Analysis: What a Trump Presidency Means for Denmark and Greenland

There are few clues about President-elect Donald Trump’s views on the Arctic, yet he will have a strong influence on the future relationship between the U.S. and Greenland.

Written by Martin Breum Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A NASA airborne laboratory refuels at the Thule Air Base in Greenland.NASA/Goddard/Christy Hansen

The Kingdom of Denmark has a direct link to the U.S. by way of Greenland. Ever since World War II, U.S. military bases in Greenland have been central to the relationship Denmark and Greenland have with the U.S. – and they will continue to be so.

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States – and its commander-in-chief – will have a direct impact on the relationship Greenland and Denmark have with the U.S., just as it will affect the fragile international relationships in the Arctic, which Greenland and Denmark have made a priority.

In the wake of the election, the Thule Air Base, located at 76°N, 1,200 km (750 miles) north of the Arctic Circle, may take on new strategic importance for the United States. Greenland’s location walls off North America from the rest of the Arctic and makes it a strategic buffer against China, North Korea, Russia and Iran. Look at a globe: the powerful U.S. radar installation at the Thule Air Base is a key part of its defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles, which the U.S. fears again.

President-elect Donald Trump has said he wants a stronger missile defense system. The Canadian technology-news publication, Cantech Letters, predicts that the U.S. will now seek a “greater military presence in the North, including radar and communications, Air Force and Navy.”

The Thule Air Base has all of that: It is the only deep-water port in this part of the Arctic; there are two 3,000-m-long (1.9-mile-long) paved runways that can accommodate even the largest American bombers, and – most importantly – there are advanced radar and satellite installations there. They are directly linked to the U.S. Air Force Space Command in Colorado, which Trump’s advisers have indicated will be at the center of an upgraded missile-defense system.

It could mean that Thule will become much more important to Washington. The governments in Nuuk and in Copenhagen must now analyze how this might change the relationship with the U.S., and also how Russia views Denmark’s role in the Arctic.

In the past, Greenland held a profitable contract to service the Thule Air Base. But it has lost the contract – and more than 150 million kroner ($21 million) in revenues and tax contributions. This could be a potentially catastrophic loss for Greenland and Nuuk is trying to persuade the U.S. that it must be compensated for the use of the land on which the base is located. The issue is so high on the agenda for Naalakkersuisut, the elected government, that it has already been mentioned by Kim Kielsen, the premier, in his official letter of congratulations to Trump.

“Naalakkersuisut looks forward to continuing cooperation and negotiations on how we can ensure that Greenland’s contribution to defence cooperation can be updated,” he wrote.

If the U.S. gives the Thule base more attention, Nuuk may be able to squeeze more money out of Washington, but it won’t be easy. The Pentagon is already struggling to understand Nuuk’s appraisal of losing the contract, and there is no reason to believe that this will change under Trump’s leadership. Immediately after the election, Inuuteq Holm Olsen, Greenland’s diplomatic representative in Washington, told the Greenland paper Sermitsiaq, “He has mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren, whom he calls Pocahontas because of her Native American heritage.”

America First

Donald Trump’s “America First” attitude concerns many. As Rob Huebert, of the University of Calgary, told Arctic Deeply, “this means that the support of the Arctic Council that has been one of the major elements of the Obama administration will decrease.”

This may not seem important, but Copenhagen and Nuuk are both aware that it is largely through the Arctic Council that Greenland and Denmark exert their influence in the Arctic, and it is what links the western Arctic states with Russia. The Arctic Council gives all members – large and small – equal voice, and makes decisions only with the support of Indigenous groups, including Greenland’s Inuit.

Throughout the Arctic Council’s 20-year history, it has been difficult to get the U.S. fully engaged with the council’s work. The breakthrough came in Nuuk in 2011, when Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. Secretary of State to attend an Arctic Council meeting. Her successor, John Kerry, joined the meeting in Kiruna in 2013.

In 2015, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Alaska. His trip took him to a number of villages north of the Arctic Circle and allowed him to meet with representatives from across the Arctic region, including Denmark’s foreign minister Kristian Jensen and Greenland’s foreign minister Vittus Qujaukitsoq. John Kerry visited Greenland six months later, emphasizing the importance of the relationship between the U.S., Greenland and Denmark.

The Obama administration’s engagement in the Arctic was largely driven by its concern about climate change, something that Donald Trump does not share. Mia Bennett, an academic at the University of California and author of the blog Cryopolitics, noted that Trump has selected Myron Ebell, a climate-change skeptic, to lead the transition of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

William Moomaw, of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, was also pessimistic. “President Trump will undermine most attempts to address climate change, and the U.S. will become a drag on the future development of the Paris Accord. This has devastating consequences for the Arctic,” he told Arctic Deeply.

The Arctic Environment

Nuuk and Copenhagen, have long understood the need to balance those who prioritize the prevention of climate change and protection of the environment and those who are focused on oil and gas development, mining, shipping routes and fisheries. Here, the Obama administration has pursued a course that sits well with what Copenhagen and Nuuk want, and aligns with the Kingdom of Denmark’s Arctic strategy.

Indigenous people have made sustainable development a priority, and Greenland has worked hard for this. But there has also been agreement on measures that will protect the environment. Since taking over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015, the U.S. has used it to inform Americans about climate change and to make progress on health, climate adaptation and telecommunications in Alaska. At the international level, it has sought to improve the protection of the marine environment.

The Obama administration has also put tight restrictions on oil and gas drilling off the coast of Alaska, leading Shell and other oil companies to stop their activities there. The U.S. is also behind an effort to ban fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean, which would include major fishing nations like China, Japan and South Korea. The moratorium would give researchers time to study how receding sea ice affects fish stocks. The proposal, which has warm support from Greenland, Denmark and the Faroe Islands, will be further discussed at a meeting next week in Torshavn, in the Faroe Islands.

We know little about what a Trump administration would think about this international agreement. All we know is that he is skeptical about climate change, supports the rollback on restrictions on oil and gas exploration in Alaska and has not shown interest in the Arctic.

A version of this story originally appeared in High North News. It has been translated and reprinted here with permission.

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