Almost 20 years ago, novelist John Griesemer’s dystopian book, Nobody Thinks of Greenland, captured the dominant attitude of most of his fellow Americans about the world’s largest island abutting the Arctic Sea. But that viewpoint, which truthfully was never completely true, changed dramatically in August 2019, when United States President Donald Trump tweeted that the US should buy the island from Denmark. The proposal sparked outrage in Copenhagen, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, not to mention bemusement and indignation in autonomously self-governing Greenland itself. Since then, however, both Trump’s seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion and more recent US moves have led some analysts in Russia and elsewhere to conclude that the United States genuinely wants to establish a stronger presence—if not outright ownership—in Greenland to counter Russian and Chinese moves in the Arctic. The region is becoming ever more important economically and politically as climate change opens up new possibilities for the exploitation of the mineral wealth and transportation routes there.
In April, the United States announced the opening of a consulate in Greenland, complete with a US Agency for International Development (USAID) team ready to spend some $12 million to promote economic development and English-language instruction on the still-ice-bound island. Those moves have raised some concerns in Copenhagen that Washington is trying to set the stage for implementing what Trump tweeted last August. But at the same time, they have encouraged speculation in Moscow about the US’s true strategic aims. In an article this week (May 18), Russian foreign policy commentator Svyatoslav Knyazev argues that economic interests explain some of what is occurring; yet, more than that, they suggest that the US is seeking to expand its presence in the Arctic to counter Russia and, perhaps to the surprise of some, China as well (Stoletie.ru, May 18).
Officials and politicians in both Greenland and Denmark have welcomed new US assistance, while also expressing concern that Washington’s largesse may be anything but disinterested, Knyazev reports. He adds, some Danes and Greenlanders have recalled that, in the past, the United States has used USAID offices and consulates to introduce Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers into countries that Washington sought to court, to counter the influence of others, or to destabilize the host nation. That perception is particularly rampant in Greenland, given that no one on the Arctic island or in Denmark is prepared to forget Trump’s tweet from last year. As Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederickson put it then, “Greenland isn’t for sale. Greenland isn’t Danish. Greenland is Greenland’s,” adding that she hoped Trump’s comment was only “a joke” (Stoletie.ru, May 18).
Yet, even if actually meant in jest, Trump’s remark had the effect of calling attention to Washington’s growing focus on the Arctic, both to secure the region’s increasingly accessible natural resources as well as to counter Russia and China. The latter two powers, however, are better positioned to carry on such competition than the United States, the Russian analyst asserts.
At present, Knyazev says, “Russia, Canada, the US, Norway and Denmark,” the last as a result of its sovereignty over Greenland, “have their own sectors in the Arctic. Each has a 200-mile economic exclusion zone extending from its coastline, and Russia, because of the undersea shelf, has the basis for claims to 1.2 million square kilometers of the Arctic surface” (MNR.gov.ru, November 16, 2019; The Barents Observer, November 28, 2019). All five players are concerned about the economic and political implications of the Russian Northern Sea Route (see EDM, September 3, 2019; Stoletie.ru, May 18, 2020).
The US portion in the Arctic is smaller than any of the other northern powers, but Washington has a long history of looking to Greenland as its stepping stone to the region, economically and otherwise. During World War II, it occupied the island to counter German plans and established a military base at Thule, which remains open today. That base should be sufficient for security purposes, Knyazev says. Consequently, the United States’ latest moves suggest a larger agenda, one that involves countering left-wing parties in Greenland and Denmark who oppose the US presence. This agenda also involves expanding economically into the Arctic to counter the Russian and Chinese presence (see EDM, June 12, 2019; Stoletie.ru, May 18, 2020).
According to Knyazev, Washington is more concerned with Chinese moves than it is with Russian ones, although Moscow’s claims on the Arctic seabed are opposed by the US. Beijing has sought to invest heavily on the island, but Denmark, a NATO country, has slowed that process. The full extent of China’s plans has yet to be realized, though they are not being ignored in Greenland or in the United States, the Moscow commentator says, especially given Washington’s current focus on China as a challenger to US hegemony. In addition, it must not be forgotten that Washington is concerned about Russia’s presence in the Arctic and has, in recent weeks, challenged its position by sending US naval vessels into what Moscow views as its backyard (Regnum.ru, May 14; Rbc.ru, May 16; see EDM, May 14).
On the Internet, Knyazev notes in conclusion, there has long circulated a joke that if oil is ever found in Antarctica, the US will declare that “the bloody regime of the penguins must be overthrown.” Given what is happening in Greenland, he suggests, this joke may be “prophetic,” albeit “instead of penguins, the Americans, for the time being, intend to bring democracy to the polar bears.” His article suggests that Greenland is set to become a new focus of conflict between Washington, Moscow and Beijing, something that will affect the future of the international system in profound ways. The notion that “nobody thinks of Greenland” will no longer be the case. Indeed, this forbidding northern territory is bound to preoccupy security professionals in many capitals for the foreseeable future.