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Trump’s interest in Greenland is a wakeup call about Arctic influence

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The next cold war with Russia may be a literal vice metaphorical one. So before we dismiss President Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland, we should consider that our great power rivals — China and Russia — aggressively seek Arctic influence while throngs of the U.S. defense establishment consider the Arctic a homeland defense priority region. 

Trump’s recent eye toward Greenland is the latest play from the pages of his National Security Strategy (NSS). His administration’s philosophy of principled realism promises to put America First and “respond to the growing political, economic and military competitions.” Given this, Trump’s interest in Greenland should come as no surprise. 

Though the 2017 NSS fails to mention Greenland as a strategic imperative, annexing the world’s largest island is consistent with the NSS in that it would serve as a base furthering homeland defense efforts; promote American prosperity via access to Greenland’s “enormous unexplored stores of natural resources”; preserve peace by “elbowing out geopolitical rivals”; and advance American influence geographically and militarily by extension. Acquiring Greenland, however unlikely, is a logical next step in the Trump administration’s continued efforts to put America first. 

With this context, what first was perceived as “absurd” rhetoric now is generating support among some beltway pundits who better understand the relative value of Greenland in this multifaceted geopolitical equation. Whereas the complex mechanics of and resistance to the U.S. purchasing Greenland are better left to others to contend, Trump’s interest in Greenland has major strategic implications that are long overdue.

The U.S. considers China and Russia to be “revisionist powers” constituting real threats to U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic interests globally, and the Arctic is one of the primary regions of Chinese and Russian ambition. Climatic variations have objectively changed the Arctic landscape. Entire regions of the Arctic Circle once impassable now are accessible and exploitable. In 21st century-great power competition between the U.S. and these revisionist powers, the Arctic — and Greenland — will take center stage. 

China and Russia are in a race with the U.S. to tap into the estimated $35 trillion worth of untapped oil, natural gas and other precious minerals in the Arctic. In 2018, China released a white paper stating its intent to leverage melting ice pack and monetize a “Polar Silk Road” of new shipping routes. They also are building nuclear icebreakers and, at one time, wanted airports in Greenland. The Russians, not to be outdone, have military bases and “spy whales” in the Arctic. 

Meanwhile, the current extent of the U.S. Arctic orientation resides in a 19-page Arctic Strategy and the oft-mispronounced Thule (“Tool-ee”) Air Base in northwest Greenland. Trump wants more. 

The United States’ “fourth coast” necessitates its participation as one of seven Arctic Council nations such that the Arctic has warranted policy language from every U.S. president since Richard Nixon. Before this, the U.S. twice attempted to purchase Greenland from Denmark. Despite the historical precedent and contemporary relevance, some claim that Trump doesn’t understand power and that Greenland is unnecessary in the race for Arctic influence. While ownership of Greenland may not be a necessary precondition for Arctic control, it would help. Though the U.S. doesn’t need to annex Greenland to permit military operations — Thule Air Base has been under U.S. control for over 70 years — territorial claims of the island nation would enable the U.S. to restrict Chinese and Russian basing efforts for sustained Arctic operations. 

Moreover, it would place the U.S. in a strategically advantageous position to contend with potential tensions in the Norwegian-owned Svalbard archipelago to the east. Despite the Svalbard Treaty restricting militarization of the islands, Svalbard remains a NATO vulnerability in the Arctic. A similar treaty with China and Russia preventing further militarization of Greenland is inconceivable. Greenland, like Svalbard, is a critical location for Arctic influence logically compelling U.S. interest.   

U.S. inaction in the Arctic will enable further territorial disputes and resource conflicts with great power competitors. Presence in and influence of the Arctic should be a U.S. strategic imperative for the 21st century. Since Greenland is one of the most strategically important pieces of real estate in the race for Arctic influence, it is — by extension — a strategic imperative for the U.S. 

The U.S. is an Arctic Nation and the Arctic now is a competitive region; it soon will be a contested domain. Trump’s interest in Greenland should serve as a wakeup call: the Arctic is a melting pot of rising tensions that soon will boil over, and countries lacking influence are sure to get burned.  

Ryan P. Burke, Ph.D., is an associate professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy and a former Marine Corps officer. The views expressed here are his and do not reflect the official position of the United States Air Force Academy, Department of the Air Force or Department of Defense.

Tags Arctic circle Arctic cooperation and politics China Denmark Donald Trump Greenland Russia

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