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Trump might not be able to buy Greenland, but he could open a consulate there

A view of the mountains from the cockpit of a C-130 H aircraft, April 2, 2019 in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.

TAMARA R. DABNEY/U.S. AIR NATIONAL GUARD

By SIOBHÁN O'GRADY | The Washington Post | Published: August 24, 2019

President Donald Trump might not get to buy Greenland for the United States. But under his watch, the State Department may try to expand its diplomatic presence there, by opening a U.S. consulate on the island for the first time in decades.

In a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee obtained by the Associated Press on Friday, the State Department described a plan to open a consulate in Greenland by next year, saying the United States has a "strategic interest in enhancing political, economic, and commercial relationships across the Arctic region."

A consulate "would serve as an effective platform to advance U.S. interests in Greenland" and would help the U.S. "protect essential equities" in the self-governed island, the AP reported the letter as saying, "while developing deeper relationships with Greenlandic officials and society."

The suggestion comes after a diplomatic roller coaster in recent days, which began when Trump expressed interest in buying Greenland from the Kingdom of Denmark.

When Denmark refused, he lashed out, first by tweeting on Tuesday that he had canceled a meeting in Copenhagen with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen because she expressed "that she would have no interest in discussing the purchase of Greenland."

Frederiksen had called his suggestion the United States buy Greenland "absurd," and in turn, Trump called the prime minister's remarks "nasty."

"I thought it was not a nice statement, the way she blew me off," Trump told reporters on Wednesday. "She shouldn't treat the United States that way."

By Friday, tensions seemed to have eased somewhat, when a Trump administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity told The Washington Post that Frederiksen and Trump had a "constructive" phone call on Thursday. Frederiksen told Denmark's TV2 network that she would not engage in a "war of words" with Trump over the matter, and Trump later reversed course on his earlier criticism of her comments, calling her a "wonderful woman."

Experts have said that Washington's interest in Greenland is likely part of a broader strategy to better compete with Russia and China in the strategically important region. The U.S. already has a presence at Thule Air Base on Greenland's northwestern coast, but opening a consulate could allow for more diplomatic opportunities.

The AP reported that the letter said there is already a Greenlandic affairs officer in the existing U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, and plans include hiring local staff in Greenland to work at the consulate there.

If Washington were to move ahead with opening a consulate in Greenland next year, as the State Department letter suggests, the United States would join more than a dozen other countries that have consulates or honorary consulates there. South Korea and Canada are the only non-European countries on the list.

The United States closed its consulate in Greenland in 1953, having initially opened it after Denmark was occupied by Nazis in 1940.

Malte Humpert, founder of the Arctic Institute, a think tank focused on Arctic policy issues, said under normal circumstances, the suggestion to reopen a U.S. consulate in Greenland after so many years would be seen largely as a positive step toward engagement in the region.

But in the wake of the dramatic proposal to purchase Greenland, there will be more questions surrounding the potential move, he said.

"The U.S. should step up its Arctic game, but of course, as with so many other things, President Trump using Twitter diplomacy and running around like a bull in the china shop goes about it all wrong," Humpert said. "Buying Greenland is just not an acceptable proposal. This is not the 19th century, where you buy a largely indigenously inhabited region."

Trump's comments irked many people and politicians in Greenland and Denmark, who have expressed anger over his rhetoric in recent days. Establishing a consulate in Greenland and appointing a consul general, Humpert said, could be one way to try to better relations with Greenlandic people.

But he warned that "if they put someone in there who's strong-handed and makes harsh comments and denies climate change, that might actually cause more damage."
 

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