When US President Donald Trump suggested that his country wanted to buy Greenland from Denmark, eyebrows certainly went up. But, for a moment, entertain the idea. In an age of security and bending the rules of sovereignty, combined with climate change and the opening up of the Arctic to international shipping to one day challenge the Suez Canal, the Greenland acquisition idea is strategically sound for America. And it is not new.
The island of Greenland is critical to US national security and is going to play an important geographical role as Washington, Russia, and China compete in the circumpolar region of the Arctic. Greenland has for decades hosted the important Thule Air Base, 1,200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. In 1940, the US occupied Greenland after Denmark fell to the Nazis. President Harry Truman tried to buy the island for $100 million in 1946 in the wake of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War. America’s presence at the base has been ongoing since the early 1950s. Thule provides the key early warning system for ballistic missile defense. This real estate is important for US security interests.
The US-Danish security agreement gives the American military broad authority to operate out of Thule Air Base. America’s US Air Force Space Command, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and rotating Air National Guard units all use it. The Coast Guard also maintains a regular presence in Greenland. Thule Air Base is the site of the northernmost deep-water port in the world, which may become of strategic importance as Arctic ice melts. Several hundred Danes are co-located at Thule Air Base as part of Denmark’s deployment strategy related to Arctic security.
Climate change is creating new security challenges around the Arctic. Melting ice is opening up Arctic sea lanes and energy mineral reserves previously unavailable for extraction. Russia, whose territory covers up to half of the Arctic, is staking claims based on seabed acquisition and is building bases, ports and supply-chain support to these new Arctic waterways. In the summer of 2007, Russian explorers planted their flag on the underwater Lomonosov Ridge, deep in the Arctic and far beyond their country’s exclusive economic zone. Moscow claims this underwater ridge by historic right. The Russians are claiming Arctic waters as their own, attempting to define sovereignty over seabeds in international waters. This coming struggle is one that will emerge more as the ice melts.
Arctic security requirements are seen as critical by the US. In 2018, NATO forces held a military exercise, known as Trident Juncture, near Norway, with 50,000 participants. The US Marine Corps also rotate forces in and out of Norway, where Marines are pre-positioning ammunition, vehicles and weapons in massive caves, with plans for future growth of infrastructure and presence. The US knows that Russia is way ahead in planning and preparing for the Arctic’s future. The head of the US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command Air Force, Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, said: “The Arctic is the first line of defense.”
Denmark, however, has its own plans. Melting ice also affords an opportunity to mine Greenland. About a dozen permits have been issued and progress is slow, but Greenland is about long-term investment from not only the security perspective but also in minerals. Greenland’s importance in terms of energy is growing with the discovery of natural gas deposits, and Denmark is to search for more gas while increasing its military presence. Copenhagen claims the North Pole itself and seeks a growing naval presence. In 2009, the Danes established an Arctic military command as other circumpolar countries increased their security presence around the North Pole.
The Russian Federation’s prioritization of the Arctic will be a primary driving factor in security strategy. The Russian economy derives nearly 20 percent of its gross domestic product from activities in the Arctic. Russia has defended this investment by increasing its military commitments. Until this year, the US did not even have an articulated policy on the Arctic. But, as the region takes on new importance, US strategy is emerging. Greenland may be part of that strategy, providing a unique opportunity to further protect America while advancing its interests in the Arctic from a heightened position of strength in terms of geographical presence. That fact matters in the increasingly warm Arctic.
Trump’s suggestion about buying Greenland has value. Naturally, there are many questions about such a move, where there is a balance between security requirements and perceptions of American expansionism. It is important to remember that the historical Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom (GIUK) gap forms the principal choke point between Russia’s strategic interests in the North Atlantic and all points south. It also contains pipelines, communications cables and economic exclusion zones that require revised protection as Russia and China bend the concept of sovereignty regarding seabeds in international waters. An American island of Greenland would offer an interesting possibility in our new climate change-affected geopolitical order, which challenges concepts of sovereignty and strategic projection.