Trump is not the first to offer to purchase Greenland, but territorial acquisition in the modern day has changed

Trump is not the first to offer to purchase Greenland, but territorial acquisition in the modern day has changed

By: Jacky Arness

In August of this year, President Donald Trump made an offer to purchase Greenland from Denmark.[1] Though the ensuing conduct of the President was, arguably, absurd,[2] this is not the first time that the United States has attempted to acquire the world’s largest island.[3] In fact, such offers have been made by several previous administrations.[4] Greenland has long been viewed as a highly strategic location.[5] Though the President’s style of, or lack of, diplomacy in this matter contributed to the media buzz[6] there are also questions that can be raised more generally about transfers of sovereign territory in a post-colonial world.[7] The public’s reaction to the proposed purchase may largely have to do with public sentiment surrounding the President himself, but may also have to do with a shift in common opinion regarding the transfer of territory between two nations in the modern day.[8]

This event with Greenland should raise the crucial point, as many did,[9] that the voice of Greenland was the one that should be heard, not Denmark.[10] A key component of post-colonial modern-day territory changes is self-determination.[11] People groups have a right to organize themselves into an independent state, a concept known as self-determination.[12] Other recent examples include Catalan’s declaration of independence from Spain in 2017,[13] Crimea’s secession from Ukraine to Russia,[14] and, of course, Brexit.[15]

A question raised by Trump’s actions is the nature of a contracted sale between two sovereign nations. What is the international law that would govern such an exchange? Certainly, it could be assumed that the core principle of sovereignty would allow two consenting state parties to engage in such a contract for sale, but what would the analysis by the international community be of the power dynamics at play in such a transaction and the implications for diplomacy? Countries have transacted financially for territory before, exemplified by the large portion of the United States acquired by the Louisiana Purchase, but it is exceedingly rare to see such transactions today.[16] The purchase of land that includes a group of people is a concept that makes many uncomfortable, and arguably should, considering the historical acquisition of territory through colonization, conquest, the practice of slavery, racial segregation, and the oppression of indigenous groups to name only a few. The conversation should continue when analyzing the lasting repercussions of these historical practices on modern day international law and any potential transfers of territory between two sovereign nations. Greenland could translate increased interest in the strategic territory from the United States into political leverage.[17] And as far as the President and others working in diplomacy abroad are concerned, perhaps starting with compensation for an already existing presence is a better foundation for such a discussion anyways.[18]

[1] Vivian Salama, et al., President Trump Eyes a New Real-Estate Purchase: Greenland, Wall St. J. (Aug. 16, 2019),

[2] Greenland: Trump Warned that Island Cannot be Bought from Denmark, BBC News (Aug. 16, 2019),

[3] W. Dale Nelson, Wanna Buy Greenland? The United States Once Did, AP News (May 2, 1991),

[4] Id.

[5] Jordan McDonald, Here’s Why Trump Wants to Buy Greenland, CNBC Politics (Aug. 21, 2019),

[6] No Joke: Trump Really Does Want to Buy Greenland, NPR (Aug. 19, 2019),

[7] Duncan Ivison, Postcolonialism: Historical Period, Encyclopedia Britannica (Feb. 26, 2018),

[8] Id.

[9] Joseph Blocher & Mitu Gulati, Sure, Trump Can Buy Greenland. But Why Does He Think It’s up to Denmark?, Politico (Aug. 23, 2019),

[10] Stuart Mills, Greenland Deserves Self-Determination, The Startup (Aug. 22, 2019),

[11] Han Liu, The Pre-History of Self-Determination: Union and Disunion of States in Early Modern International Law, 36 Ariz. J. Int’l & Comp. L. 1, 2 (2019).

[12] Self-determination, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

[13] Catalonia’s Bid for Independence from Spain Explained, BBC News (Oct. 18, 2019),

[14] Eva Bartlett, Return to Russia: Crimeans Tell the Real Story of the 2014 Referendum and Their Lives Since, MPN News (Oct. 9, 2019),

[15] Yasmeen Serhan, A Disunited Kingdom Falls Apart, The Atlantic (Oct. 25, 2019),

[16] BBC News, supra note 2.

[17] Jacob Gronholt-Pederson, In Spotlight After Trump Offer, Greenland Sees Chance for an Economic Win, Reuters (Aug. 27, 2019),

[18] Id.