At first US president Donald Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland, an autonomous region of Denmark, was taken as a joke. His cancellation of a planned state visit to Denmark this week after the prime minister rebuffed his Greenland interest as “absurd” shows his intentions were serious. It is a demonstration, too, both of his famously thin skin and of his purely transactional approach to foreign policy.
Sadly for Mr Trump, the era when big countries could trade territories and people is long over. The last permanent expansion of the US was in 1917 when it bought the Danish West Indies for $25m in gold as well as recognising Denmark’s claim to Greenland. Washington wished to establish a military base within the Caribbean island group, now known as the US Virgin Islands. Residents were not offered a say, though the population of Denmark itself took part in the country’s first referendum, which resulted in a two-thirds vote in favour of the transfer.
Greenland has the right to decide its own future. Changes to its constitutional status in 2009 gave it the legal right to independence subject to a referendum. Following such a vote, Greenland might in theory apply to become a US territory. Financial concerns could feature in talks; Greenland depends on a block grant from Copenhagen. But its future should not be treated as a chance for Mr Trump to demonstrate his dealmaking prowess and seek a place in the history books.
For the US, the rationale is obvious. Greenland’s location means it could play a strategic role within the Arctic, where both China and Russia are increasing their presence. Former US President Harry Truman offered Denmark $100m for the territory in 1946 as the cold war was beginning. Now the world’s largest island risks being in the middle of a new power struggle. China attempted to finance airports there and has plans for a “Polar Silk Road” through opening Arctic sea routes.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has pointed to the natural resources within the Arctic, including oil and rare earth minerals. As climate change leads to the melting of the ice sheet covering the region, Greenland could make an ideal base for exploration and mining. The US purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2m in 1876 paid for itself many times over thanks to its abundant oil reserves.
For Greenlanders the right choice is less clear. US overseas territories, such as Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, do not have full representation in Congress. Residents of overseas territories, with the exception of Samoa, do have citizenship and can move and work freely within the continental US.
Greenland, which has a well-funded Nordic-style welfare state, may find US political culture an odd fit. Its healthcare system, largest retailer and fishing company are all state-owned. There is no private land ownership within the territory, where the majority of residents are of Inuit descent. Indigenous groups in Alaska, however, own collective land through regional corporations in which they are shareholders.
The fate of Greenlanders is nonetheless for them to decide — not a business deal between Washington and Copenhagen. Even entertaining Mr Trump’s proposal would risk creating a free-for-all where other large countries started offering cash, even getting into bidding wars, for economically or strategically attractive territories around the globe. While the US president, and counterparts such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, eschew the modern multilateral system and seem to pine for a return to great power politics, Mr Trump should not be allowed to usher in a new age of mercantilism.