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The US Buying Greenland Wouldn't Be the First Time a Nation Went Country-Shopping

Aug 22, 2019 6:06 AM 5 min read

US President Donald Trump recently expressed interest in buying Greenland, the world’s largest island, which is an autonomous Danish territory. A former Danish PM likened the news to an out-of-season April fool’s joke. Indeed, Trump’s dream might hit a roadblock, in that Greenland is not for sale and Copenhagen is not looking to sell.


However, the idea itself is not outlandish – or even unique. History is filled with examples of nations purchasing or leasing sovereign lands. The reasons vary – from wanting to settle border disputes to desiring agricultural farmland to escaping climate change.


Here’s a look at some of the most well-known instances of such “large-scale land acquisitions”:


Everyone Must Dream the American Dream


The king of country-shopping is undoubtedly the USA. This isn’t even the first time Washington mulled over buying Greenland. In the 1860s, America nearly bought Greenland (and Iceland). The idea was to surround Canada with US territory to persuade it to join the States. Later, with the onset of WW2 and the Cold War, Greenland’s judicious location made it attractive again, and the Truman administration offered Denmark $100mn in gold for the island. However, this deal petered out with the creation of NATO, which enabled America to build military bases on Greenland without buying it.


The US Buying Greenland Wouldn't Be the First Time a Nation Went Country-Shopping
US territorial expansion over the years was majorly fuelled by land purchases. 


In 1803, Napoleon sold France’s 2.14mn km2 Louisiana territory to the US for $15mn. A few years later, the US government purchased Florida from Spain for $5mn. California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico were soon acquired from Mexico for a net price of less than $30m.


The largest US state, Alaska, was bought from Russia for $7.2mn in 1867. (Fun fact: the Alaskan purchase, spearheaded by Secretary of State William Seward, was criticised and labelled as “Seward’s Folly”. It was contended that the US had spent money on useless land. Of course, that was before the discovery of gold and oil in that state.)


Then there’s the $20bn the US paid for the Philippines as part of the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War. The most recent American territorial purchase occurred in 1916, when the Virgin Islands were bought for $25bn. The seller (incidentally) was Denmark.


From America to the World


Besides selling, states may also enter into deals to lease large tracts of lands to other nations. The purposes vary widely.


To Pay Off Debts: At the height of the Greek debt crisis, German MPs suggested that Greece could sell some of its islands to avoid bankruptcy. This idea was never taken seriously (although it did exacerbate tensions between Athens and Berlin).


Nevertheless, the idea of leasing your land to pay off sovereign debt is gaining traction. The driver of this trend is China, whose foreign investment overtures have been accused of “debt-trap diplomacy”.


For example, struggling to repay its loans, Sri Lanka handed over the strategic Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease in 2017. Beijing has also leased 2,000+ acres of Pakistani land around Gwadar Port until 2059, igniting fears that Islamabad was going the Sri Lanka way.


Ending Poverty: The idea of Hong Kong-styled “charter cities” was popularised by Nobel laureate Paul Romer. He reasoned that poor economies could escape poverty and boost investment by allowing rich nations to establish exclaves within their borders, which could attract a flood of capital and jobs. The idea was experimented with in Honduras, but it ended in empty promises and social conflict.


To Resolve Boundary Disputes: These involve territorial exchange. History is rife with examples of such deals – some are the 1721 Treaty of Nystad (Russia-Sweden), the 1858 Treaty of Aigun (China-Russia), and the 1899 German-Spanish Treaty.


Modern examples of these include the 2015 India-Bangladesh boundary agreement, the 1965 Jordan-Saudi Arabia land swap, and the infamous 1963 Sino-Pak border agreement that saw Pakistan ceding PoK’s Shaksgam Valley to China.


Then There’s Agriculture: Since the 2007-08 world food price crisis, foreign land acquisitions (leasing or buying by private entities or sovereign states, commonly termed “land grabbing”) have sky-rocketed. In 2016, the non-profit organisation GRAIN documented 491 land grab deals covering over 30 million hectares of land in 78 countries. The vast majority of the land targeted was in developing countries, primarily those in Africa.


The most infamous example is probably the 1.3mn hectare Daewoo project where the South Korean company was negotiating access to farmland in Madagascar to grow maize to export back home. The exposure of this deal in 2008 led to an international firestorm, culminating in the scrapping of the deal and the overthrow of the Malagasy government.


The US Buying Greenland Wouldn't Be the First Time a Nation Went Country-Shopping
Daewoo's plans to lease large parts of Madagascar precipitated massive protests on the island that led to the overthrow of the government  - and cancellation of the controversial deal.


To Escape Climate Change: As the climate crisis worsens and sea levels rise, low-lying nations are resorting to buying land abroad to prepare for the possible need to relocate. Kiribati bought 5,000 acres in Fiji for $9mn. Maldives and Tuvalu are considering similar plans, and they could be the first of many.


Space Ambitions: In 2012, China won the rights to 494 acres of land in Argentina’s Neuquén Province – rent-free – for 50 years. The objective? China says space research (although its secretive operations have fuelled resentment and suspicion.)


Wartime Land: In times of war, land deals are of a different nature altogether. In 1918, Bolshevik Russia ceded control over 1mn square miles of its territory and a third of its population to end its participation in WW1. Two decades later, Nazi Germany was seriously considering forcibly relocating Europe’s Jews to Madagascar


Conclusion: The Ethics Behind Land Grabbing and Selling


The debates surrounding land grabbing/selling are diverse and complicated. The motives are usually strategic in nature. Trump is eager to buy Greenland because as the polar ice melts, ironically, Greenland’s deep-buried natural resources are becoming available. And as the Arctic becomes a potent shipping lane, Greenland’s location becomes more vital than ever before.


The US Buying Greenland Wouldn't Be the First Time a Nation Went Country-Shopping
Greenland's location is of vital strategic importance to US interests.


But strategic interests cannot ignore human concerns. “Buying” Greenland would mean “buying” the 50,000+ people who live there. Their assent to any country-swapping would be mandatory to assess and a challenge to measure.


The reason land-buying deals became outdated over the past century is because of ethics. As international law took form and a rules-based order was established, it became impossible to overlook the fact that buying and selling peoples’ sovereignties reeked of medieval atavism and colonial imperialism. Even today, the distilled version of country-buying – that of land-leasing – is extremely controversial, especially when the lands being leased are inhabited by citizens.


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