Saturday, August 24, 2019

Trump doesn't understand Greenland or Guam

If President Trump understood anything about Guam and colonialism, he would not have offered to buy Greenland. Indigenous people have rights. No longer can one nation "own" another, as Spain did in 1898, when it turn over Guam to the U.S. as a prize of war.

In 1979, about 70% of Greenland's voters approved home rule and since then the island has been self-governing. It's still dependent on financial assistance from Denmark, but the island is on a possible path to full independence.  Greenland is not Demarks to sell and it's amazing that Trump doesn't understand it.

Trump's offer to buy Greenland is rooted in Colonial-era thinking, pre-dating the UN charter that gives indigenous populations the right to self-determination.

This said, it's interesting to contrast Greenland with Guam. What becomes clear, is that Greenland is in a much better position than Guam to determine its political fate.

Guam's Chamorro population makes up less than 40% of the island's total. The Greenland Inuit, in contrast, account for about 90%.

Guam is an Asian melting pot and this culture diversity is one of the island's great strengths. But it is also a serious complication to a Chamorro-only vote on Guam's future political status. Federal courts have rejected a native-only vote as discriminatory. Greenland doesn't have this demographic obstacle.

Greenland, which has a population of 56,000, similar to the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, receives about $600 million in support from Denmark. It has universal healthcare and other Scandinavian-type social benefits.

If Greenland does seek full autonomy, it may look to the Pacific to try to understand what that means. Although the U.S. still has strong political ties to island states, China is using its economic power to expand its influence. China, for instance, has cut tourism to Palau for its recognition of Taiwan. In the Northern Marianas, it is using casino development and tourism to build stronger ties and weaken U.S. influence.

An autonomous Greenland may feel obligated to cut deals with China and Russia for valuable mineral rights and port access, actions that would put it in conflict with the U.S.

The best approach for the U.S. going forward in dealing with Greenland, is to respect and recognize the native population. Trump's offer to buy Greenland may be seen by a future administration as crude, but also a legitimate expression of geopolitical concerns over military and economic control of the arctic. America will have to compete for influence because it can't "buy" Greenland.


Selected readings:

Trump’s Greenland Plan Shows He Has No Idea How American Power Works, NY Times, Daniel Immerwahr, Aug. 23, 2019.

A Brief History of the Indignities Heaped Upon Greenland, NY Times, Matthew H. Birkhold, Aug. 22, 2019.

A new great game: US-China competition in Guam and CNMI, a paper by Major Nicholas Sigler. 2017. 




Paradise Lost. Ms. Magazine. A report on the exploitation of Northern Mariana Island workers. July, 2019. 

China's influence on Free Association States (page 36-37) testimony by Admiral Philip S. Davidson before Senate Armed Services Committee, Feb. 2019. 

China's Engagement in the Pacific Islands: Implications for the United States. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 2018. 

CIA Factbook: Greenland

Why Trump Can't Buy Greenland. Lawfare, Aug. 2019.  

Greenland Reconciliation Commission finds colonization did 'a lot of damage.' CBC. Jan. 2018.

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