Disrupting the High North: Great Power Competition Comes to Greenland

Thule U.S. Air Base. Photo credit: NASA


By: Ashley Postler, Columnist

At a time of rapid environmental change and newfound access to previously frozen polar resources, Greenland’s ambition for independence from the Kingdom of Denmark is gaining momentum, which could have profound impacts on Arctic security. If independence truly is a matter of when, and not if,[i] then the U.S. must set the stage for long-term engagement with Greenland by securing our strategic assets on the island and establishing a diplomatic presence there. US priorities for Greenlandic independence, should it manifest, must not only respect the aspirations and identity of Greenlanders, but also protect US strategic regional interests and keep our close ally, Denmark, as an Arctic player. Further, such an arrangement must also avoid provoking Russia while simultaneously managing the influence of non-Arctic actors in the region.

Greenlandic independence, which in a 2016 poll enjoyed the support of an average 64% of Greenlanders,[ii] has been in the works for decades. The Self-Government Act, signed in 2009, recognizes Greenlanders’ right to secede from the Kingdom,[iii] but as of yet the island state lacks a self-sufficient economic base to stand on its own. Presently, Denmark provides Greenland with an annual block grant of approximately 3.7 billion Danish krones, fixed at the 2009 rate.[iv] This subsidy, worth nearly $600 million USD today, accounts for nearly a quarter of Greenland’s GDP. A break from Denmark now would trigger a drastic deterioration of living standards for Greenland’s aging population.[v], [vi] Independence is not yet affordable.

A melting ice cap is therefore a boon to Greenland, environmental concerns notwithstanding. Greater access to Greenland’s vast resource wealth increasingly attracts foreign investment in its economy and infrastructure. For example, several Chinese-backed mining projects have been proposed,[vii], [viii] though struggle to progress given the lack of infrastructure on the island. To remedy this, China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE), recently bid on a $559 million solicitation from Greenland to expand three of its airports.[ix] The project could ease financial dependency on Denmark and hasten Greenland’s path to independence.

On the other hand, the CCCC case highlights the multifaceted and transregional implications of a Greenland newly independent. The project—nearly equivalent to the annual block grant—raised concerns that Beijing could gain disproportionate influence in Greenland,[x] and thereby strengthen its claim as a ‘near-Arctic state.’[xi] That CCCC had previously been debarred from the World Bank due to fraudulent business practices[xii] only compounded this, and, perhaps bowing to US dissent, a Danish company ultimately outbid CCCC. Denmark fears being sidelined in Greenland, and indeed in the Arctic as a whole, at a time of immense environmental change and economic opportunity. Should Greenland become independent, not only could Denmark be pushed out of the region, but other interested actors such as China could maneuver their way in.[xiii]

The U.S., which has maintained a military presence at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland since 1941, also has a strategic interest in whether Greenland will become independent and shaping what forms that newly sovereign state might take. Recognizing the need to balance China’s Arctic ventures, and in light of Russia’s oft-noted modernization of its Arctic military assets, the U.S. must ensure continued ownership and operation of Thule.[xiv] This arrangement could come into question under an independent Greenland, for example if Greenland were to pursue a NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) path.[xv] Greenland also could insist that the U.S. pay rent, which would provide much-needed revenue and perhaps offset the reality that as an independent nation of only 56,000 people and no military, Greenland would for the first time be responsible for its own security.[xvi] However, this could set a precedent for other US bases across the globe.[xvii]

NATO membership for Greenland, in exchange for allowing the U.S. to maintain Thule, could circumvent this. Indeed, some in Greenland speculate that the current arrangement provides Denmark with NATO discounts.[xviii] If that is the case, an independent Greenland could replicate this, thereby also overcoming the fact that Greenland, given its small population, could hardly be expected to assemble a military large enough to safeguard its own massive territory, let alone meet the forces threshold for NATO.

But this would likely be a non-starter given anticipated resistance by Russia, which has long managed to keep NATO out of the Arctic. Even though all of the other littoral Arctic states are members, NATO as an institution does not have an Arctic policy and therefore no formal role in the region.[xix] Russia would thus resist Greenland’s independent membership in NATO, as NATO would be Greenland’s de facto security guarantor, construing it as enlargement. This could exacerbate tensions elsewhere across the globe, not just in the Arctic, which has for much of history enjoyed cooperation among regional players.

The U.S. should therefore establish a permanent American diplomatic presence in Greenland in order to better assess and navigate unfolding events in Greenland. The US embassy in Copenhagen proposed the idea in 2007, but it was later dismissed,[xx] likely due to US skepticism about the eventuality of Greenlandic independence. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)[xxi] recently revisited the possibility, which was echoed by Inuuteq Holm Olsen, Greenland’s Representative to the U.S. at the Danish embassy in Washington. Additionally, a US consulate in Nuuk would reciprocate Greenlandic overtures for closer ties to the U.S., as evidenced by the opening of its D.C. office in 2014.[xxii]

To avoid appearing to take sides on the one hand—and to hedge its bets on the other—the U.S. could take an even softer approach. Greenland is a booming platform for scientific advancement, and myriad opportunities exist for the U.S. to engage with Greenland on joint research projects and educational exchange programs. Such endeavors would bring funding to Greenland and facilitate long-term cooperation as the island takes on an ever more important role in an increasingly important region. Greenland’s future is on a curve the U.S. must stay ahead of.









[i] Inuuteq Holm Olsen, Minister Plenipotentiary and Head of Representation for Greenland in the Danish Embassy in Washington, DC, interview by Michael Sfraga, Wilson Center’s Polar Initiative, June 20, 2018, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/perspectives-the-future-greenland.

[ii] Av Kevin Mcgwin, “Solid majority favours Greenland independence,” High North News, July 12, 2016, http://www.highnorthnews.com/solid-majority-favours-greenland-independence/.

[iii] “The Greenland Self-Government Arrangement,” Office of the Prime Minister of Denmark Website, accessed September 24, 2018. http://stm.dk/_a_2957.html.

[iv] “Greenland in Figures: 2017,” Statistics Greenland, April 2017, 8, http://www.stat.gl/publ/en/GF/2017/pdf/Greenland%20in%20Figures%202017.pdf.

[v] Kristian Søby Kristensen and Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, Greenland and the International Politics of a Changing Arctic: Postcolonial Paradiplomacy Between High and Low Politics (New York: Routledge, 2018), 72.

[vi] “Greenland in Figures: 2017,” 7.

[vii] “The Costs of Keeping Greenland in the West’s Orbit,” World Politics Review, September 18, 2018, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/25971/the-costs-of-keeping-greenland-in-the-west-s-orbit.

[viii] “Mining firms from China to Canada watch as Greenland holds election,” Reuters, April 20, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/greenland-election/mining-firms-from-china-to-canada-watch-as-greenland-holds-election-idUSL3N1RQ5E3.

[ix] Teis Jensin, “Greenland government loses majority as airport funding row resurfaces,” Reuters, September 10, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-greenland-politics-denmark/greenland-government-loses-majority-as-airport-funding-row-resurfaces-idUSKCN1LQ0N3.

[x] Kevin Mcgwin, “U.S. defence investments in Greenland would keep NATO in, China out and Russia at bay,” Arctic Today, September 19, 2018, https://www.arctictoday.com/us-defense-investments-greenland-infrastructure-keep-nato-china-russia-bay/.

[xi] “China’s Arctic Policy,” The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China Website, January 26, 2018, http://english.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2018/01/26/content_281476026660336.htm.

[xii] “World Bank Applies 2009 Debarment to China Communications Construction Company Limited for Fraud in Philippines Roads Project,” The World Bank, July 29, 2011, http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2011/07/29/world-bank-applies-2009-debarment-to-china-communications-construction-company-limited-for-fraud-in-philippines-roads-project.

[xiii] “The Costs of Keeping Greenland.”

[xiv] U.S. Department of State, Agreement between the United States of America and Denmark: Defense of Greenland, Igaliku: August 6, 2004, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/170358.pdf.

[xv] Kristensen and Rahbek-Clemmensen, Greenland and the International Politics of a Changing Arctic, 76.

[xvi] Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, “Greenland Geopolitics: Globalisation and Geopolitics in the New North,” Committee for Greenlandic Mineral Resources to the Benefit of Society, December 2013, 3, https://greenlandperspective.ku.dk/this_is_greenland_perspective/background/report-papers/Greenland_Geopolitics_Globalisation_and_Geopolitics_in_the_New_North.pdf.

[xvii] Kristensen and Rahbek-Clemmensen, Greenland and the International Politics of a Changing Arctic, 73.

[xviii] Ibid, 74.

[xix] Av Ragnhild Grønning, “NATO reluctant to engage in the Arctic,” High North News, November 24, 2016, http://www.highnorthnews.com/nato-reluctant-to-engage-in-the-arctic/.

[xx] Kristensen and Rahbek-Clemmensen, Greenland and the International Politics of a Changing Arctic, 76.

[xxi] Krestia DeGeorge, “Alaska senator proposes US consulate in Greenland,” Arctic Today, June 27, 2017, https://www.arctictoday.com/alaska-senator-proposes-us-consulate-in-greenland/.

[xxii] Inuuteq Holm Olsen, interview by Michael Sfraga, Wilson Center’s Polar Initiative.

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