Beautiful Days of No Interest in the Arctic Are Over

Over the last week, the world has been discussing Donald Trump’s shocking proposal to buy Greenland from Denmark. The proposal itself isn’t a realistic one, but it raises interesting questions we will have to deal with in the future. It also signifies that the beautiful period when nobody was interested in the Arctic seems to be over, as new countries are heading north in search of resources to exploit. However, that challenges the positions of Arctic powers like Russia and Norway, which will have to spend more money to increase their presence there, Asle Toje, a foreign policy analyst, explains.

Donald Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland indeed sounded like a joke, primarily to the Arctic countries – Russia, Norway and Denmark. This is because they know something about the Arctic: they know that these regions are very difficult to exploit; it is very cold there, and has an extremely inhospitable climate.

However, the Americans are interested in Greenland because of the Chinese, who are increasing their presence in the island: they’ve started obtaining rare earth metals, opened mines, and achieved a near-monopoly on these resources. Under the current administration, Americans are much more focused on resources and accessing them, and as usual, rare earth minerals are very important for the manufacture of modern electronics, including smartphones. From the American point of view, it is strange that a small country such as Denmark should own the largest island in the world. Greenland has fewer than 60,000 residents. For the Danish state, it is just an expense; they send money there every year, but do not extract resources. Every American knows the stories about American land purchases – they bought Louisiana from the French and Alaska from the Russians, – and generally, it was very beneficial for the United States. Donald Trump says of himself that he is not a politician, and he is not. That is why he is able to say “how about we just buy it?”

The aftershock response was, of course, that “we do not sell land anymore”. The Japanese tried to buy the Kuril Islands from Russia when Boris Yeltsin was president, and the Russian response was the same as Danish response to the United States. However, if you were born yesterday, you would think that it is not such a bad idea from the American point of view. It would give the United States and their economy a large piece of land that has never been exploited, and modern technology and global warming make it easier to exploit resources from there. With that said, the Danish will not go for this. It is not impossible “ever” or “in any case”, but the world will have to change. Now, what is possible and what is impossible is changing every year due to the shift of the international system towards multi-polarity. Great Britain is leaving the European Union, the United States elected Donald Trump president, and Russia managed to become a leading power in the Middle East again.

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Right now, it is very unlikely that the Danish would sell Greenland to the United States. What is possible is that we might see a stronger American presence on the island. They already have a military base, Thule Air Base, on its west coast. The American President has many ideas, and he asks the right questions, although his capacity to follow through on his ideas is much smaller than his capacity to generate new ideas. That is why it is fair to believe that his proposal will be forgotten within a couple of weeks.

However, he raises a point of mounting concern for the countries like Norway, Russia, Iceland and Canada. They have a view of the Arctic which implies that nobody else should be there. It is not politically correct, but that is the view they all share. The view of the Canadians regarding their high north is very similar to that of the Russians regarding their high north: it is very expensive to have a presence there and if somebody else is there, they will have to have more presence to know what they are doing. For instance, Russia and Norway have been working together for the better part of a hundred years now, so we know each other well; it is a marriage of thoughts. The Chinese presence concerns the Americans, but also the Russians and Norwegians – not because they are sinister or they will do something wrong. It will force us to increase our own presence, and this is something that usually costs a lot of money. In a recent joint venture between Norway and Russia, Russia wanted to develop a huge gas field there, and what we found was that it is too expensive and is not viable. That happens every time someone wants to extract minerals, gas, or oil.

Therefore, the position of the Arctic countries is that they are happy that nobody is there, and they can accept neither Chinese nor Americans there. They have an understanding, and now it is under pressure because new powers are coming in. To sum up, this beautiful period when nobody was interested in the Arctic seems to be over, and this quarrel between the United States and Denmark is an indicator of more quarrels to come, as new countries go to the high north to seek resources to exploit.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.