President Donald Trump made his name in real estate on the world’s glitziest island with the help of tax breaks and loopholes. As President, it seems Trump wants to take his real estate experience to a new level.
If reports are to be believed, the President has asked his White House counsel to research the idea of the US purchasing Greenland — an autonomous country and the world’s largest island — from the Kingdom of Denmark.
Greenland is home to 56,000 people, and the notion of buying an indigenous people and their ancestral lands smacks of colonialism and is deeply problematic. Given how Trump’s real estate projects worked out for the islanders of New York City — $360 million in forgiven or uncollected taxes with another $885 million in tax breaks going to luxury apartments, hotels and office buildings — it would be financially savvy for Denmark to steer clear of President Trump’s crony capitalism.
In Denmark and Greenland, President Trump’s interest has been received with a mixture of anger and bewilderment. A member of the Danish parliament called it “a bad joke,” while the premier of Greenland’s autonomous government dryly remarked that “Greenland is not for sale.”
The idea is particularly appalling to Greenlandic-Danes for three reasons. First, Greenland has its own language, culture, and history. The notion of buying a nation wholesale is deeply disrespectful to the painful colonial history of Greenland.
Greenland was first colonized by Danish settlers in 1721, followed by a period of forced Christianization and repression of the local culture and language. As part of a social experiment in the 1950s, some Greenlandic children were removed from their parents — a practice the Trump administration has employed. Today a large majority of Greenland’s population supports independence from Denmark “eventually,” but many worry that their island is still too dependent on economic support from Denmark to support itself as a sovereign nation. President Trump should realize that a people scarred by colonialism with hopes for independence will take offense at the idea of being “sold.”
Second, Danish society is built on fundamentally different values than the US. For most Greenlandic-Danes, adopting American systems of cutthroat capitalism and bare-bones social welfare programs would be a frightening prospect. If the US were to buy Greenland, its citizens would most certainly lose their rights to universal health care, free higher education, five weeks of annual paid vacation, up to 12 months of paid parental leave, subsidized childcare and more. Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, a member of the Danish parliament representing Greenland, reckons these popular basic rights would be “completely obliterated” if the US were to take over.
Third, Greenlanders already have ambivalent feelings about the US’ military rights over the island’s Thule Air Base. In 1946, President Harry Truman offered $100 million for Greenland, but the Danish government declined to sell. Instead, villagers in Thule were forcibly removed to allow the US to establish a military base, which today plays a crucial role in the US’ ballistic missile early warning system. In 1968, an American B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed near the base, exposing the island and a Greenlandic clean-up crew to radioactive contamination. In the 1990s, a scandal erupted when it was revealed the US stored nuclear weapons in Greenland, despite Denmark’s policy banning such weapons throughout its territory.
Even though President Trump’s interest in buying Greenland has been mocked and vehemently rejected, he shouldn’t worry too much about US’ geopolitical positioning in the Arctic. As a small country, Denmark depends on US support to defend Greenland’s 27,000 miles of coastline against Russia. This dependency means the foreign policy of Denmark is tailored to favor American interests — from allowing air bases with nuclear weapons to supporting the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. No matter how obscene and inconsiderate an offer President Trump might make when he visits Denmark in September, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen will probably keep up the tradition of appeasing the US President as best she can.
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Greenland will not be sold — but the US will have privileged access to the island. No wonder the people of Greenland look forward to the day they no longer have to be a bargaining chip tossed between Denmark and the United States.