Greenland in squeeze between Denmark and US

Mikael Hertig (c)

By Mikael Hertig

Master of Political Science
Nuuk Greenland




Geography seems important


Greenland. Copyright Lademann Copenhagen 1984 (c)

The US-Danish relationship

When it comes to real war situations, geography is of great importance. Through WW2, Greenland formally continued as a Danish Colony. However, Denmark was unable to supply the Greenlanders with food and other necessary commodities. Denmark was occupied, and the long lines of transportation including high riscs of convoys being  attacked made this impossible.  Under these circumstances, United States took over. Denmark had formally the control over Greenland.  According to international law, Greenland still is a sort of Danish colony with a high degree of home rule. During WW2, US established a lot of military bases and airports in Greenland.

Greenland still is of strategic importance to Pentagon. Geographically, Greenland shapes a buffer zone to Russia.  Thule Airbase and Radar is a crucial part of the US defence (and attack force) for North America. Greenland is a fore post. It is also quite easy to understand that Greenland has no greater strategic importance to Europe. Connected to NATO, the  US  airbase of  Thule  can be seen as a sort of Danish/European contribution to America, if US wants to accept that approach.


Greenland and proximity to America and distance to Europe
Lademann A/S copyright 1984 (c)



As long as tensions between US and Russia in Arctic seems relatively low, all this stuff might be of weaker importance. But the relations between US and Russia have become more undpredictable since Trump took over office.

The Danish answer to this position has before Trump been to act as loyal as possible to the wishes of United States. Denmark has joined in the wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now Syria. Since a crisis in the beginning of the 1990ies, Denmark has done exactly as the Government anticipated Pentagon and White House expected  to.

This is what Robert A Dahl called the traffic light power function. Imagine a policeman in uniform in the middle of a regulated cross trying to regulating traffic by following the signals 100 %. As we don’t really now if the cars follows traffic light or the policeman, he could get the feeling of being in control. In this context, it might be seen as a try  to win soft power for the  small state of Denmark.

The Danish government has repeatedly been claimed that due to Greenland  Denmark should have  better and more intimate relations to US authorities than any other small European country.

This story told is often mentioned as “The Greenlandic Card”, meaning a sort of policy bringing Danish interests closer to be respected by the Federal Government.  Into some degree it gives good meaning.  A small country which always will be able to set an Arctic agenda.

An article from april 2017 has shown that the value of “The Greenlandic Card” might by exaggerated; in comparison with Norway Denmark performs weaker. This article  concludes that the value of the Greenlandic card wil follow the degree of tension bettween US and Russia.

It is a fact that there is no direct Russian threat at United States as it is felt in the Baltic states and some of the  Eastern European states. The need for NATO thus is greater in  Europe than in US.


America, Greenland, Eyurope by country borders Green to the left is Russia.
Lademann 1984 copyright (c)


Denmark as empire: Self conception of Denmark as powerful having some sort of a colony?


Seen from Greenland, the relation to Copenhagen has been only almost all right during the years. Greenland has attained higher degree of independence through the Home Rule (1979) and Self Rule (2009). Nevertheless, the economic and political ties between Denmark and Greenland are still very tight, and in question of relevance for international security and foreign policy all power is at the Danish Government.  For the time being, Defence, Police and courts are under Danish control.

Martin Breum, prominent Danish journalist specializing in Greenland once asked: What would happen to Danish self understanding the day Greenland was not Danish property any more?
It is self evident that to investigate such a question through omnibus interviews would be possible.

Here, the question is set up because it might be seen as the latent political value moving government of Denmark from a more up to date approach to having colonies. Since 1944 and UN, colonies in general were set free. The idea of the Danish government at that Irtime was to equalize as much as possible the rights of the Greenlanders with those of the Danish people. Greenland shifted formal status as a colony into a Danish county -just like Funen or Bornholm. The total ignorance of the fact that Greenlanders belong to just another culture, Inuit, seemed at that time less troublesome. Only a professor in international  and constitutional law  (Alf Ross) and a Danish UN Diplomat (Hermod Lannung ) were in the beginning following the international trend in direction of setting the former colonial people free. Public debate might have been almost non existent.

One might see this discussion as overdone. Times  have changed, and at an abstract level Government of Denmark now has realized that the day when the Greenlanders themselves decide to have their freedom case will be closed.

For several reasons, the risc of Greenland to choose such a decision is low. The general impression is that without Danish state subventions at about 20 % of GDP, Greenlandic economy would break down. Too many ties.



Independence: A dream, a Fatah Morgana or just to realize?

Sunset light at Qinngorput by Nuuk, Greenland
Photo Mikael Hertig 2017 (c)


In spite of the Greenlandic approach that indepence of Denmark is the first and most important goal  it is a good question whether this is a dream, a realistic goal or just a way for local Greenlandic politicians to raise political capital.


If Greenland on it’s own should unilaterally leave the colonial relation to Denmark the two important goals should be reachable:

1) Economic balance to be self financing in the long run

2) Establishing a plan for loosening up ties. Companies, Danish owned, workiing in Greenland, should be exposed to competition .A new policy for public monopolies and their future should be formulated.
Greenland functions in a way like Cuba. Big central public sector.

Concentrating on these would at the same time defocus from the most important thing: Building a new Greenland.

Without cooperation with Denmark on achieving full Greenlandic sovereignty, it seems to me that the target seems a Fatah Morgana.

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