Greenland’s Gamble

Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian-born independent journalist whose column is published in more than 175 papers in 45 countries.

By Gwynne Dyer


From his purchase of New Jersey casinos to his proposed acquisition of Greenland, Donald Trump’s real estate deals have always been plagued by bad timing. The United States could probably have bought Greenland from Denmark in 1917 (when it did buy the US Virgin Islands from the Danes), but he’s a century too late now.

Nevertheless, his latest bad idea does give us an incentive to catch up with what’s been happening in Greenland. Trump may not know this, but in November 2017 Greenland’s premier, Kim Kielsen, led a government delegation to Beijing to seek Chinese investment.

Greenland, the world’s biggest island, is not yet fully independent, but it is autonomous from Denmark in everything except foreign affairs and defence. Kielsen was looking mainly for Chinese investment in mining enterprises, but he also hoped to attract a Chinese bid to build three modern airports on the island, which currently depends on World War II-era airstrips.

This set off a security panic in NATO, involving implausible nightmares about Greenland getting deep in debt to China and letting it operate military aircraft from those airports.

The US military, which has a large air base at Thule in northern Greenland, then took fright. Washington strongly urged the Danish government to nip this threat in the bud. Late last year Copenhagen suddenly came up with very low-interest loans for them. End of panic.

But Kim Kielsen’s government is still interested in Chinese mines in Greenland. In fact, there already is one in southern Greenland, producing uranium and rare earths for a Chinese-Australian consortium. Other projects potentially involving Chinese capital (and Chinese workers) include a huge open-cast iron-ore mine, a zinc mine, and both offshore and onshore oil and gas leases.

For the 56,000 Greenlanders, 90% of whom are Inuit (Eskimo), the geostrategic implications of Chinese investment are irrelevant – and they are probably right about that. What concerns them is the cultural and social implications of foreign investment by anybody, Chinese or not.

The Greenland Inuit are one of the few indigenous societies in the world that has almost full control over its own destiny, but the impact of the modern world on their traditional culture has been as destructive as it was for all the others: depression and other psychological illnesses, rampant alcoholism and drug use, and an epidemic of suicides.

So they face a choice. Do they go on trying to preserve what is left of the old Arctic hunting and fishing culture, although it’s already so damaged and discouraged that it has the highest suicide rate on the planet? Or do they seek salvation in full modernisation through high-speed economic growth, while keeping their language and what they can of their culture?

The decision was made in 2013, when the Siumut Party took power. It believes that modernisation has gone too far to turn back now. Better to gamble on solving the current huge social problems by enabling everybody to live fully modern, prosperous lives. If you’re no longer marginalised and poverty-stricken, you’ll feel better about yourself.

Let us hope so, because the die is cast. Greenland will modernise, and in due course we will find out if that helps. But they certainly don’t want to become Americans. The ‘Greenland Purchase’ is not going to happen.

As Soren Espersen, foreign affairs spokesman of the Danish People’s Party, said last week: “If (Trump) is truly contemplating this, then this is final proof that he has gone mad.”

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