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How Donald Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland really went down in Denmark

From a Danish perspective, US president Donald Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland was ridiculous – on so many levels. The only place the idea was portrayed as a good idea was in cocky comments on social media referring to a lack of Greenlandic “thankfulness” or downright “ungratefulness” towards Denmark.

In general, the public debate has been framed around the understanding that the Greenlanders are their own people. They decide their own destiny. That said, the ties between Denmark and Greenland run deeper than a marriage of convenience. Quite a few people living in Denmark have spent time living and working in Greenland, and many of these will have been appalled by Trump’s advances.

Experts of international politics, though, have drawn attention to the symbolic relevance of Trump’s offer. Attention from the US president is a reminder of how important the Arctic region, and thereby Greenland and Denmark, have become in global affairs – a new situation, which should be taken seriously.

Nonetheless, the fact that Trump has now cancelled his official visit to Denmark because prime minister Mette Frederiksen rejected his offer leaves an understanding gap between the Danes and the US government that is hard to bridge. It’s difficult to see where the two nations go from here, given the highly unusual situation.

Emotional ties

Trump’s bid for Greenland isn’t without historical precedent, of course. Denmark did sell some of its territory to the US in 1917, when the Danish West Indies became the US Virgin Islands. Reporting on that sale, a local Danish newspaper laconically wrote:

The Danish West Indies are formally handed over. The sum is paid.

While the Danish West Indies had been the property of the nation for 250 years, they were seen as little more than an investment object. There wasn’t much meaningful cultural or political connection.

It’s not for sale? I’ll take it anyway. EPA

Greenland’s status is both connected to this sale and very different from it. In the treaty concerning the transfer of the West Indies territory, Denmark also made the US recognise Danish sovereignty over all of Greenland.

The US then offered to buy Greenland three decades later, immediately after World War II, when it had established a military presence on the territory. Denmark declined. In short: Greenland was not an investment object.

During the period of national romanticism that followed the secession of Norway in 1814, the Danish possession of the North Atlantic, including Greenland, became its link to the North – and to its Viking past and Scandinavia. This was a vital component of the national image – a strong statement that Danes are not Germans, despite their geographical proximity.

Equal recognition

By the 1930s and 1940s, Greenland’s elites were acknowledging this emotional connection and took the opportunity to call for recognition as equal Danish citizens. In 1953, Greenland was integrated into Denmark as a Danish county – albeit with a somewhat different status to the others. Greenlanders thereby got their formal equality as citizens and the Danish government avoided having to grapple with a more complex arrangement, like the home rule that had been conceded to the Faroe Islands in 1948.

‘Absurd’: Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen and Greenland premier Kim Kielsen react to Trump’s advances. EPA

Following the integration, the Danish government implemented an intense programme of modernisation in Greenland. This process followed the logic of the universal welfare state that every citizen had to have equal opportunities. It was also, to some degree, founded on the visions of Greenland’s modernising politicians.

From a Danish point of view, this process made it possible for a considerable amount of educated and skilled Danes to work in Greenland. The size of the educated Danish work force has since been substantial and the number of Danes with a connection to Greenland considerable – although a large part of the Danish population still doesn’t know much about Greenlandic society.

Many Greenlanders, however, saw this process as being implemented over their heads. They felt they paid cultural and existential costs that left them second-class citizens in their own country. That, in turn, led to an increasing focus on traditional Inuit culture and demands for increasing self government. Now, a majority of the Greenlandic people want to be independent, although not if it means a serious drop in living standards.

In connection with this history, there are mixed feelings in Denmark towards Greenland. It is regularly argued, suggested or implied that Greenland should be more thankful for the help Denmark offers. In general, there is a strong understanding of Greenland’s desire for greater independence, but a majority of the population still supports the continued unity of Greenland and Denmark. For all these reasons, and against the backdrop of a long and complicated history, the offer from Trump was not only seen as ridiculous, but by many Danes as insulting towards both Greenland and Denmark.

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