The Greenland proposal might tell us more about Donald Trump’s mentality as a real estate developer than it does about American power. (Getty: Joe McNally)
Trump’s Greenland deal had diplomats shaking their heads. Now they’re shaking in their boots
It was described as a “lunatic idea” by a former Danish prime minister, while others said the US President had finally “jumped the shark”.
But Donald Trump’s bid to purchase Greenland wasn’t the first time a US president has tried to buy the autonomous Danish territory.
In 1946, Harry Truman privately proposed the idea to the Danish government.
He was turned down, and seven decades later it has been rejected once again — this time by current Danish leader Mette Frederiksen.
The US has form in real estate.
From the moment it kicked out the British, America began buying, annexing and fighting over land.
Here are five notable examples.
1. The Louisiana Purchase
In 1803, the US bought more than 200 million hectares of land from the French Government in the Louisiana Purchase — one of the largest real estate deals in history.
“Napoleon wanted to sell it,” says Ian Tyrrell, emeritus professor of history at the University of New South Wales.
“He had other ambitions in Europe, and he needed the money … so he was prepared to sell it to the United States.”
At the time, the $15 million sale was considered controversial from different sides of the political divide in the US.
“You have the political opposition party, the Federalists, who think it’s an unconstitutional land grab,” says Jay Sexton, a historian at the University of Missouri.
“You have people who are really concerned about the expansion of America’s borders, and that this would in some way imperil the Republican experiment.”
Another concern was whether the newly acquired land — which then nearly doubled US territory — would be open to the expansion of slavery.
Sixteen years later in 1819, the US bought Florida from Spain.
The price tag? $5 million.
That figure — written into the Onís-Adams Treaty, also known as the Transcontinental Treaty — wasn’t just a purchase price.
It was the amount the US agreed to pay for damages done by American settlers living in the area who had rebelled against Spanish rulers in 1810.
The late 19th century was a period of great territorial growth for the US. (Getty: Interim Archives)
US expansion then continued westward. There were then negotiations with the British over what would become the states of Oregon and Washington in the north-west, and war with Mexico in the south.
American movement across the continent is tied to “the catch-cry of Manifest Destiny”, explains Professor Tyrrell, “that it was the God-given right of the United States to expand west to the Pacific”.
“Which is a sort of aspect of American exceptionalism, that God was guiding the United States.”
3. Gadsden Purchase
In 1854, the US and Mexico finalised a treaty whereby Mexico ceded land in current-day Arizona and New Mexico for $10 million.
The Gadsden Purchase enabled the US Government to develop its southern rail route. (Getty: AlexanderZam)
“The Gadsden Purchase fleshes out that kind of south-western border,” Professor Sexton says.
The US Government needed the land for further development of infrastructure.
“And that territory was desired because it was seen as being important in developing a southern transcontinental railroad route,” Professor Sexton explains.
Although the US took the northern half of Mexico after winning the Mexican-American War in 1848, $15 million did change hands, and the US gained areas in its current south-west — including parts of California, Arizona, and Colorado.
In 1867, the US Government made another territorial purchase deal — this time with the Russians to buy Alaska.
William Seward (second from the left) was a key proponent of purchasing Alaska. (Getty: Bettmann)
“After the abolition of serfdom in Russia, the Tsar needed money,” Professor Tyrrell says.
But as with other land deals, the $7.2 million deal was considered contentious.
“It was held up and ridiculed because it was so icy,” he says.
But then-secretary of state William Seward pushed for the deal.
“It was called ‘Seward’s icebox’, because he was the driving force behind the acquisition,” Professor Tyrell says.
“Why did he want it? Well, he saw the United States’ role as being one of commercial supremacy in the Pacific.”
5. Virgin Islands
While unsuccessful with Greenland, the US has made a successful land deal with Denmark.
In 1917, it purchased the Virgin Islands — a group of Caribbean islands and islets — from the Danish Government for $25 million.
“The broader story here is a United States really tightening its grip on the Caribbean after the building of the Panama Canal,” Professor Sexton says.
“It’s intervening in Cuba and right across Central American countries, Haiti, Nicaragua—the Marines are being sent there. And it’s all part of the kind of geopolitics and the jockeying of the Great War.”
Professor Sexton likens US territorial expansion to the ‘once you pop, you can’t stop’ Pringles aphorism.
“Once you eat one chip, you want to grab another one,” he says, “and then you want to grab a stack of two, and then a stack of three or a stack of four”.
“And that’s what really what unfolds in the Caribbean from 1898 in through to the Great War.”
So, why now?
During the 20th century, US appetite for empire-building through land acquisition declined.
“There’s already a shift in the 1920s, away from the idea that territorial conquest is legal,” explains Barbara Keys, a professor of history at the University of Melbourne.
This intensified after the end of World War II and as international law developed.
“And I think that’s what’s really striking about Trump’s plan to buy Greenland is that it’s so out of step with the way Americans have essentially exerted their hegemony over the world since the end of World War II,” Professor Keys says.
“They’ve done not so much by buying or acquiring land, but through negotiating base deals.”
In Australia, there’s Pine Gap — but that’s just one example of many US-owned military bases.
“The United States has anywhere from 500 to 800 military bases around the world like that, including Thule Air Base in Greenland,” Professor Keys says.
Its existing military foothold in Greenland, she says, coupled with the fact that Greenland is “willing to sell the United States all of the raw materials and minerals that it wants” — makes buying the country redundant.
“There is no logical reason why the United States should buy Greenland … it can get what it wants without owning Greenland,” she says.
“I think it tells you more about Trump’s mentality as a real estate developer then it tells you about the realities of American power.”