Donald Trump’s reported wish to buy Greenland has sparked contempt, amazement, and not a little anger in both Denmark and Greenland. The idea is transparently bizarre. The days of selling or trading people to the jurisdiction of another state without their consent are long gone. Times have changed since the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia, the 1917 purchase of the Danish West Indies (now the US Virgin Islands), or even the 1946 offer to buy Greenland from Denmark.
What I find more interesting is the rejoinder from Greenland’s foreign minister, Lone Bagger, who said that “We are open for business, but we’re not for sale.” This is not a generic statement about the profits that await the brave capitalist, but a specific statement about the agency of the Greenlandic people to assert control over their economic as well as their political future. Greenland is not for sale because Greenland is not a commodity; Greenland is a community.
The effect of such a statement is to negate the kind of thinking that makes purchasing a swathe of Arctic territory (and its people) seem plausible in the first place. That language of commerce and business is often regarded as a sign of modernity being imposed upon a pre-modern space. And indeed, the mantra of the Arctic being newly “open for business” often irks me. It conjures images of a timeless, frozen space being brought into the modern, global economic system as its ice melts and its minerals and shipping lanes come into view. Being a historian, I find myself agreeing with those who wonder when the Arctic has not been open for business. Even if the term “business” is reserved for the Eurocentric model of commodity extraction and trade, it still has a multi-century history.
What Bagger’s statement does instead is to reposition the Arctic as the site of the marketplace and its residents as rights-holders. If the United States wants to avail itself of the value of Greenland, either in economic or military-strategic terms, then it has to work with the owners of that value in order to reach a mutually acceptable arrangement. This is perhaps also where things get more complicated. Control over subsurface minerals was one of the most contentious points in the negotiations leading up to home rule in 1979. Even under the 2009 self-rule agreement, Denmark retains veto rights over security-related issues. This has included the role of China as a commercial partner in infrastructure development, a point that perhaps parallels American and British concerns over the role of Huawei as a telecommunications provider.
The rhetoric of buying an entire political unit and its people is of course laughably old-fashioned. But the problem that Trump thought might be solved through such a purpose is perhaps a deeper one. Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo recently referred to the Arctic as “real estate,” and pointed to “aggressive behavior elsewhere” on the part of China to convey a sense of competition over control of strategically important territory. Were the territory safely under control of a reliable and docile ally, the concern for its being taken or controlled by a rival state would presumably be obviated. I doubt the idea have been floated if Trump and his aides were confident that Denmark could continue to ensure that business in Greenland was done on the terms it wanted.
This leads me to a cheeky thought. Could one respond to Trump’s outlandish comment not by assuming he must not realize that people live on the island, but rather to wonder whether the capacity of those people for independent action is its source? And is floating a wish to buy Greenland a back-handed compliment to the success of Greenlanders in asserting their rights to potentially employ whoever they wish to aid in their economic development? Lone Bagger’s pithy response is a valuable reminder that Greenland is a participant in the global economic system, and that its government holds rights to determine the nature of that participation. That, rather than the military-strategic context or the price tag, is the biggest difference between 1946 and now.