One might have though that President Trump’s idea to purchase Greenland from Denmark would be one of those bizarre stories that simply dissipates into the aether once everyone has has the opportunity to laugh at it. It was just so absurd, how could anyone take it seriously?
But then, on Monday, the New York Times published an op-ed article by Tom Cotton in which the Arkansas senator made the case absolutely clear: “We should buy Greenland.” The article probably shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, since it all seems to have been Cotton’s idea in the first place. What is remarkable, however, is what the senator’s article – and the president’s assertion that it would just be “a real estate deal” – reaveals about the reactionary American mind.
In his article, Cotton goes through all of the reasons why the acquisition of Greenland would serve American interests: The island’s geographical position at a time of Chinese expansion in the Arctic endow it with considerable strategic value. (Significantly, Cotton never mentions Russian advances in the region, so I guess that’s okay.) Cotton notes that Greenland “is rich in a wide array of mineral deposits, including rare-earth minerals – resources critical to our high-tech and defense industries,” and suggests that it is in the interests of the United States to keep those resources from falling into Chinese hands.
Some of this sounds fairly reasonable, if a little paranoid. There might well be a case to be made for Greenland’s centrality to American national security and economic interests, if one is inclined to think that way. However, that isn’t really the point; one could make a similar case for parts – or the whole – of virtually any country on the planet. Canada, after all, has both vast mineral wealth, enormous reserves of fresh water and is, arguably, the most important strategic Arctic location, standing astride the Northwest Passage. Cotton has not called for the annexation of the United States’ northern neighbor. At least, not yet.
What Cotton never addresses in his article is the not-insignificant fact that that Greenland, an autonomous region of Denmark, is not actually Denmark’s to sell, democracy being what it is. Rather, he blithely advocates for an “agreement to transfer Greenland’s sovereignty,” ignoring that the entire constitutional foundation of democracy in both Denmark and the United States rests on the principle that sovereignty derives from the people, through their representative institutions, and not the other way around. Senator Cotton is apparently a great admirer of Ayn Rand, but is it too much to ask that a lawmaker in a democratic republic also have at least a passing knowledge of Locke and Montesqieu?
Nor does the senator consider that people have legitimate cultural and emotional ties to their communities. It is probably completely beyond his understanding that Greenlanders – whose sovereignty, after all, he wishes to buy – might actually want to be Greenlanders and an autonomous, but integral, part of Denmark. However, Cotton dismisses their wishes – indeed their agency and humanity – in his conclusion, and this is most revealing.
“Despite the historical ignorance of the president’s critics, the negotiated acquisition of sovereignty is a longstanding and perfectly legitimate tool of statecraft, particularly in the American tradition. More than one-third of America’s territory was purchased from Spain (Florida), France (the Louisiana Purchase), Mexico (the Gadsden Purchase) and Russia (Alaska).”
The United States made each of those purchases more than 150 years ago and, apart from the Gadsden Purchase, in which the government of Mexico – prostrate after a bloody war with the United States – agreed to cede 30,000 square miles for a paltry sum, the United States acquired all of this territory from absolute monarchs. Neither Ferdinand VII, Napoleon I, nor Alexander III were particularly troubled by concerns for sovereignty or democratic process and neither, it seems is Cotton. By using these transactions as precedent, he asserts that territories like Greenland do not belong to their inhabitants, but to their rulers.
This notion is implicit in the white nationalist narrative of American exceptionalism. When John L. O’Sullivan proclaimed America’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent,” he did not bother to consult with the people who were already there. Indeed, Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis,” American exceptionalism’s ideological foundation, posited that the nonwhite, non-European inhabitants of North America were merely part of the landscape, and not actually human beings who mattered. The people who settled America – to become Americans – were “European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought” who simply fit themselves “into the Indian clearings” and supplanted indigenous people the same way they cleared forests for fields.
In the Trumpist telling, then, the mostly-Inuit, indigenous citizens of Greenland do not matter in this real estate transaction because, like chattel or feudal serfs, they are simply part of the land – simply an added bonus or detriment, depending on how you see it. But the utterly transactional minds of Trumpists like Cotton are incapable of grasping the idea that, while that might have made sense to the racist, imperialistic thinking of 1845 or 1893, it does not, in fact cannot make sense today. It is as if the 20th century – the world wars, the Holocaust, Vietnam – never happened, so he is incapable of comprehending the world as it exists today.
Cotton seems to forget that the principle of national self-determination championed by the president of the United States himself in 1918 is now an axiom of international law. President Woodrow Wilson said in his “14 Points” speech that, in “questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable government whose title is to be determined.” This later became a part of Versailles Treaty, and is embodied in Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations.
Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, of which the United States is a signatory, make this absolutely clear:
“All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. “
There is no wiggle room here. No matter what Cotton or President Trump want to believe, the American purchase of Greenland would be no mere “real estate deal.” Fundamentally, in the century since the United States’ last territorial purchase – when it acquired the Virgin Island from Denmark in 1917 – the rules have changed. In theory, if not always in practice, the rights of people matter, and they do seem to matter in Nuuk and Copenhagen. It is most revealing of the American reactionary mind that these rights matter not at all to either Cotton or President Trump. The days when populations could be bought and sold, and traded between tyrants and despots are long over.
The most troubling thing however – terrifying, in fact – is that Cotton, President Trump, and his legions of supporters do not simply yearn for those days, they believe that they are still here.