Home Analysis Trump & the Arctic: ‘Cold War’ in Warming Waters

Trump & the Arctic: ‘Cold War’ in Warming Waters

Stockholm (Ekonamik) – When U.S. President Donald Trump makes an unlikely trip to Denmark at the beginning of September, it won’t be a standard protocol visit. One topic is expected to overshadow all else: the Arctic, which is in the process of being embroiled in a superpower race between the U.S., Russia and China. Denmark is an Arctic power by virtue of Greenland being an autonomous territory of the Danish realm.

U.S. interest is such that Mr Trump has expressed a desire to “buy” Greenland. According to AP and the Wall Street Journal, Mr Trump has aired the idea to advisers of buying Greenland from Denmark, roughly like the U.S. bought the Danish West Indies in 1916. The suggestion was rejected immediately by leaders of Denmark and Greenland, with good reason: it cannot legally be done. Denmark and Greenland abide by an international agreement prohibiting bargaining with indigenous peoples, and Greenland itself will decide when it becomes independent, according to an agreement with Denmark from 2009.

“Greenland is not for sale and cannot be sold, but Greenland is open to trade and cooperation with other countries – including the United States,” Greenland’s National Parliamentary Chairman Kim Kielsen said in a brief statement.

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“The U.S. has wanted to buy Greenland for 150 years and has used this desire as a form of pressure on the Danish government in the 20th century. It is far from novel that an American president asks ‘is it for sale?’” commented Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Copenhagen. “But Greenland is not a territory Denmark can just sell to the Americans like it sold its territory in the Caribbean. [Rather,] the Americans are betting that if Greenland becomes independent one day, then logically the country would be more closely tied to the U.S. [than Denmark] in terms of security policy.”

The reasons for Mr Trump’s interest in Greenland are simple. First, Greenland has an important geostrategic role, hosting the U.S.’s northernmost radar station on a base in Thule, which was critical during the Cold War to warn of potential Soviet nuclear attack, and is set to be so again in light of increased Russian military activity in the Arctic. Second, Greenland is rich in minerals, and climate change, which has already melted considerable amounts of ice, is expected to open Arctic waters, both to extraction of new natural resources, and to new maritime routes from China in the east to the U.S. in the west.

The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that at current rates of global warming, the Arctic sea could be entirely ice-free by the summer months of the late 2040s. Greenland has many rare earth minerals used in a lot of current technology, like batteries, and thus also for military purposes. By contrast, China today controls almost the entire global market for rare minerals. The U.S., then, is worried that China will gain a foothold in the Arctic as Russia also shows increased interest – and activity – in the region, thus opening up new threats to the U.S., according to a June 2019 report addressing the Arctic as a potential “strategic corridor of competition” among the world’s preeminent military forces.

“The Arctic is a potential area for increasing major power rivalry,” according to the report, which points directly at China and Russia. “U.S. interests include defending U.S. sovereignty and territory through early warning of attacks against the U.S. and missile defense, protection of U.S. infrastructure and the opportunity to protect U.S. interests in the region.” In other words, the U.S. is preparing a response to the significant military build-up undertaken by Russia in recent years. In addition, China formulated a definitive Arctic strategy in January last year as part of its “Belt and Road” initiative to finance infrastructure around the world, with the Chinese government exhibiting new strategic ambitions in the Arctic’s increasingly ice-free waters from China and the north of Russia towards the United States and Canada.

The U.S. even applied pressure to the previous Danish government when it emerged that China was preparing to invest in Greenland, including in a new airport, and emphasised its renewed interest by announcing the opening of the first U.S. representation in Greenland since 1953. The U.S. could be thought to be extending the so-called Monroe doctrine to the Arctic, an injunction dating back to 1823 that the United States does not allow foreign military forces in its immediate vicinity. The question, of course, is what it considers to be its immediate vicinity.

As for Denmark and Greenland, they find themselves in the midst of an escalating ‘cold war’ in an increasingly warm Arctic, with the new government in Denmark forced into a delicate balancing act: On one hand, Denmark also desires cutbacks in the growing (especially Russian) militarisation of the area. On the other, it does not want a high-tension area of conflict where it already has unresolved border disputes with Russia. “Although climate change and increased activity in the area require increased presence and monitoring, it is also a priority to maintain the Arctic as an area of low tension,” it is stated in the Danish Parliament’s defense arrangement up to 2023.

“One can think of [Trump’s] proposal what one wishes, but there is no doubt this gives Greenland some negotiating cards,” said Marc Jacobsen, a researcher at The Arctic Institute. He points out that Greenland is gaining increasing leeway in pursuing its own foreign policy, opening trade offices in the U.S. and Iceland and with offices in China, Japan, Canada and the U.K. under consideration. The U.S. announced in May that it would open a representation in Nuuk. “[Trump’s] proposal will not go ahead, but the U.S. could potentially ‘rent’ some of Greenland in connection with economic initiatives, such as mining. The U.S. is an obvious choice to look for investment,” he says, for a Greenland increasingly in a position to use U.S. interest in its eventual declaration of independence from Denmark.

Mr Trump will visit Denmark 2-3 September, where he will meet Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Greenland’s National Parliamentary Chairman Kim Kielsen.

Image from Wikicommons

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Glenn W. Leaper, PhD
Glenn W. Leaper, Politics Editor, is a political theorist, analyst, editor and writer. He completed his Ph.D. in Political Philosophy and Critical Theory from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2015. His research focuses on ideology, unaccountable structures of power and surveillance capitalism. He is also a communications consultant, speechwriter, interpreter and journalist. Glenn has an international background spanning the UK, France, Austria, Spain, Belgium and his native Denmark. He holds an MA in Literature and a BA in International Relations.

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