Anders Fogh Rasmussen: Greenland Should Unite the U.S. and Denmark—Not Divide Them

This opinion piece by Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared in The Atlantic on August 29, 2019. Since World War II, the United States has maintained a military presence in Greenland. Thule Air Force Base, far above the polar circle, was the first line of defense during the Cold War. Today, it remains an important touchstone in […]

This opinion piece by Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared in The Atlantic on August 29, 2019.

Since World War II, the United States has maintained a military presence in Greenland. Thule Air Force Base, far above the polar circle, was the first line of defense during the Cold War. Today, it remains an important touchstone in U.S.-Danish defense cooperation.

The United States is not alone in feeling the magnetic pull of the Arctic. Melting ice caps have opened the Arctic Sea to shipping, and accelerated the harvesting of its abundant natural resources. The Arctic sea lanes will likely become another flash point of renewed competition among the great powers as climate change alters our world. I find this regrettable, but inevitable.

One such power is Russia. In 2007, it unilaterally planted its flag on the North Pole, claiming ownership. Now Russia is playing tough with the stretch of Arctic shipping lanes known as the Northeast Passage by building military bases along its vast northern border.

In light of this, the United States is seeking to build up the presence of its Coast Guard in the Arctic, and to expand its military capabilities in the region. Given Russia’s aggressive record in Ukraine and Georgia, I find this a prudent measure.

China has also stepped up its interest in the Arctic. Since 2013, it has been an observer in the Arctic Council, and its Polar Silk Road project officially incorporates the Arctic Ocean into Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese companies are eager to invest in the Arctic and leverage the rare-earth metals and minerals that are found on Arctic land masses such as Greenland. Unsurprisingly, this has raised concerns in Washington.

Greenland’s home-rule government is understandably enthusiastic about attracting larger investments to develop the local economy. But it should not throw the doors open to easy money from states like Russia and China, when it brings with it the specter of dubious geopolitical projects.

If Denmark and the United States are concerned about Chinese motives, they should offer Greenland alternatives. If they see the Russian military buildup as a threat to the freedom of the seas, they should continue to cooperate with allies like Canada, to secure the freedom of navigation through international waters.

Curiously, this story started a century ago with another sale of land between the two countries. In 1917, the United States took possession of the Virgin Islands from Denmark. In exchange, the U.S. had accepted and guaranteed Danish sovereignty over Greenland. Today, Greenland enjoys great autonomy, and its premier has made it clear that the island is not for sale.

The future of the Arctic and how Denmark and the United States cooperate on it are much too important to dissolve around a hopeless bid to purchase Greenland.

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