I want to buy Greenland, said President Trump. No way, said the Danes and Greenlanders, who share control over the giant frozen island and its rich mineral treasures. Then I’m not going to visit your queen, shot back the self-proclaimed master of the real estate deal, who can’t stand being rebuffed. “Is this some sort of joke?” tweeted Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former Danish prime minister, speaking for everyone.
That’s the gist of it, one of the more astounding plays by a president who finds new ways to amaze, alienate and infuriate almost daily.
To be fair to the president, acquiring Greenland would be nice for the United States. The island sits atop a trove of rare-earth metals, a category whose mining and export is increasingly dominated by China. It also has national security importance to the United States, which maintains its northernmost missile-warning, space surveillance and deepwater seaport at the Thule Air Base on Greenland’s northwestern coast. China has tried repeatedly to get a foothold on the island, but has been blocked so far by Denmark.
Mr. Trump is not the first American president to seek to buy Greenland; Harry Truman tried and failed in 1946. And earlier presidents did acquire quite a bit of other territories through purchases: Thomas Jefferson concluded the Louisiana Purchase with France in 1803; Andrew Johnson bought Alaska in 1867; and Woodrow Wilson picked up the Danish West Indies, now the United States Virgin Islands, from Denmark in 1917.
So Mr. Trump would have chalked up quite a historic feat had he closed on the acquisition of Greenland. But the United States doesn’t need to own Greenland to maintain a major military base there. More to the point, the world in which major powers deemed it their civilizing mission to conquer or buy territories and colonies is long over — witness the furor over Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.
“Greenland is not for sale,” declared the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, calling the idea “absurd.”
“Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland,” she said. “I strongly hope that this is not meant seriously.”
She added, pointedly: “Thankfully, the time where you buy and sell other countries and populations is over. Let’s leave it there.”
What came through in Mr. Trump’s approach was not realpolitik, but a crude and insulting transactional vision of a world in which buying a self-ruled territory and its more than 56,000 people was just another “large real estate deal” — in his view, one that Denmark should welcome because Greenland was purportedly draining $700 million a year in Danish subsidies.
When first reported in The Wall Street Journal last Friday, the idea drew howls of hilarity. But when Mr. Trump made clear he was serious, amusement turned to astonishment and, in Denmark and Greenland, to indignation. Mr. Trump’s claim that “Denmark essentially owns it” overlooked the fact that Greenland effectively runs its own affairs while Denmark, its sovereign owner, takes care of defense and foreign policy.
Foreign leaders from Justin Trudeau to Theresa May have learned that Mr. Trump’s oversize ego does not take rejection lightly. Still, it came as a shock to the Danes when the president abruptly canceled a visit to Denmark scheduled for Sept. 2 to 3, after earlier insisting that buying Greenland was not on the agenda. The insult was compounded by the fact that the visit was to include a formal reception by Queen Margrethe II. Welcoming billboards were already in place proclaiming, “Partner, ally, friend.”
That the president of the United States would demonstrate such willful ignorance of how the world works, that he would treat a territory and its independent people like goods and chattel, that he would so readily damage relations with an old and important ally out of petty pique, is frightening.