Greenland’s Widening World

Greenland Premier Kim Kielsen (l) and former Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson speaking at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík, October 2019 [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Marc Lanteigne

With plans in the works for more than a year, it was announced [in Danish] this week by the Government of Greenland that it was moving forward with the idea of establishing a representative office in China, with a confirmation to be made by the country’s parliament (Inatsisartut) at some point this spring.

The decision reflects the growing economic links between Nuuk and Beijing as well as Greenlandic interests in expanding its foreign policies beyond the immediate Northern European region. Should Greenland’s plan go forward this year, it will be a significant step in the ongoing expansion of Greenland’s foreign policy interests, at a time when the country has been under international scrutiny at levels not seen since the cold war.

Much of this global attention has centred on the island’s resource potential, particularly as a result of the continuous melting of both the Greenland Ice Sheet and surrounding sea ice. However, the importance of Greenland, (population 57,000), is also increasingly noted by many countries, including the US and China, given its location between North America and Russia. This was a major factor in Danish and American interests in Greenland during the last century, since the island acted as an ideal ‘watchtower’ facing the Soviet Union, (as well as the site of an ill-fated attempt by the United States to add additional Arctic missile emplacements during the 1960s). Although it originally diminished in US strategic importance after the collapse of the USSR, the role of the US-operated Thule Air Force Base has been revived in American policy thinking as Russian-Western relations in the Arctic continue to falter.

Discussion last year by the United States government about the possibility [pdf] of ‘purchasing’ Greenland, sophomoric though the idea was, nonetheless represented the most visible sign to date of the island moving away from the political and strategic periphery. Yet while the US, along with the entire international community, has begun to look at Greenland more closely, the opposite is also taking place as Nuuk seeks distance its foreign policy identity from the Danish Kingdom.

At first glance the question of defining Greenlandic foreign policy appears to be free of ambiguity. Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but under the terms of the 2009 Self-Rule Act [pdf] between Copenhagen and Nuuk, several government portfolios were to be transferred to Greenlandic oversight, with Denmark retaining jurisdiction over both foreign affairs and defence. However, that stipulation is far more concise on paper than in practice, given that in the past few years Greenland has been able to slowly but steadily increase its international affairs capabilities.

Moreover, even before the Self-Rule Agreement was codified, there had been precedent for the granting of greater ‘space’ for Greenland to develop its own foreign policy thinking, with one prominent example being the May 2003 Itilleq Declaration (Itilleqerklæringen), which confirmed [in Danish] that the Greenlandic government should be given a say in policies relating to the upgrading of American defences on the island, adding that in matters relating specifically to foreign and security issues involving the island, ‘it is natural for Greenland to be involved,’ in the decision-making processes, with Denmark’s blessing.

As well, Greenland established a representative office in Brussels in 1992 to act as a liaison mechanism with the European Union, (Greenland had withdrawn [pdf] from the then-European Communities in 1985). A similar office was opened in Washington DC in 2014 to oversee North American cooperation, and in 2018 a Greenland representation office in Reykjavík was established. Late last year, in further recognition of the growing importance of Greenland to US policy, plans were announced to reopen the American consulate in Nuuk during 2020.

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Greenland’s diplomacy within the Arctic itself has also been on the rise, and the country was highly visible at the Reykjavík Arctic Circle conference in October last year, in part to take advantage of the global spotlight. However, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands, are still represented at the Arctic Council via the Kingdom of Denmark, which has been an issue for more pro-independence politicians in Nuuk. For example, then-Greenlandic Premier Aleqa Hammond boycotted the Council’s Ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in May 2013 over what she considered an unfair arrangement which prevented Greenland from exercising direct voting rights in the organisation.

However, Greenland suspended its boycott of the Council in August that year, and since that time, there have been steps taken to include Nuuk more directly in relevant Council affairs. As Greenland’s Premier Kim Kielsen stated at the October 2019 Arctic Circle event, ‘Whenever the Arctic is discussed within the Realm, Greenland always plays a central role. Thus we are of the conviction that it should be natural for Greenland to occupy a permanent seat in the Danish delegation to the Arctic Council.’

As the Greenland government’s most recent Foreign Policy Report / Udenrigspolitiske Redegørelser (2019) stated [pdf, in Danish], the country is facing exciting opportunities but also challenging developments, with the document describing priority issues in foreign relations including improved relations with Washington, the development of new transportation links by air and sea, (including the expansion of Greenland’s airport facilities), the expansion of Greenlandic fishing markets in Asia, and improved relations with both the European Union and the post-Brexit United Kingdom.

Many of these issues are likely now overshadowed by the challenges [in Danish] created by the COVID-19 pandemic, (at the time of writing, ten cases had been confirmed in the country). On 18 March, almost all air traffic to the island was halted, with exceptions including an ‘air bridge’ recently established between Copenhagen and Nuuk in order to maintain a supply line between the two countries, involving periodic flights using an Air Greenland turboprop plane.

There is also the question of the degree to which the island’s economy and trade, including Greenland’s omnipresent seafood sector, will be affected by the current situation. Despite the current atmosphere of uncertainty, however, it is evident that Greenland will continue to seek greater international opportunities via the expansion of its foreign policy connections, including in East Asia should the proposed China office come to fruition.

Addendum (11 April 2020): As of 8 April, the eleven persons who had contracted the COVID-19 virus had all recovered, thus making Greenland the first and so far only country to be completely free of the virus after experiencing previous cases.