Why you should care
Because the diplomatic row with Denmark affects the China battle.
Greenland is used to cleaning up American messes.
The U.S. has had military facilities on the 836,000-square-mile icy expanse for decades. Thule Air Base is still humming, but others were abandoned long ago — with Americans not bothering to pick up the trash. Denmark is currently spending $29 million over six years to clean up crumbling buildings, abandoned vehicles and fuel barrels from World War II. And that doesn’t even include the planned under-ice nuclear missile launch facility abandoned in 1967 after the glaciers started moving faster than expected. Melting ice due to climate change could bring radioactive waste to the surface in the coming years.
Now Greenland must assess the fallout from the strangest diplomatic dispute of the Donald Trump presidency.
Trump canceled a visit to Denmark last week after Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called his suggestion about buying Greenland “absurd.” Trump called her “nasty” in response. The most common way to look at the events from this side of the Atlantic was as a farcical distraction from real, far more troubling news. And indeed it was perhaps the quintessential example of a five-part Trump news cycle:
- Step One: A newspaper (in this case The Wall Street Journal) reports on internal discussions that seem too wild to be true (in this case the U.S. buying Greenland, even though Denmark has given no indication the self-governing territory is for sale … and hell would look like Nuuk before the Democratic U.S. House would appropriate the money).
- Step Two: Trump confirms the report on the record, prompting a media freakout.
- Step Three: The White House and Trump defenders jump in, spinning new reasons why this actually makes sense as a policy and reminding us that Harry S. Truman secretly floated the same idea. The National Republican Congressional Committee makes a few bucks hawking T-shirts touting Greenland as the 51st state.
- Step Four: Reality shows the idea to be ridiculous, and Trump reacts angrily — by canceling his visit to Denmark.
- Step Five: We all move on within a couple of days. In this case, China and the U.S. escalated the trade war on Friday with hundreds of billions of dollars in new tariffs, as Trump “hereby ordered” U.S. companies to look for “an alternative” to doing business in China and the stock market plunged.
Thing is, this isn’t just a news cycle blip for Greenland. And the frosty island matters quite a bit for the struggle with China — for “the chosen one” and for subsequent presidents.
Greenland is stocked with minerals known as rare earths, which are critical to making smartphones and other high-tech devices. About 70 percent of rare earths are mined in China, which could squeeze its exports to the U.S. anytime it likes. A Chinese company is also the largest shareholder in a major Greenland rare earths mining company.
Greenland is also just a quick hop from Russia and adjacent to Arctic shipping lanes opening up due to climate change, making it of critical geostrategic importance. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in May that the U.S. would soon reestablish a diplomatic presence there for the first time since the 1950s.
The stakes are evident in Greenland undertaking large expansions at three airports. China proposed funding the construction, but Denmark stepped in to pay for two of them last year — after then Defense Secretary James Mattis lobbied for it. (The U.S. was worried about China militarizing those airstrips if the loans went bad.) There was even speculation that Trump could announce U.S. funding for the third airport during his Denmark visit.
Now? Walking away from the table is a classic Trump negotiation move. Perhaps he comes away with a more favorable deal for U.S. companies to mine rare earths, or gets Denmark to spend more on its own defenses (it’s far below NATO’s target of 2 percent of gross domestic product).
Or perhaps, duly snubbed, the Danes and the Greenlanders stop taking calls from Washington when they’re about to strike a deal with Beijing.