One of the strangest diplomatic rows broke out this week after the Trump administration told the world it was considering buying the island of Greenland.
Its official owner Denmark said it’s not for sale and called the idea “absurd”. Trump took offence and cancelled a planned trip to the country, calling the Danish prime minister “nasty”.
Even in the era of the Donald Trump White House, this seems weird.
Why does America want to buy Greenland?
Hypothetically, there are a number of reasons that the US would love to have the island.
Greenland is thought to have plenty of strategically valuable natural resources that could end America’s dependence on China for certain materials.
Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld thinks it’s worth more to the US than it is to the Danish.
“Greenland has enormous unexplored stores of natural resources, including zinc, lead, gold, iron ore, diamonds, copper and uranium, that Denmark has been unable or unwilling to exploit,” he wrote in The Washington Post.
As he also points out, global warming is melting ice and opening up new shipping routes that will provide important new opportunities for trade and military operations. Owning Greenland would help the US exploit that.
The other big reason is China paranoia. The US already has two air force military bases in Greenland and it doesn’t want to see China and Russia come to dominate the region.
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, reportedly said this week that he was one of the first people to raise the issue with Trump over concerns that the Chinese government sought to bribe Greenland's government last year into allowing it to build three military bases on the territory.
US has already tried to purchase Greenland
In 1946, then US President Harry S. Truman tried to purchase Greenland, and offered Denmark parts of Alaska (which the US had previously bought from Russia).
Secretary of State James Byrnes wrote at the time that the proposal “seemed to come as a shock” and an insult to Danish officials, who turned it down. Sounds familiar.
As it turned out, huge oil reserves were later found in the part of Alaska that was up on the chopping block, and maybe Denmark missed out.
Greenland was made an integral part of Denmark in 1951 after two centuries as a colony. In 1979, the island was granted home rule, but Denmark retains control of foreign and defence affairs.
A history of US land acquisitions
In 1916, Denmark sold its Danish West Indies to America, which we now know as the Virgin Islands. The purchase - for $25 million - happened during Woodrow Wilson's administration.
In 1867, US and Russian officials signed a treaty that officially gave 1,518,800 square kilometres of land now known as Alaska to the United States. What is now viewed as a winning trade for the US, the deal cost $7.2 million at the time.
In the early 1800s, when Thomas Jefferson was president, France sold 2,141,920 square kilometres of land to the US for $15 million, in what the history books have dubbed The Louisiana Purchase.
Later that century, the US signed an agreement with its southern neighbour that ended the Mexican-American War and saw Mexico give up about 1,359,744 square kilometres for $15 million.
The mercurial state of the nation state
Those supporting Trump’s seemingly ridiculous idea to try and buy Greenland argue borders and territories are hardly set in stone.
The world watched as Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Meanwhile Chinese officials have repeatedly voiced their intention to absorb Taiwan into Chinese mainland rule and look set to prematurely reclaim Hong Kong.
When it’s not the result of military force or war, the world has a long history of buying and trading land – albeit when the world’s population was far fewer and the international state system much less robust.
Trump buying Greenland is about as likely as 56-year-old Michael Jordan coming out of retirement again. But it wouldn’t be completely unprecedented.
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