Greenland Should Unite the U.S. and Denmark—Not Divide Them

Instead of being a source of contention, the island should serve to highlight how many interests the countries have in common.

A man walks through Tasiilaq, Greenland.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Last week, President Donald Trump canceled his state visit to Denmark. What a pity. His trip would have provided American and Danish leaders an opportunity to discuss our shared opposition to routing a Russian natural-gas pipeline through Danish waters, our cooperation in the global fight against terrorism, our attitude toward Russia and China—and our common security and environmental challenges in the Arctic region.

It is ironic that the cancellation of the visit is due to a dispute over the sale of Greenland, because Greenland’s strategic importance is increasing. Both China and Russia are interested in getting a foothold in Greenland, to expand their influence in the Arctic region. Instead of being a source of contention, Greenland should serve to highlight how many interests the United States and Denmark have in common.

I consider Trump’s interest in Greenland as a sign that his administration is taking a serious interest in the Arctic and its future. This is “America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said.

I’ve been thinking about the future of the Arctic for decades, including during the eight years I served as prime minister of Denmark and the five I spent as secretary-general of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. I agree with Pompeo: The United States and Denmark should cooperate to address a diverse set of issues affecting the Arctic today, including security and mounting environmental challenges.

Since World War II, the United States has maintained a military presence in Greenland. Thule Air Force Base, far above the polar circle, was the first line of defense during the Cold War. Today, it remains an important touchstone in U.S.-Danish defense cooperation.

The United States is not alone in feeling the magnetic pull of the Arctic. Melting ice caps have opened the Arctic Sea to shipping, and accelerated the harvesting of its abundant natural resources. The Arctic sea lanes will likely become another flash point of renewed competition among the great powers as climate change alters our world. I find this regrettable, but inevitable.

One such power is Russia. In 2007, it unilaterally planted its flag on the North Pole, claiming ownership. Now Russia is playing tough with the stretch of Arctic shipping lanes known as the Northeast Passage by building military bases along its vast northern border.

In light of this, the United States is seeking to build up the presence of its Coast Guard in the Arctic, and to expand its military capabilities in the region. Given Russia’s aggressive record in Ukraine and Georgia, I find this a prudent measure.

China has also stepped up its interest in the Arctic. Since 2013, it has been an observer in the Arctic Council, and its Polar Silk Road project officially incorporates the Arctic Ocean into Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese companies are eager to invest in the Arctic and leverage the rare-earth metals and minerals that are found on Arctic land masses such as Greenland. Unsurprisingly, this has raised concerns in Washington.

Greenland’s home-rule government is understandably enthusiastic about attracting larger investments to develop the local economy. But it should not throw the doors open to easy money from states like Russia and China, when it brings with it the specter of dubious geopolitical projects.

If Denmark and the United States are concerned about Chinese motives, they should offer Greenland alternatives. If they see the Russian military buildup as a threat to the freedom of the seas, they should continue to cooperate with allies like Canada, to secure the freedom of navigation through international waters.

Curiously, this story started a century ago with another sale of land between the two countries. In 1917, the United States took possession of the Virgin Islands from Denmark. In exchange, the U.S. had accepted and guaranteed Danish sovereignty over Greenland. Today, Greenland enjoys great autonomy, and its premier has made it clear that the island is not for sale.

The future of the Arctic and how Denmark and the United States cooperate on it are much too important to dissolve around a hopeless bid to purchase Greenland.