Could Greenland Be The New Alaska?

Could Greenland Be The New Alaska?


President Trump’s desire to buy Greenland has sparked both ridicule and praise. Trump’s idea recalls America’s original Arctic purchase: Alaska. So, could Greenland be the new Alaska? Exploring Alaska’s history and Greenland’s future reveal the strategic merits of this surprising proposal.

Alaska’s History

On October 18th 1867, the Russian flag was lowered for the last time over Alaska. A few months earlier, the U.S. Senate had ratified Secretary of State Seward’s purchase of the Alaska territory from Russia. America paid $7.2 million for the territory, a price of two cents an acre.

In the 1850s, Russia had fought the costly Crimean War. Poor infrastructure made it difficult to connect Alaska to the rest of the Russian Empire. A continuing rivalry with Britain raised fears that Russia could not defend the remote territory. Facing these challenges, Tsar Alexander II decided to cash out.

The notion that most Americans condemned the Alaska Purchase is a persistent myth. Most leading newspapers praised the acquisition for expanding American trade opportunities with Asia. The Senate ratified Seward’s deal 37 to 2. However, a vocal opposing minority coined the colorful nicknames that have endured, including the “Polar Bear Garden,” “Seward’s Icebox,” and “WalRussia.”

The territory remained sparsely populated until the 1890s, when gold was discovered. The gold rush brought tens of thousands to Alaska, transforming existing settlements into boomtowns. Even after the rush, improved transportation allowed access to Alaska’s ample supplies of fish, furs, and timber.

In the 20th century, Alaska became increasingly geopolitically important as America asserted itself in a complex and interconnected world. Father of the Air Force Billy Mitchell declared Alaska, “the most strategic place on earth.” Not only did critical shipping routes crisscross Alaskan waters, but Alaska’s location placed it closer to most global population centers than the Continental U.S.

During WWII, Alaska served as an access point to the Pacific theater. Japan even launched an invasion of the outlying Aleutian Islands. When the Cold War began, Alaska’s proximity to the USSR made it vital to national security. The U.S. military set up bomber squadrons and missile defenses across Alaska to counter the Soviet threat. It is hard to fathom the danger America would have faced had Russia retained control of Alaska.

After achieving statehood, Alaska’s economy was transformed by the discovery of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field. This massive find was twice as large as any other American oil field. Oil revenues led to the creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund, a $55 billion fund that pays an annual dividend to each Alaskan.

Alaska remains central in U.S. security considerations. Economically, Alaska continues to supply America with a variety of valuable natural resources. The state also retains vast stretches of pristine wilderness, including America’s four largest national parks. Alaska’s awe-inspiring scenery has made tourism into a major source of revenue as well.

Greenland’s Future

Around the same time that he purchased Alaska, Seward also tried unsuccessfully to acquire Greenland and Iceland from Denmark. In 1940, the U.S. occupied Greenland after Denmark fell to the Nazis. After the war, President Truman attempted to buy the island for $100 million but was rejected. Like Alaska, Greenland took on tremendous strategic importance during the Cold War. While Greenland is geographically part of North America, the island’s sea-lanes provided access to Europe and Soviet Arctic ports. As a result, America set up early-warning stations and secret bases on Greenland in case the Cold War grew hot.

Today, these military installations have largely closed, and Greenland’s 56,000 residents consider the sea their economic lifeblood, much as their ancestors did. Natural resource exploration remains in early stages. However, Greenland and the Arctic region stand poised to undergo big changes.

As the Council on Foreign Relations explains, geological reports suggest a quarter of the world’s hydrocarbon supply lies under the Arctic. In addition, Greenland has deposits of the rare earth metals integral to nearly every modern technology. Currently, China dominates the rare earths market. Another game-changer is the reduction in sea ice due to climate change. Receding ice has opened far shorter routes between Eurasia and the Americas, which will greatly increase commerce flowing through Greenland’s waters.

Many nations have recognized the potential of the Arctic, but few have proceeded as boldly as Russia. The Russian economy derives nearly 20% of its GDP from activities in the Arctic. Russia has defended this investment by increasing its military commitments. Old Soviet Arctic bases are being upgraded and reequipped by Russian forces. As tensions rise between the Russia and the West, Greenland looms ever larger in America’s geostrategic calculus. Acquiring Greenland would certainly bolster America’s security position in this rapidly changing region.

Similar to Alaska in 1867, Greenland in 2019 is a lightly populated, resource-rich land with untapped potential. Like Alaska, Greenland will also require significant investment to ensure successful and sustainable development. The changing climate that makes Greenland economically promising also makes it vulnerable to environmental calamity. In the future, Greenland will have to balance commercial, military, human, and environmental demands. Despite these challenges, acquiring Greenland may make sense from an American perspective. However, Denmark has said Greenland is not for sale. Whether Trump can get the Danes to put it on the market is a different question altogether.  



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