Editor’s Note: Ask Foldspang Neve is a development consultant and a sociologist at the University of Oxford. His commentary on Greenland has appeared in various major Danish media outlets. Most recently, he was a consultant for a major USAID-funded project in Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
President Donald Trump has often been accused of conquering the American electorate by dividing it along racial and economic lines. Yet, when it was rumored that Trump was considering an American purchase of Greenland off Denmark, he somehow managed to create the exact opposite effect.
By suggesting that a constituent part of the country he is visiting in a couple of weeks, including, presumably, its 56,000 citizens, were a good to be bargained over, Trump managed to bring normally quarreling parties in Denmark across the political spectrum together in a common, stern rejection of the idea. Yet, behind the reasons given for their refusal, a familiar political divide resurfaced between Denmark’s political left, which has traditionally supported independence for Greenland, and the right, which has tended to emphasize common bonds or ignore Greenland altogether.
Across the political spectrum, Danish politicians were quick to dismiss Trump’s hypothetical proposal as both impossible and insulting. Some tried to get a laugh in at the president’s expense. Lars Løkke Rasmussen, a two-time former Prime Minister and current leader of the opposition Liberal Party tweeted, “It must be an April Fool’s Day joke … but totally out of [season]!”. His party is usually seen as a proponent of the Danish alliance with the United States.
Taking the palace whispers more seriously, the spokesperson for the Democratic Socialist Red-Green Alliance, Pernille Skipper, wrote that “it says a lot about Trump that he thinks he can buy an entire country and an entire people. Greenland belongs the Greenlandic people, and this is not the 19th century. Not for sale!”.
According to Søren Espersen, a prominent politician in the nativist Danish People’s Party, “If it were correct that he is currently considering these ideas, then that would be the final proof that he has gone crazy. I have to say it as it is: the idea that Denmark were to sell off 50,000 of its citizens to the United States is completely insane.” The government’s official website less dramatically states that “Naturally, Greenland is not for sale” and says it will not comment any further on what it calls hearsay.
The only noticeable exception so far has been the incumbent Danish Prime Minister, Social-Democrat Mette Frederiksen, who has yet to respond. It is likely that her office is cautious not to be seen to cause Trump to lose face before their meeting, tentatively scheduled for early September. This cautious choice of strategy could well reflect an awareness of how horribly the American president has responded to public rebuttals in the past.
Although peaceful land swaps are not unheard of in international relations, today they usually form part of settlements after long-running conflicts (the 2015 swap between India and Bangladesh being a recent example), or when neighboring countries settle small, practical affairs, such as when Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged about 50 acres of territory as a practical solution to the fact that a river, the Meuse, which had been the traditional boundary, had changed its course.
Yet, proposing to “buy” a piece of land, presumably without asking the people who live there, smacks of the style of colonial rule that European countries would like to think that they left behind in the 20th century. This is especially critical in Denmark, where Greenland’s position in the country is becoming increasingly politically salient. The issue risks becoming another battle in the culture wars along with national identity and immigration. On the Danish left, there has long been support for what is seen as the Inuit anti-colonial struggle against Danish imperialism. Danes further to the right have usually tended to emphasize the historical unity - or refused to see it at all. Yet, increasingly, questions are being asked in Denmark about the fairness of the one-sided economic relationship and what is seen as using an unfair and historically problematic comparison between the Inuit and Native Americans. All of these positions can be seen reflected in the various rebuttals to Trump’s supposed offer.
In Greenland itself, an ethno-nationalist independence movement has come to dominate the island’s politics since the 1970s. Future independence remains the nominal goal of most (though not all) local political parties. Denmark has responded by twice devolving the island’s government: in 1979 when home-rule was established, and again in 2009 when further powers were granted. While devolution has generally been enthusiastically greeted by the Greenlandic population in theory, the results have led to considerable disillusionment. Greenland’s economy remains weak, with about half the territory’s budget coming from a Danish block grant.
Greenland faces many challenges. In most areas outside of the island’s capital, jobs and educational opportunities are non-existent. Social issues run rampant: Greenland has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. And according to one study based on a 2007 to 2008 survey, 36% of women with children reported having been sexually abused when they were themselves children. Furthermore, the tiny population is spread across the world’s biggest island. One municipality, Avannaata, is larger than California, but has a population of just 10,600; it makes Alaska seem positively crowded by comparison.
Given all these factors, the island’s potential independence remains elusive. Trump’s offer highlighted the perils of being a very small state in a world run by very big ones. Yet if anything, it made it less likely that Greenland will join Uncle Sam anytime soon.