By Daniel McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy Editor
Imagine in some parallel universe, the President orders his national security team to make an offer to buy Greenland. The offer is drawn up, the demarche made, the Danish official receiving it is suitably shocked.
But there the issue dies. No twitter war, no parade of public denunciations, no exploding talking-heads in an endless cable newsloop.
Why not? Because the year was 1946. The President, Harry Truman. And the offer was $100,000,000 in gold to buy the whole of Greenland, in the fraught months after the merciful end of World War II and before Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech marked the onset of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. That’s a cool $1.3 billion in 2019 dollars.
A couple of years later, the U.S. settled for a strategic airbase at Thule in northwest Greenland, 1200 kilometers above the Arctic Circle, which remains a key node in the U.S. nuclear warning system.
Cut to today: President Trump’s quip about buying Greenland – followed up with a Tweet-troll of a golden Trump Tower rising up from the ice sheet, caption: “I promise not to do this to Greenland!”
Apparently, there’s something in the subject of Arctic land purchases that encourages levity. There shouldn’t be. After all, the U.S. would not be an Arctic nation today, absent Secretary of State William Henry Seward’s 1867 purchase of Alaska (price tag: $7 million, or around 2 cents per acre). And yet Seward’s Folly – imagine today’s twitter-storm: #Seward’sFolly #$7MillionIceBox? – looks pretty shrewd 150 years on. (Seward, by the way, in the midst of his negotiations to purchase Alaska from the Russian czar, commissioned a State Department study on the resources of Greenland and Iceland. If he hadn’t gotten such a scorching for his first Arctic purchase, one wonders whether Seward might have added to America’s Arctic portfolio.)
And while we’re in historical mode — and simultaneously in hysterical mode, over the presidential purchase offer — let’s leave aside how Denmark comes to control Greenland in the first place: the result of imperial expeditions that led to declarations of Danish sovereignty in the early 1800’s. As for buying Greenland, there’s no evidence the indigenous Inuit of that day were compensated.
Today’s interest in Greenland is what’s beneath the ever-shrinking icecap, as Earth’s temperature warms: Known resources of at least eight metals and minerals – taken as individual elements, including the rare earths (REEs) and platinum group metals, that’s 29 elements in all, nearly 1/3 of the naturally-occurring elements in the Periodic Table. That gives Greenland, soon or sometime in the future, a foothold as a major metals supplier to the 21st Century Tech Revolution.
And while the U.S. most emphatically may not be purchasing Greenland, that’s not to say other interested parties aren’t already buying up strategic bits of real estate.
As The Diplomat reports, consider the Kvanefjeld Rare Earths project in southern Greenland: China’s Shenghe Resources, an established REE player, took a minority stake in 2016, but it includes the right to process and market the deposit’s REE production. Then there’s China NonFerrous Metals’ investment in a zinc project in northernmost Greenland. Add to that Chinese oil and natural gas giants queueing up to bid for offshore oil blocks in 2021. It’s all part of what The Diplomat calls, rather diplomatically, China’s “economic diplomacy.”
In other words, Greenland may not be for sale, but its resource riches surely are. From Truman’s offer to Trump’s Tweets, Greenland is a hot property. Surely, Secretary Seward would have understood.
Daniel McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy editor, served in senior positions in the White House and Department of Defense, and has testified in the U.S. Senate and House on critical minerals issues. McGroarty is principal of Washington, D.C.-based Carmot Strategic Group, and president of the American Resources Policy Network, a non-partisan virtual think tank dedicated to informing the public on the importance of developing U.S. metal and mineral resources. The views expressed here are his own.