Mary Dejevsky

Mary Dejevsky was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.

August 20, 2019

It is probably safe to say that the US will not be buying Greenland. Despite Donald Trump’s surprise confirmation on Sunday that he is indeed interested in such a proposition – though not as his “number one” priority – Denmark, Greenland’s longstanding owner, has said categorically that the island is not up for sale.

At worst, the revelation will reinforce views of the US President as a compulsive property developer for whom everything – even parts of other people’s countries – has a price. At best, it might cast Trump as a President from an earlier age, when the United States was expanding in part by buying its rivals and enemies out.

The practice might seem archaic, but is it worth taking another look at the potential for states to buy land from other states? After all, the US did pretty well out of it. About one-third of the territory that comprises the US today came in exchange for money. Louisiana was bought from Napoleon in 1803; Alaska from Russia in 1867, and money changed hands as part of the treaty under which the US gained the northern half of Mexico in 1848.

As recently as 1917, Woodrow Wilson bought the Danish West Indies and renamed them the US Virgin Islands. If you go right back to beginnings, Dutch colonists bought the island of Manhattan for a pittance from native American tribesmen in 1626.

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Nor, in perhaps seeking to add Greenland to the list, is Trump quite so out of order as it might seem. The US had a plan to buy Greenland at the same time as Alaska in 1867, and the possibility was raised again by President Harry Truman in 1946, when he offered Denmark $100m. And just look at a map, or preferably spin a globe. Would it not make a lot more sense, in sheer practical, geographical, terms, for the place to be run by the United States – or Canada? The US already has a major air base at Thule in the north of the country, with missile early-warning and space surveillance systems, and the changing climate is opening up new shipping routes. In many ways a sale would make eminent sense.

Except that Greenland and Denmark don’t want to give it up – for many of the same reasons, no doubt, that the US President has expressed an interest. With Russia and China eyeing opportunities in the Arctic, Greenland’s strategic significance is obvious. It is rich not just in fish, but in all manner of natural resources, most of which have barely been tapped, but could become more accessible as the ice melts.

And while, as Trump pointed out, Denmark already foots quite a bill for Greenland, there is also the small matter of Danish national pride. To sell the vast territory of Greenland to the United States would suggest that Denmark was strapped for cash, guided by mercenary considerations, and felt so little responsibility for the 57,000 or so residents that it was prepared to “sell” them.

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Such a prospect would also cast doubt on the quality of its democracy. Greenlanders under Danish rule enjoy broad autonomy, and if there is any appetite for change, it is in the direction of full independence rather than a change of owner. The preference of local people was not a consideration when the United States was expanding; it would be now.

That Denmark is not about to sell Greenland, however, should not mean that the idea of selling territory has entirely had its day. It has long seemed to me that in certain cases, a financial element could help in the resolution of territorial disputes – not all, by any means, but some, and especially those that have arisen as legacies of empire.

Crimea would be an obvious candidate. Soon after Russia illegally annexed the territory in 2014, no less a figure than former UK foreign secretary Lord Owen floated the idea that Russia might be permitted to pay for a lease on the territory, on the model of the 1903 US arrangement with Cuba over its base at Guantanamo Bay.

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There would obviously be misgivings about appearing to “reward” Russia for blatant wrong-doing, but the fact is that Crimea’s sovereignty has long been disputed; its transfer to Ukraine in 1954 meant little, because it remained in the then Soviet Union, the majority of its population looks to Russia, and – to put it bluntly – Russia is not going to give it back. So why not make Russia pay – a lot?

It can be argued that Russia is already paying, in the subsidies and investment entailed in reincorporating the territory into Russia. But a sale, or a lease, would be a demonstrative means of compensating Ukraine for the loss, with a lease – even an indefinite lease on the Guantanamo model – probably being more palatable to Ukraine, as it would preserve at least the semblance of territorial integrity.

Still with Russia, a sale – or long lease – is an obvious solution to its dispute with Japan over the Northern Territories (Southern Kurile Islands). The Russian Far East could do with Japanese investment, but this is stalled, because Japan has made the return of the islands a condition of signing a Second World War peace treaty. There have been tentative overtures over the years –the first Japanese tourists are due to arrive in the (uninhabited) Southern Kuriles in October – but so far, Russian national pride has precluded an agreement, and it has not needed the money enough.

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Closer to home, a long – 999-year – lease and the concept of shared sovereignty was the solution favoured by Tony Blair’s government (and before that by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, then Foreign Secretary, in 1971) to end the simmering dispute with Spain over Gibraltar. It was designed to square the circle between the reality of UK administration and Spain’s 300-year-old territorial claim. But the proposed agreement was greeted with cries of “sell-out” when it was sprung on an unsuspecting House of Commons in 2002 and it was finally scuppered by Gibraltarians in a referendum.

This does not mean, however, that a sale or leasing agreement would still not be the best – perhaps the only realistic – solution to such disputes. And there is surely a question as to whether 35,000 Gibraltarians should have been able to veto an arrangement negotiated by an elected government on behalf of tens of millions of UK citizens. Fierce opposition of the local population to any change in sovereignty has also been a block on any settlement with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, still more so since 1982, when Argentina took the territory by force. But could a time not come when a lease or a sale makes sense?

There are other disputes, too, that could be amenable – or at least smoothed along – by a financial element. Such deals might sweeten the land swaps sometimes proposed for small tracts of the former Yugoslavia where an ethnic group has ended up on the “wrong” side of a border. Throwing money at the problem was the principle behind Jared Trump’s – now apparently aborted – plan to rework the stalled Middle East peace process. You can contest the ethics if you like – and many Palestinians did – but given the dismal failure of all other plans hitherto, might not a more mercenarily transactional scheme have some merit?

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An argument can also be made for preferring an outright sale to a lease. The US lease on Guantanamo is indefinite, so almost akin to a sale. The term envisaged for the UK to lease back Gibraltar was 999 years, so a millennium away. But the current protests in Hong Kong graphically illustrate the perils of leases. While the UK held Hong Kong Isla and Kowloon indefinitely, the rest – more than 90% – of the territory was on a 99-lease signed in 1898.

During the 1980s, the UK took the decision that it would hand over all of Hong Kong in 1997, and secured an undertaking from China that Hong Kong’s way of life would be guaranteed – under the formula “one country, two systems” – for 50 years. Now, barely 20 years in, the tensions are clear and the denouement is uncertain. Many Hongkongers feel the UK bears continuing responsibility; but it lacks all power.

Back in Greenland, though, the authorities are cheerful. Rebutting Donald Trump’s interest, serious or no, has afforded the perfect platform to remind the world of its existence. “We’re open for business,” said the country’s Foreign Ministry, “not for sale.”

It might be worth adding: for now.