This timeline is just so weird.

As Doug Mataconis noted earlier this week, one of the more bizarre bits of news to come out of the White House this week was a WSJ report that Trump has expressed interest in acquiring Greenland from the Danes.

On the one hand, this has put Vizinni yelling at Fezzik in my head. On the other, it is just a truly bizarre thing for a 21st Century president to be contemplating, even casually.

Paul Musgrave has a great post on this subject at Foreign Policy: American Imperialists Have Always Dreamed of Greenland which discusses the history of American interest in the island (which was all new to me), as well as making some normative points that comport with my initial thoughts from when I first saw the report.

buying Greenland has been tried seriously twice. But the changes in international relations since then make it a far worse idea than it was at the time.

The first time came during the administration of President Andrew Johnson. William Seward, a Lincoln holdover, used Johnson’s distraction over Reconstruction to pursue his longstanding goals of territorial expansion.


The second attempt came in the aftermath of the Second World War. Denmark, which still administered Greenland as a colony, was conquered in a six-hour operation in March 1940. A year later, the Danish ambassador, who retained his credentials even though he refused to take orders from the occupied government in Copenhagen, signed an agreement with the US government allowing it to occupy and fortify the island to prevent Germany from using it as a base against the US and Canada.

The wartime occupation of Greenland let the United States develop several military installations there, including an airbase.

Indeed, the US still has an Air Force base on the island.

So, in the “learn something new every day” file I can file away Seward’s and Truman’s attempts at purchase.

And, sure, from a wholly abstract point of view, the island has strategic significance and has natural resources to exploit. There is pesky problem of, you know, human beings, the selling of which is kind of a no-no:

Greenland is no longer a colony to be disposed of as the government in Copenhagen wishesGreenland is no longer a colony to be disposed of as the government in Copenhagen wishes. Today the Danish doctrine of the “Unity of the Realm” holds that Greenland forms an integral part of the three-country Kingdom of Denmark. To put it bluntly, selling off Greenland would be as unthinkable as the US selling off Hawaii or Delaware.

There are roughly 57,000 persons living in Greenland. They have the right of self-determination, and the idea of selling legal control of them is really not acceptable in the current era. That sort of transaction is the stuff of 19th Century imperialism.

As Musgrave notes:

As a democratic country, the United States bears a special responsibility to refuse to perpetuate territorial practices. Yes, the island has only 57,000 people-about the size of Terre Haute, Indiana-but they form a distinct political community and already enjoy self rule in everything but defense and foreign affairs. Right now, there’s reason to think that Greenland may well be on a path to full independence, not simply switching one protectorate for another.

Could the United States offer Greenland’s people a better deal? Probably not.  The Trump administration’s neglect of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria forms only the most recent in a long chronicle of US mistreatment of its colonies. The US still holds more than four million people as colonial subjects in islands from Guam to the Northern Marianas – and they get a worse deal than mainland Americans on every score. And who would trade the Danish healthcare system for the American one anyway?


The notion of buying Greenland, then, isn’t a silly idea, no matter how lightly the president may have proposed it. It’s a dangerous and a telling one that suggests that the president’s impulse to treat everything as a real estate deal means that he’s constantly tempted to bring back some of the worst habits of international relations.


FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Mikey says:

    I guarantee Trump had no idea anyone lives there. His ignorance contains multitudes.

  2. Jen says:

    This administration is just so exhausting.

    Every week there’s some fresh new level of hell with its stupidity.

    Always happy to see a Princess Bride reference though.

  3. de stijl says:

    Oh, he knows people live there. But they’re losers (in his mind). Poor.

    Winners buy out losers and evict them.

    This whole unfolding semi-story is really bizarre and telling.

  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “…would be as unthinkable as the US selling off Hawaii or Delaware.”

    It’s probably better if we don’t give him any ideas.

  5. grumpy realist says:

    I forgot that was a line in The Princess Bride.

  6. de stijl says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    What has Delaware done for us lately?

  7. grumpy realist says:

    @de stijl: Given the number of companies that are incorporated in Delaware, selling it would have, erm, interesting legal repercussions…..

  8. de stijl says:

    True dat!

  9. Richard Gardner says:

    Maybe Trump watched Ice Cold Gold a “reality” show on Discovery Channel (2012-15) and thinks the are Gold and gemstones all over. Because reality shows are so real, like The Apprentice.

  10. de stijl says:

    When the best thing in your state is that we have race to the bottom super loose rules about forming a corporation (Delaware),

    or super loose rules about what interest rates you can charge on credit cards (South Dakota), rethink your strategy.

    Race to the bottom never works. It screws you and your economy.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And who would trade the Danish healthcare system for the American one anyway?

    Republicans of course! Well, that is, they’d trade in your good Danish health care for their Republican impoverish you health care while they kept all the good stuff to themselves.

  12. MarkedMan says:

    It is almost eerie how this perfectly represents Donald Trump. Trump has long been the epitome of the idiot-who-thinks-he’s-a-genius species of the American businessman. This rivals his “strategy” for Trump airlines: buy a failing shuttle that runs one route and is in the air for only 25 minutes (DC to NYC), remove some of the seats, make the remaining ones fancier in that Trump 1950’s Greek restaurant kind of way, and charge twice as much as the competition! Lose 400M of his investors money in less than two years. File bankruptcy and sell it for parts. Declare victory!

    The few Trumpers who still show their faces around here are typical of his fans too. They think their hero is a f*cking genius and we who are against him just can’t see it because liberalism. In reality, for the last three decades Trump’s business deals (aside from money laundering) has consisted of various varieties of the Nigerian Prince scam. And like that scam his cons are so poorly executed they weed out all but the stupidest and most venal of the gullible fools out there, i.e. the ones quickest to fall for his scams and slowest to realize thir being reamed. The only question is whether he, like the Nigerian scammers, deliberately executes them poorly, or if he fails to understand how laughable actual thinking people find things like Trump University.

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @MarkedMan: I wouldn’t imagine he cares how laughable thinking people find his ideas. He’s focused on the prey, if so-called thinking people don’t recognize the “genius” of the idea, their loss.

    Nobody else in America has the vision that he has, you know. So many great ideas that he can’t even do them all–there’s only so many hours in a day.