I keep having to say the same thing over and over: That Donald Trump said something does not in and of itself constitute proof that what he said is wrong. Today’s case in point is the proposed purchase of Greenland from Denmark.
There’s two reasons this isn’t insanity. The first is that, on its face, the offer isn’t insane.
Half a dozen times in our history, the United States has purchased land from other countries. All things being equal, it’s easier (and cheaper) than conquering it outright, so from an American viewpoint it makes good sense. From a Danish perspective, it’s one of the last of their colonial possessions, so national pride would likely interfere (as it has), but as a foreign-ruled welfare state, it does tend to cost their government more than it earns over time. (And the Greenlanders? Nobody’s asked their opinions lately. But their suicide rate is the highest in the world; that’s something of note.)
Denmark’s hold over Greenland isn’t all that well-established in history. The Treaty of Kiel (the terms of which were mostly ignored) affirmed its sovereignty, but the European settlers along the south coast had long since moved on by then, and in fact had originated as rebellious Norwegians anyway. Nevertheless, its rule has been more or less accepted for a couple of centuries, and so as early as 1867, proposals have been floated by the United States to either annex or purchase this massive island from its colonial masters.
After Denmark fell to German invasion in 1940, the United States moved swiftly to prevent the Third Reich from establishing their own claim. Using a flimsy pretext and some fancy diplomatic maneuvering, a force of “volunteers” hastily removed from the Coast Guard established American control and swiftly set up air bases. An agreement with the Danish government-in-exile legitimized what otherwise would be an act of bald-faced piracy on the condition the island be returned after the war.
And yet, in 1946, President Truman was far more concerned about halting the ambitions of the Soviet Union than in placating allies, so an offer was extended to Denmark to make the occupation permanent. The sum would have more than covered their entire war debt (some of which still hasn’t been repaid), but Denmark refused (rather indignantly).
Similarly, when the UN Commission on Decolonization pushed for Greenland’s independence in the 1950s, Denmark remained indignant — but began to grant voting rights to the residents. That movement toward self-determination has gradually led to Greenland becoming a fully-represented county in the Danish government. It has not, however, led to any full referendums on the subject of Greenland’s independence.
Which leads us to the second reason.
If a world leader were considering a serious cash offer to another country for a hefty parcel of land, would it really be extended first on Twitter? Even by Trump’s standards, that’s a stretch — unless it was always intended to be used as a pretext, an offer that was never meant to be accepted. The immediate response from Denmark was a rather predictable puzzled negative; Trump used that as an excuse to cancel a state visit. Which might be an end in itself; state visits are both expensive and deadly boring. However, this particular visit might well have been one that would place Trump in a difficult position.
Denmark has long been a staunch ally in the War On Terror. Danish troops held on in Iraq long after most other Europeans had gone home; Denmark is also assisting in Afghanistan. And, also unlike most NATO countries, Denmark is paying for its own troops and supplies. All this is something that could easily be leveraged, and to Trump’s expense. If Denmark wants anything, it’s a good time to miss a meeting.
And right now, what Europe — the E.U., that is — needs most is a Brexit deal with a “backstop”, something the U.K. is even now in the process of putting back on the table. This would be an arrangement permitting free trade to continue between Ireland and Northern Ireland even after the U.K. withdraws from the E.U. Europe is pressuring the U.K. by raising specters of colonialism and the “troubles”; the U.K. is desperate for support, as Germany and France are holding firm to a no-deal exit platform.
Which is where Denmark, with its own colonial territory, will enter play — on one side or the other.
You’re starting to see the broad strokes now; the design becomes visible. And only someone with a wildcard (even a bit nuts) reputation like Donald Trump could make this happen with so little risk. Will it work? Lord only knows; outside the inner circles of diplomacy, there’s just not enough information. Heck, from where I sit, I can’t even tell whether it’s Trump playing a gambit or someone playing Trump; it could fall either way, six to five and pick ’em.
But one thing is certain: This was not random, casual, or insane.