The Wall Street Journal reported last week that President Donald Trump had floated the idea of purchasing Greenland as a national security policy. Seeing as the media either sorts itself into the camp that everything that he says must be idiotic (which to be fair, it frequently is), or that he is the new saviour of America, the commentary on this tended to mostly ignore the whyfor of the idea.
My initial reaction was that maybe Mr Trump is not as barking mad as the media likes to portray him and that while it is utterly impractical and infeasible, it is not altogether stupid.
The idea that you can simply buy territory is far from a new concept. The terms of the Act Of Union 1707 which formally joined the two previously separate kingdoms of England and Scotland involved the new union assuming the debts of Scotland. The United States did a similar thing when arguing out the terms of the Constitution; where the new US Treasury assumed some 75 millions of dollars that the states had incurred while fighting the war of Independence.
Those don't really count though as the smaller territories in having their debts assumed were consumed by the larger.
The first real major purchase of territory which is relevant to this case is the Louisiana Purchase. The US Government bought a giant chunk of the North American continent for fifteen million dollars; with the value of the land in the purchase works out to be about three cents per acre. Admittedly it made no reference to the people already living there, be they native Americans or descendants of the Spanish but that runs as a common thread throughout all of this kind of land acquisition. Remember, Britain showed up unannounced in Australia one day, stuck a flag in the dirt and yelled 'Mine!' and then legally declared that there was nobody in Australia at all.
The second major purchase of land that is relevant to this case is the US Government's purchase of Alaska. It was purchased for $7.2 million in 1867 from what was then Imperial Russia. At the time it was considered mostly useless and the purchase caused a lot of the Russian population to leave. It wasn't until the 1890s and the Klondike gold rush that Alaska finally proved to be of some net worth to the United States. Again, no thought whatsoever was given to what the people living there thought about it.
I don't find the idea of the United States buying territory to be that much of a daft idea. The British Empire had leases on places like Singapore and Hong Kong; so the concept of stumping up cash for country sized bits of land, isn't even uniquely an American idea.
What's different is that President Donald Trump said it and he is somewhat renowned for ill-conceived concepts and half baked ideas. Given that he was a real estate man, perhaps it's not that surprising that he sees the world in terms of territories to be bought and sold. Which in all honesty is not incredibly daft either.
The Chinese Government through its 'Belt And Road' policy, is embarking on exactly the same kind of mission as the various colonial joint-stock companies did, four hundred years ago. Companies like the Dutch East India Company, the British East India Company, and the British East and West Africa Companies, were all about the grand project of securing the equivalent of empire through the vehicle of business.
In Greenland, Chinese Government projects to build expressways and a railway in Greenland were both rejected; but had they gone ahead, then that that would given China considerable influence over land which is only about 2000 miles away from the US Border. The United States already has Air Force bases in Greenland and perhaps Mr Trump is justifiably worried about the current geopolitical dance that he happens to find himself in.
Mr Trump, who is ostensibly a property magnate and not really a politician, tends to see the world in terms of what kind of deals can be wrangled; so viewing the problem of Greenland as a property problem, which can be solved by simple transaction, is not as daft as it first sounds, neither is it daft with respect to history.
What is daft is the idea that you think you can simply move in and buy up a semi-autonomous land and expect the world to be fine with it. Maybe he doesn't though.
Greenland as a semi-autonomous possession of Denmark, kind of resents Danish control over them but they very much like the access to the European Union and everything that comes with that. Assuming that Mr Trump was actually successful in wrangling Greenland out of Denmark's hands, then as American citizens, the people of Greenland wouldn't even have freedom of movement and employment in the EU; which is an unmitigated disaster. In addition to that, they would lose things like basic healthcare coverage through the Danish universal health care system; so as far as the people of Greenland are concerned, there are less than zero benefits in becoming a possession of the American Empire.
Yes, I use that term deliberately. The American Empire, which doesn't like to tell the truth to itself, has in the past included the Philippines, and currently includes places like Guam, American Samoa, and the curious case of Puerto Rico which has been in Constitutional limbo since the Insular Cases of 1917. Thanks to the Guano Islands Act, Puerto Rico has less Constitutional protection than uninhabited islands like Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific.
If Greenland was to be purchased, then it would join Puerto Rico as an organized unincorporated territory; which might entitle them to a single lonely member of the House of Representatives but with no voting power, zero Senators, and zero votes in the Electoral College which votes for the president. Maybe they wouldn't be subject to US Federal taxation?
On ABC News Radio, I heard the Prime Minister of Greenland explain that if Greenland was going to be sold to anyone then he would prefer the buyer to be either Iceland or Canada. He also said that they would prefer to be an independent nation before they were a 'vassal state' of America.
That really underlines why Mr Trump's idea is daft. Unlike Hong Kong where the expiration of the 99 year lease meant that it was handed back to China (albeit a twice removed China from the one that had conceded the lease in 1898), Greenland has never ever even remotely been American in spirit. Iceland is perhaps a better fit because they are both Nordic and Canada at least legislatively understands the plight of first peoples but the United States in all its empire building has never been cognizant of the wishes of the people it has conquered.
Which makes me wonder if Mr Trump's idea was just him spitballing an idea and it happened to get out of hand because the media in its quest to find news, doesn't actually bother to see if its newsworthy. He may be sitting in the most powerful office in the world but he's still a person with daft ideas like the rest of us. I think that this was intellectual equivalent of doodling on a piece of paper, and under normal circumstances it would have been consigned to the dustbin; as indeed it will.