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6 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:49pm

Is the US buying Greenland really that ridiculous? It’s done stuff like this before

By Jonn Elledge

Donald Trump wants the US to buy Greenland. Makes sense, right? After all, the president is a real estate guy, and “Denmark essentially owns it” so this would be “essentially a large real estate deal”.

The idea has been much ridiculed, on the fairly reasonable grounds that it is pretty ridiculous. Half the internet, of at least the bit of it that spends its time being smug about knowing things, has already credited the idea to the Mercator Projection – the standard map that deals with the curvature of the Earth by making land near the poles look much bigger than it actually is, thus giving the impression that Greenland is roughly the size of Africa, which it isn’t.

And those on the other half of any potential deal have been scathing. Greenlanders, who have been gradually moving towards self-rule for decades, seem horrified by the idea they could be passed from one bigger state to another like an unwanted child. Meanwhile, the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has responded to the idea through the diplomatic strategy known in the jargon as “shitting all over it”. “Greenland is not for sale,” she told the island’s newspaper Sermitsiaq. “Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland.”

Here’s the thing, though. In the context of US history, this isn’t ridiculous at all. This is just what the US does.

For its first couple of decades, the United States consisted of roughly the eastern-most third of its current continental landmass. A small chunk of territory to the south, and vast chunks of it to the west, were still in the hands of other European colonial powers.

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But then in 1803, a white supremacist did what was essentially a large real estate deal with the French. For $15m – around $18 per square mile – then President Thomas Jefferson acquired for the US the French territory of Louisiana. That 828,000 square miles of land today consists of seven entire states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas) and provides big parts of eight more. The Louisiana Purchase, as it’s known, has gone down in history as one of the cannier things a US president has done, and is one of the many factors that has allowed everyone to remember Jefferson as a great man and not, as he in fact was by any modern standard, a slave-owning rapist.

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There’s more. In 1867, the administration of president Andrew Johnson paid the Russian Empire another $7.2m for Alaska. That was probably rather less useful to a growing superpower, but to be fair Johnson hasn’t gone down in history as a great man, but rather as one of the worst presidents the US ever had. (Like Jefferson, he also owned and quite possibly slept with his slaves, but as the Jefferson story shows that isn’t generally the sort of thing that damages early US presidents in the ratings.)

The US has even bought land from Denmark before, in 1916 spending $25m on the Danish West Indies. Today, they’re known as the United States Virgin Islands.

There’s also an argument that paying money for some land was a better way for a country to grow than, well, almost any of the other ways they grew during the age of imperialism. The early US was not immune to that – much of the southern and western United States was acquired after kicking the crap out of its neighbour in the Mexican-American War of 1846-8. And while being handed round like a spliff at a party is probably never great for the people who actually have to live on this land, on balance the version of territorial expansion that doesn’t involve actual shooting is probably the less traumatic option.

The US purchase of Greenland is extremely unlikely to happen: the Greenlanders don’t want it, the Danes don’t want it, and now that full-blown territorial imperialism is out of fashion we’re all a lot less comfortable with the idea of countries just acquiring each other on a whim.

But it is perhaps not as inherently ridiculous as almost anything else that Donald Trump has ever said.