recognizes Greenland together a rightfully live independence nation. For the moment, obligation for foreign policy, security plan and specific financial policy locations still reside with the Danish government. But, these necessary policy areas, including full manage over raw products policy and also administration, may be transferred to Nuuk – and also in fact control of raw materials has already been transferred. The judicial essence of the 2009 self rule status is the Denmark recognizes the Greenland has actually the right to become independent if the population so wishes and also this is the suggest that the Trump management – and also even part Danish commentators and also politicians – have basically no understood.


Today, trumped is behaving like the Truman management in 1946, only less sophisticated, and also – even worse probably – it does not seem to recognize that the world, consisting of Greenland’s status within the Danish Realm, has adjusted since then. Denmark cannot sell Greenland in a bilateral colonial address the us anymore. Greenland has gained self rule and also has the ideal to it is in consulted on all significant aspects of relevance. That holds the right to veto any kind of move make by at some point claiming independence. This is why prime Minister Mette Frederiksen struggle the pond on the head once she – throughout a visit to Greenland – identified the US advance as one “absurd discussion”, including that, “Greenland is no for sale. Greenland is no Danish. Greenland belongs come Greenland.”

However, what is vital to note is that Greenland’s strategic position and the united state interest in the island will proceed to weigh on the Danish-US relationship, but also on that of Denmark and Greenland. In this sense, the instance today has not adjusted that much due to the fact that the early on postwar. ~ Trump dubbed Frederiksen’s comment “nasty” and also cancelled his planned visit come Denmark in ~ the beginning of September 2019, the Danish government has worked overtime to to convince the us government about its backing as an allied to the US and supporter of united state Arctic policies. With some success it seems as chairman Trump ultimately publicly claimed Frederiksen to it is in a “wonderful woman.” The Danish-US connection is quiet the asymmetrical one of the the dwarf come the giant.

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The stepped-up us interest in Greenland will additionally come to sweet on the Danish-Greenlandic connection in the future. In September 2019, theUS has actually announced the it desires to reopen a consulate in Nuuk, i beg your pardon will permit the us a stronger presence in Greenland and increase the future of influencing Greenlandic decision-makers and the public. There is a strong sentiment in some components of Greenlandic culture to opt for full independence indigenous Denmark, although it will be daunting for Greenland come live without the administrative resources and also cash move it receives native Denmark. The latter quantities to almost one 3rd of Greenlandic GDP. If Greenland to be interested in affiliating itself for a better deal v theUS, it can do therefore – a scenario which might be presented to function as a bargaining chip in that dealings with Denmark in the future. However, Greenland may also want to become fully independent without incorporation into another state. As background suggests, gift the ‘Pearl of the Mediterranean’ will come at a price even regardless of formal independence. Throughout the Cold War, Denmark can only uphold a fictitious sovereignty end Greenland as defense that the island to be in practice out-sourced to the US. The same case will impact, maybe even to a greater degree, on an elevation Greenland. It will not be easy for 56,000 citizens to uphold nationwide sovereignty over the world’s largest island. Therefore, the existing scramble because that the Arctic could easily prove to it is in a blessing in disguise for Greenland.

Further reading:

Paul Claesson, Grønland- Middelhavets perle (Copenhagen; Vandkunsten, 1983).Thorsten Borring Olesen, "Tango because that Thule. The Dilemmas and also Limits come “the Neither confirm nor refuse Doctrine” in the Danish-American Relationship, 1957-1968", in Journal that Cold battle Studies, 12, 3 (2011), pp. 116-147.Thorsten Borring Olesen, "Between Facts and also Fiction: Greenland and the concern of Sovereignty 1945-1954", in New global Studies 7,2 (2013), pp. 117-128.