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Trump Wants to Buy Greenland for the U.S. – But Who Is the Relevant Seller?

posted by Mitu Gulati

(This post draws from my prior work with Joseph Blocher and the many conversations we have had about this topic over the years; he bears no responsibility for errors and sarcasm)

According to a flurry of news reports from the WSJ, CNN, Bloomberg, the NYT and many more, our eminent chief executive has an interest in the possibility of buying Greenland.  Most reactions to this news of DJT’s latest whim have boiled down to incredulity, while also generating a fair amount of mirth (see here, here and here).  What has interested us the most, though, are the articles that have concluded that the U.S. cannot buy Greenland. Bloomberg’s Quick Take ran the title – “Can Trump Actually Buy Greenland – The Short Answer is No”. 

But is that really the case? The relevant international law seems to present no explicit barrier to nations buying and selling territory (here). Indeed, much of today’s United States was acquired through the purchase of territory.  The barrier that most commentators see as insurmountable is not legal, but rather the lack of a willing seller.  Maybe so.  But a handful of quotes from government officials and politicians in Denmark and a few from politicians in Greenland (see here and here) is not necessarily enough to conclude that this trade could never work.

Before jumping to the foregoing conclusion, one needs to first ask how such a sale would work.

The first question then to ask is who the relevant seller would be. Greenland is a former colony of Denmark that has been given a significant measure of self-governance. If one takes the right of self-determination of former colonies seriously – as international law seems to – then the right to determine whether to join the United States lies with the people of Greenland; and not with Danish politicians who might be offended by Trump’s failure to follow the appropriate rules of polite diplomatic communication. Scott Anderson on Lawfare has a nice discussion of the self-determination perspective here.  (If one does not take the right of self-determination seriously, which some old school international law scholars might not, then one might conclude that this trade could probably occur directly between the U.S. and Danish governments – for reasons set out in our article linked above; we think this would be wrong).

Once we have identified the relevant seller, the next question is clear:  Is there a price at which the people of Greenland would be willing to become a part of the United States?  Let us say that Trump and the U.S. Congress offer the 55,000 or so inhabitants of Greenland $10 million each, along with U.S. passports and full statehood for Greenland. International law does not tell us what vote threshold is required for the people of a nation to decide to join a new nation, but let us say it is a super majority of 66.67% (after all this is a rather important decision, but one wants to protect against holdouts).  Maybe the people of Greenland are so rich, happy and in love with Danish sovereignty that more than a third of them would say no to the $10 million and statehood?  We suspect that is not the case. But isn’t this a question worth asking the Greenlanders? Shouldn’t the politicians of Greenland be holding town halls to determine the asking price of their people?  (the math is quite simple -- the total price works out to be in the trillions -- the folks at FT Alphaville, as one might expect, have a tongue-in-cheek post on pricing and market considerations for this acquisition here).   

Better still, shouldn’t the Danish politicians be putting their own offer on the table as to what they are willing give each Greenlander in order to keep them in the Danish empire?  Maybe the inhabitants of Greenland would, because of historical ties and affection for the Danish queen, accept a $5 million and the political equivalent of US statehood from Denmark.  The point, again, is that we don’t know. 

Bottom line: If the people of Greenland -- a former colony whose inhabitants are supposed to have a right to self-determination -- would do better by joining the U.S., should they not be able to make that choice? 

Some snark is undoubtedly going to say: Trump and the current U.S. Congress would never offer the Greenlanders statehood. After all, they won’t give it to Puerto Rico, with its population of over 3 million. (Elsewhere we have written about the U.S.’s treatment of its own lingering colony.) But maybe Trump and the Republicans would like the idea of an island full of millionaires who will all be grateful to Trump for their wealth and will vote for him. And maybe the Democrats in Congress will agree to this on the condition that Puerto Rico and maybe even the Virgin Islands get statehood too.

Maybe this is not so crazy after all?  And if this transfer could work to improve the welfare of the people of Greenland, who by global standards are reasonably well off, could the technique be used to help people in regions far more downtrodden than the Greenlanders? (One Bloomberg reporter seems to think this is at least worth thinking about, see here).


Arguably the 2009 Danish act below (that followed from Greenland's 2008 independence vote), clarifies that:


(1) Decision regarding Greenland’s independence shall be taken by the people of Greenland.
(2) If decision is taken pursuant to subsection (1), negotiations shall commence between the
Government and Naalakkersuisut with a view to the introduction of independence for Greenland.
(3) An agreement between Naalakkersuisut and the Government regarding the introduction of
independence for Greenland shall be concluded with the consent of Inatsisartut [parliament of Greenland] and shall be
endorsed by a referendum in Greenland. The agreement shall, furthermore, be concluded with the
consent of the Folketing.
(4) Independence for Greenland shall imply that Greenland assumes sovereignty over the Greenland


independence vote = one for more self rule

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