The time has come for the United States to take decisive action to defend its strategic interests in Greenland as part of a broader Arctic national policy. While the United States has played an essential role in Arctic and Greenland security in the past, in recent decades, a far-sighted vision of America’s Arctic imperative was neglected through multiple administrations. As international interest in the Arctic grows, the United States must adopt a robust policy for Greenland that clarifies our national relationship to the Danish territory, empowers a forward-leaning military posture, and provides for developing commercial trade relationships.
Since the Second World War, the United States has maintained a military presence in Greenland to defend against hostile nations developing a military presence in Greenland. At the outset of the war, the United States supported Denmark in defense of Greenland against Germany’s threat establishing a forward operating base out of the territory, from which maritime attacks or amphibious landings could be conducted. Soon afterward, the Cold War amplified the strategic value of Greenland as the Soviet threat grew. While the possibility of a Soviet military buildup in Greenland was real, the island’s military value became more offensive, as Thule Air Force Base provided the shortest path for American bombers to reach Russian targets in the event of an attack. Further, Thule’s location as the closest military outpost to the North Pole provided the ideal place to establish critical radar capabilities to monitor and communicate with polar satellites, an essential mission operation still necessary today.
While the United States and Denmark have a long-standing military relationship in Greenland, the Danish vision for Greenland has often contrasted strongly with the United States’ desires. In the 1960s, the United States Army engaged in several covert military experiments in Greenland without the Danish government’s knowledge or consent. Two of the more notable experiments were the construction of Camp Century, established to determine the feasibility of installing Minuteman missiles in the remote environment, and Project Iceworm, an attempt to construct tunnels and military base facilities from within Greenland’s ice sheet. Both experiments were doomed to diplomatic failure, as Denmark was less than enthusiastic about the United States’ military actions performed without their knowledge. For Denmark, Minuteman nuclear missiles’ presence risked Denmark’s position as a non-nuclear power, which diplomatically could not be compromised. Without Camp Century, there was no means to support Project Iceworm: The Greenland ice sheet proved to be too plastic to support a network of military tunnels, as tunnels required regularly retrenching to remain sustainable. The result of these failed experiments was a chill in the Danish-American military relationship. The United States could not establish the full spectrum of defense capabilities for Arctic defense that it had envisioned. The United States needs polar forward radar capabilities to support missile defense projects. Meanwhile, Denmark distrusted its former partner and the United States military’s presence within its sovereign territory.
Following the end of the Cold War, many nations have taken an interest in Arctic development. As supposed “climate change” in the Arctic warms the polar region and decreases the Arctic ice sheets’ expanse, Arctic regions are becoming a new and contested frontier for national development. The Russian Federation is pushing sovereignty claims deep into the Arctic and the North Pole, seeking to develop underwater energy reserves, and maintaining the world’s largest fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers to sustain the northern sea route. Canada, likewise, has been quietly asserting its territorial sovereignty far to the north. Not to be left out of the Arctic race, China has asserted its commercial presence in the north, including negotiating to open mining operations in Greenland and investing in a fleet of icebreakers. As warming trends continue, a massive land grab for the Arctic threatens to create new tensions in the north.
The interest in the Arctic has not escaped Denmark’s notice. In response to growing military interest in the region, Denmark has increased its military deployment to Greenland and established an Arctic command to defend Danish holdings. Denmark’s more substantial hand is diplomatic, as it seeks to arrange cooperative relationships as a founding member of the Arctic Council. However, the Danish relationship with the United States remains in a state of tension, increasing the uncertainty in the region.
While many politicians, public policy, and military advisers have tried to warn of the growing importance of the Arctic, the United States’ military policy has not been sufficiently revised to address Arctic threats. Following the Cold War, drawdowns in the U.S. military led to a decade of the United States searching for footing in its place as the sole superpower in the world. Following 9/11, military intelligence and operations’ focus became the middle east and a war on terrorism. Finally, during the Obama administration, the military sequester hampered the military’s core war-fighting and defense functions, preventing substantive enhancements to the U.S. Arctic warfare posture. Thus, the United States is lagging in its Arctic military strategy at precisely the time that other nations are exercising their regional presence.
While the demand for bold American action in the Arctic has grown, none could have anticipated President Trump raising the possibility of formally acquiring the island of Greenland from Denmark and incorporating it as sovereign territory of the United States. Immediately mocked by the international media and political pundits, the President’s comments created a surprising space in the public discourse to explore the possibility of an American Greenland. There are many advantages and opportunities in what could become the most massive single territorial expansion of the United States in history, even as such an opportunity seemed impossibly lost in the past. The same drivers luring other nations to Arctic development could present greater possibilities to the United States.
Foremost, the United States would finally be able to cement its strategic military relationship with Greenland. Establishing Greenland naval bases would improve American defense of northern trade routes and mineral exploration. Naval defense of the Northwest Passage and a base of operations for an American fleet of icebreakers would open up the potential for safe and sustainable maritime trade between Asian nations and Europe through the north using dramatically shorted and less expensive trade routes. Additionally, an empowered United States could fully implement a ground-based missile defense capability. Expansion of the existing Thule Air Force Base would allow the facility to take on new missions for patrol and defense of Arctic airspace. New eastern bases to establish and train Arctic warfare ground forces in the face of new threats become a real possibility.
An American Greenland has much more to offer than military benefits: Greenland is ripe with development potential. Denmark has never capitalized fully on its territorial holdings, due in part to tensions between Greenlanders and Denmark about how the territory should be developed. With Greenlanders in favor of economic development, partnering with the United States could open up a new wave of economic development, starting with mineral rights. The United States has one of the most robust oil and gas development industries globally, and the opportunity to develop Greenland’s oil reserves could power economic transformation beneficial to both parties. The United States trade deficit consists in large part of oil imports. By increasing our supply of domestically produced oil, the United States would be in a position to balance the trade deficit dramatically. A strong American economic presence in Greenland would further serve as a disincentive to the predatory trade practices of nations such as China, limiting other nations’ ability to establish a strong economic and political footprint in the region.
The potential winners in an American Greenland are the Greenlanders themselves, consisting of the Inuit tribes and Danish settlers’ decedents. The harsh climate and limited economic prospects of life in Greenland make living on the island a challenging proposition. Poverty is present throughout the island, with a total population of only slightly over fifty thousand people, limiting economic growth potential and sustainment. The prospects of economic development, increasing wages, access to trade goods, and improved medical care access would be a welcome boost for the island’s inhabitants.
Regardless of whether Greenland’s territorial acquisition by the United States comes to fruition, the potential for economic, political, and military development remains compelling. Concerns about international imperialism and expansion in the Arctic region cannot be disregarded as nations position themselves to compete in the opening Arctic region: The Arctic will be developed, whether the United States is a forward player or not. Solidifying and normalizing the U.S. relationship with Denmark and Greenland is the best path for U.S. interest in the Arctic.
Beary, Brian. “Race for the Arctic.” CQ Global Researcher, 1 Aug. 2008, pp. 213-42. Access 15 Nov. 2020.
In his article “Race for the Arctic,” Brian Beary draws attention to Greenland’s strategic importance as the major world powers pursue land claims, mineral rights, international trade, and new shipping routes. Attempts to expand oil explorations have impacted Greenland’s position globally but have had impacts locally. Climate change offers unique economic development opportunities for a province long neglected by Europe (the European Union has no land presence in the Arctic, including Greenland, which is not part of the E.U.). Still, local fears of exploitation grow as Russia and China flex their economic and political muscle in the region. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides an opportunity for nations to file claims on Arctic resources; however, the United States Senate has not shown the political will to ratify the treaty, including its land and mineral claims mechanisms. Greenland offers an easier path to oil exploration, with many international mineral and oil corporations opening offices and operations on the island.
Beary, Brian. “U.S. Trade Policy.” CQ Researcher, 13 Sept. 2013, pp. 765-88. Access 15 Nov. 2020.
Brian Beary notes the Chinese trade dynamic with North America reaches many geographically diverse and strategic ports of call. Beijing’s eye is on the Arctic: A Chinese firm secured a contract with Greenland to exploit mining operations. China could book this contract in part because no other nation would match the investment offer, allowing China to buy its way into the Arctic. Additionally, Beary refers to Ed Gerwin’s observation that while the United States runs a trade surplus in manufactured and agricultural goods, oil imports are the main contributor to the U.S. trade deficit. As trade tensions continue to rise in 2020, the impact of oil production on the United States trade dynamic, particularly related to claims in Greenland and the large Arctic region, are matters that should direct United States policies in both international trade and energy.
Cooper, Mary H. “Missile Defense.” CQ Researcher, 8 Sept. 2000, pp. 689-712. Access 15 Nov. 2020.
In her article “Missile Defense,” Mary Cooper observes that a critical part of a missile defense system is the cooperation of international allies, particularly in providing sites for radar installations. Implementing an antimissile shield in the Arctic region that could protect all fifty states will require forward radar stations outside the present United States, in territory held by Great Britain or Danish Greenland. Former President Ronald Reagan articulated a pivotal motivation to missile defense: A robust defense system that is practically impervious to attack has the potential to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” However, such a future rests on the willingness of often fickle international partnerships to participate in military alignments complicated by international commercial entanglements with Russia, China, and international bodies.
Karaim, Reed. “Arctic Development.” CQ Researcher, 2 Dec. 2016, pp. 989-1012. Access 15 Nov. 2020.
As Arctic nations are beginning to develop underwater natural resources in the Arctic aggressively, Reed Karaim observes that Denmark is taking a more assertive posture with Greenland and its Arctic holdings. In his article “Arctic Development”, Karaim notes Denmark’s position in the Arctic territorial race is substantial. Denmark lays claim to seabed territory along Greenland’s continental shelf, one of the most desirable Arctic regions for offshore oil exploration. Further, Denmark has established an Arctic command and expanded its military presence in Greenland. As the Arctic territorial rush begins in earnest, overlapping sovereignty claims to polar resources are likely to become more contentious.
Petersen, Nikolaj. “The Politics of US Military Research in Greenland in the Early Cold War.” Centaurus, vol. 55, no. 3, Aug. 2013, pp. 294–318. EBSCOhost. Access 15 Nov. 2020.
The Danish-American political relationship during the Cold War led to unusual military research in Greenland. Nikolaj Petersen explains that since 1941 the United States has had a military presence in Greenland since Denmark cannot bear the burden of defending the island alone. Initially, the U.S. involvement in Greenland was to prevent a German stronghold from developing in Greenland at the outset of WWII. However, following the war, the Soviet threat drove the development of Thule Air Force Base as a forward deployment of bombers that could reach the Russian heartland in half the time that Soviet bombers could reach the United States. Greenland’s position at the top of the world near the geographic north pole provided unique strategic advantages, driving a robust Danish-American relationship with NATO’s rise. Despite the alignment of strategic priorities, differences emerged between Denmark and the United States, leading to the creation of unusual cover projects by the U.S. Army to experiment quietly with new strategies for deploying Minuteman missiles. The projects Camp Century and Project Iceworm demonstrate the lengths to which the United States was willing to extend itself in Danish Greenland without proper approval. Despite optimism by the State Department of Danish acceptance of Iceworm, the Danish government’s predictable response was a flat “no.” As a result, Denmark has not allowed the development of new defense areas in Greenland, leading to a current military relationship that both parties find unsatisfactory.
Weeks, Jennifer. “Future of the Arctic.” CQ Researcher, 20 Sept. 2013, pp. 789-812. Access 15 Nov. 2020.
In the article “Future of the Arctic,” Jennifer Weeks explores the future of the Arctic as climate change draws international interest to an area of the world previously locked away from human development by extreme conditions. Nation-states are jockeying for position to lay claim to untapped Arctic assets, starting with oil and natural gas reserves that may become accessible, then extending to other minerals and food sources. For example, Russia is pursuing regional claims according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea–which the United States had not become a signatory of–while Canada extends claims to land masses up to the North Pole. The Arctic Council, an international forum promoting cooperation and coordination between eight member states, also looks to extend its reach in the region. Even nations such as India and China are actively exploring opportunities in the Arctic, with China investing in a fleet of icebreakers. The Northwest passage past Greenland to Alaska presents new opportunities for international shipping to open up European and Asian trade in ways never before possible. The opening of the Arctic portends seismic geopolitical shifts as new energy, commercial, and military applications reverberate globally.