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Trump, Denmark and Greenland:  What Next?

posted by Mitu Gulati

(This post draws directly from ideas from co authored work with Joseph Blocher; and particularly the numerous discussions we have had about the incentives that a market for sovereign control might create for nations to take better care of their minority populations in outlying areas (e.g., the US and Puerto Rico).  Mistakes in the discussion below, however, are solely mine).

It seems like forever ago, but it has only been a few weeks since the news came out that our esteemed chief executive wanted the US to purchase Greenland.  The notion was widely ridiculed in the press and provided wonderful fodder for comics around the globe.  But as people looked beneath the surface, it quickly became apparent that there was nothing in international law that prohibited the purchase and sale of sovereign control over a territory.  Where Trump was wrong was in his assumption that he needed to purchase Greenland from the Danes.  Under post World War II international law, however, a former colony such as Greenland has the right of self determination.  To quote the Danish prime minister, responding to Trump, “Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland.”

The Danish PM also said “I strongly hope that this is not meant seriously.”  And, from her perspective of apparently wanting to keep the status quo of Greenland being part of Denmark, it makes sense that that’s what she hopes.  But let us focus on the words “Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland.” If one thinks about those words just a little, they mean that Trump’s purchase (and maybe he should start calling this a “merger”, since that seems more polite) is perhaps a lot easier to execute than he initially thought.

Trump and any other suitors that Greenland might have (Canada, China, Iceland, Russia, etc.) need to only focus their attention on making the Greenlanders happy; they don’t need to worry about the Danes. No need for Trump to do diplomatic trips to Copenhagen. Trips should be to Nuuk instead. After all, it is the approval of the 55,000 Greenlanders that he needs.

How many Greenlander votes, specifically? (assuming that there would need to be a referendum first). International law doesn’t clearly say; but surely more than a majority – and ideally with a voting mechanism designed in such a way that the rights of the minority that might not want to be part of the merger being appropriately protected.

The point is that if DJT and his supporters remain committed to the Greenland strategy – and it appears they do (see here) – the next step is will be to persuade the people of Greenland that this merger is in their interest. That way, the next time Trump offers a merger deal to the roughly 55,000 Greenlanders, they will react with enthusiasm rather than horror.  One would expect, therefore, to see the US taking steps to mount the charm offensive in Greenland. And, as it turns out, preliminary steps in this direction have already been announced with the US planning to open a consulate in Greenland and engage in various outreach programs as part of its broader arctic charm strategy (here).


But that should not be the end of the story.  After all, there is no reason other countries cannot make offers to the Greenlanders and, in preparation for that, exert efforts to persuade the Greenlanders that they are better long-term partners.  We saw this play out in Greenland in a micro fashion just some months before the current drama when a set of Chinese financial institutions offered to help Greenland finance a set of much-needed airports that Danish institutions had been unwilling to fund. As the Wall Street Journal reported the story, the Pentagon freaked out and the US and Denmark figured out how to make a better offer to help the Greenlanders.  Trump’s interest in buying Greenland, we suspect, was at least in part a product of discussions about those airports.  For us though the point is that the US and Danish interest in funding development was prompted by the need to compete with the Chinese for influence over the future of Greenland.  In the end, the result of the competition was a positive for Greenlanders. (For more on the competition dynamic, see here and here)

That was just a few airports though.  The stakes are higher if Trump and the US need to persuade Greenlanders that they are good long-term marriage partner. Maybe the US will decide to build a few hospitals and universities in Greenland over the next year, in addition to that consulate in Nuuk.  And, if Canada gets interested in competing (after all, it is a lot closer), maybe it will offer to fund more stuff.  Maybe, in addition to improved medical care, educational facilities, and airports, Greenlanders need other stuff – like better fishing boats.  And China, if it were interested, could do even more. Last but not least, given that the Danish seem to have discovered a renewed interest in keeping Greenland happy over the last few weeks, they might want to do even more than the others to show the Greenlanders that it is in their long-term interest is in staying Danish.

If we are correct that there is nothing stopping the US and other nations making merger offers to Greenland in the future (let us say that Trump is preparing to make his next offer a year from now, in September 2020), we should expect to see those nations to be competing, starting now, to persuade the Greenlanders as to where their best long-term interests lie.  And, that, from the perspective of the Greenlanders, strikes us as an unambiguously good state of affairs.

And if this dynamic could work to improve the life of Greenlanders, could it help the welfare of the citizens of other former colonies.  Maybe, if Canada showed some interest in Puerto Rico, the US Congress would begin to treat the people there better and move quickly to give them better funding for development and rights like the right to vote in federal elections. (For more on the Puerto Rico/Self Determination connection, see here).


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