Donald Trump is fond of bragging about his conspicuous wealth and buying power, plastering his name over buildings and gilding the lifts of Trump Tower. But his latest reported aspiration is on the extravagant side, even for him: to purchase Greenland from Denmark.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the US president has “expressed interest” in buying the icy territory – the world’s largest island – and has asked his aides to explore the possibility. He has even sought the view of the White House counsel, though the newspaper noted his inquiries came “with varying degrees of seriousness”.
Despite the levity the idea has provoked, it is not entirely in the realm of fantasy. In 1946, US President Harry Truman tried to buy Greenland from Denmark for US$100m but was rebuffed. There was a more successful precedent dating back to 1917 when the US acquired the Danish West Indies, rebranding them the US Virgin Islands.
The US military already has a major airbase on Greenland, on the north-west of the island. The base has 600 personnel and is important in the country’s global radar system.
Trump travels to Denmark next month in his first official visit to the kingdom, though Greenland is not thought to be on the agenda. The Wall Street Journal reported that the president raised the issue at a dinner last year in which he said he had heard Denmark was finding its financial support to the self-governing territory burdensome.
Floating the thought of the US buying the island, he asked the other guests: “What do you guys think about that?”
What Denmark thinks about that is in itself not at all clear. When asked for a comment, the Danish embassy in Washington did not immediately respond.
It was unclear why Trump might want the US to buy Greenland, though his administration has identified the Arctic as an area of growing importance to US national security interests.
“This is America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in May during a speech in Finland. “The region has become an arena of global power and competition.”
With melting ice making the region more accessible, the United States has been firm in trying to counter moves by Russia and China in the Arctic. China declared itself a “near-Arctic nation” last year and has defended its desire for a “Polar Silk Road” in which Chinese goods would be delivered by sea from Asia to Europe.
China recently sought to bankroll the construction of three airports in Greenland, drawing concern from then-defence secretary James Mattis and prompting the Pentagon to make the case to Denmark that it should fund the facilities itself rather than rely on Beijing.
“Countries should be wary of piling on monumental debt, particularly ‘loan to own’ projects, that undermines their freedom of political action and sovereign choices,” a Pentagon official, Johnny Michael, said previously. “Beijing’s lack of transparency in its polar research, expeditionary activities and approach to natural resource development is also of concern.”
Some on Thursday responded to the news of Trump’s desire to buy Greenland with incredulity; others, with support.
“This idea isn’t as crazy as the headline makes it seem,” Republican Representative Mike Gallagher, said in a tweet. “This a smart geopolitical move. The United States has a compelling strategic interest in Greenland, and this should absolutely be on the table.”
Most, however, responded with mockery.
Democratic Representative Steve Cohen shared a news story about Trump’s idea and mused: “A great place for his ‘presidential’ library.”
And Jonah Goldberg, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, tweeted that MAGA – the acronym for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan – is “an anagram of Make Greenland American Already”.
Additional reporting by The Washington Post