Greenland Is More Important to America’s Interests Than You Might Think

Image: Greenland, US Embassy

Carla Sands, U.S. ambassador to Denmark, joins the podcast to explain the role Greenland plays in connection with America’s Arctic policies. 

Greenland plays an important role within America’s economic and military interests. 

Sands also explains the history between Greenland and America, and how relations between the two countries have grown stronger over the past several years. 

We also cover these stories: 

  • History is made at the White House in the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and between Israel and Bahrain.
  • The city of Louisville, Kentucky, agrees to a “substantial” settlement in the case of Breonna Taylor’s death. 
  • The Justice Department opens a criminal inquiry into a book by former national security adviser John Bolton. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. 

Virginia Allen: We are so pleased to be joined by Ambassador Carla Sands, the U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Denmark. Ambassador, thank you so much for being here.

Ambassador Carla Sands: It’s my pleasure, Virginia. Thank you for finding interest in what the United States is doing in the Kingdom of Denmark in, the Arctic, and in Greenland specifically.

Allen: Of course. … I find this topic so fascinating. And I think it’s something that a lot of Americans are curious about, but just maybe we don’t know a lot about.

So, like you say, we are today specifically talking about the Arctic, talking about America’s Greenland policy.

And when we say “the Arctic,” we’re referring to those eight different nations that parts of their countries make up that whole Arctic region, being Alaska, Canada, Denmark (or Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

So, ambassador, to begin, I think it would be really helpful if we just took kind of a 10,000-foot view. And if you would, just begin by explaining a little bit about why Americans should care about what is happening in the Arctic.

Sands: OK, thanks. I’ll do that. So, I have been the U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Denmark since 2017. And the Kingdom of Denmark includes Denmark. And many Americans don’t know, it also has the Faroe Islands and Greenland as part of the kingdom. And they’re semi-autonomous, these other two countries.

And Greenland is the world’s largest island. It’s off of the northeast coast of the U.S., so about 1,600 miles from Maine, where, if you look at Los Angeles, is about 3,000 miles. So, not that far from our northeast coast.

It’s part of North America. And it’s about a third the size of the continental United States. The part of the land that’s not covered by ice is bigger than the state of California. So, this is a really enormous island with about 56,000 people. So, it’s very sparsely populated.

It’s been the work of my embassy in Denmark, in Copenhagen, to do outreach to the Faroe Islands and also to Greenland and to make a relationship with the entire kingdom. That’s what we do. We represent the American people every day to all of these folks.

This year, in June, June 10, to be exact, we reopened our consulate in North Greenland for the first time … in 67 years. So, it’s been since the ’50s that we actually had any kind of a presence on the world’s largest islands that is our neighbor.

So, I feel like, like Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo said when he was here in Denmark recently, we’ve been asleep at the wheel in the Arctic. So, it’s really wonderful for the American people to reconnect with Greenland.

And we work very, very closely with the government in Copenhagen, Denmark, in everything we do because the two powers that rest in Denmark for Greenland are their security and their foreign policy.

Allen: That’s wonderful. I mean, goodness, that’s a long time to go not having a real presence there in that region of the world.

Explain a little bit about what has changed since you took your position as the ambassador of Denmark in 2017 and America has really begun strengthening those relational ties.

Sands: I think that some of the changes are, certainly, there’s more opportunity there because of the changing situation in the Arctic. We see an increase in buildup, military buildup, in Russia, and that demands attention by the United States. We also see that China has exported its values to other parts of the world.

And so, Greenland being our neighbor and the Kingdom of Denmark being our very close partner and part of NATO, it’s important that we make sure our neighbors are prosperous and secure. Prosperous nations are less vulnerable to malign influence.

Allen: You mention a little bit of that military presence and the importance of Greenland really being a strong, in some ways, ally in that region. And, … as you say, it’s so close to Maine. So, can you just tell us a little bit about what relationally, in a military sense, Greenland’s relationship with America looks like right now? Do we actually have a military presence or base anywhere in Greenland?

Sands:  We do. So, America’s most northern base, and it’s in the Arctic region, it’s called Thule Air Base. And it is a purely defensive base. And it benefits the United States, so the people of the U.S. It also benefits Greenland and Denmark. And, of course, it’s part of NATO, so it benefits NATO.

But Russia, on the other hand, has offensive capabilities on its coast. They have now over 470 points of militarization. They’ve refurbished old Cold War bases. And they’ve opened new bases as well. Russia even has missiles on their icebreakers. So, the United States is rightly concerned about this militarization.

Allen: Wow. Yeah. … I feel like you don’t hear too much about that in the news. So, that’s fascinating to know that Russia has that kind of strength in that region.

As we think about kind of moving into the future, what, in your mind, is so critical about America continuing to strengthen those ties with Greenland, and specifically around the topic of growing military strength?

Sands: I think that, as a matter of fact, I would like to talk about how do we help countries around the world be strong and be resilient in the face of that kind of buildup? And I will say that it is about cooperation and extending a hand of American friendship. And we’ve done that with Greenland.

Working with Denmark, we have created opportunities for especially our state of Alaska, which has many similarities to Greenland. We have similarities in culture, in language, in peoples, and also in resources.

And the state of Alaska has very successfully built a sustainable tourism industry. They have been able to mine sustainably. And they’ve had trial and error, so they’ve learned through practice how to get these things right.

So, we also have a very strong national park system in the United States, including in Alaska. And we are looking forward to sharing some of our experiences with the Greenlanders so that the Greenlanders can build a sustainable economy that benefits the people in Greenland.

Allen: And that economic strength is so critical. Not too long ago, America gave Greenland $12 million for economic development. Can you explain America’s economic relationship just a little bit further with Greenland and why their economic development is really critical for America’s interest?

Sands: When I first met with the Greenlanders when I came to the Kingdom of Denmark to represent the U.S., I asked them and my team asked them, “What are your hopes and dreams? How can we cooperate with you?”

And they told us that they would like to have better education for their people, they would like to have sustainable tourism, they’d like to be able to have a successful mining industry, and also to have better fisheries management, and to deal with some of their social challenges. We have similar social challenges in some of our small communities in Alaska.

So, we created a plan, basically, to cooperate together. And we do this all over the world, sharing our experiences. And we’re looking forward to sharing through this package that has been created by the United States government. And this has bipartisan support in Washington.

We have tremendous people from Commerce and from Energy, and energy and natural resources at the State Department as well, and folks here in Copenhagen, and in really all parts of the U.S. government, looking at this and saying, “How can we cooperate with our friends to build a secure and sustainable economic success with our neighbor?” And we’re very excited about this partnership.

The fact that we have been able to reopen our consulate and be able to create this package in cooperation with Greenland and Denmark, it says a lot about our relationship with the Kingdom of Denmark and how close it is. We are very close friends.

Last year, the U.S. was the biggest export market for Denmark. So, you can imagine we’re a big economic partner, but we’re also the security partner of Denmark’s choice. They always say the United States is their partner. They’re part of NATO, an original nation. And so, looking at this relationship, this is what friends do with friends. And we have done this all over the world.

Allen: That’s wonderful. I’m curious, if you wouldn’t mind just sharing a little bit of history around the closing of the consulate. And then what was that push to then say, “OK, now is the time that we need to reopen”?

Sands: So, the consulate was there from 1940 to 1953. And we had a pretty big presence in Greenland during the Second World War.

When Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, the then-ambassador from Denmark suggested that the United States secure Greenland and make sure it didn’t fall into Nazi hands. So, the United States had a very big presence. About 5,000 servicemen and women during World War II. And at that time, there were about 20,000 Greenlanders.

And we created a lot of friendship during that period. In fact, when you fly to airports in Greenland, every one of them that I’ve gone to has a museum of American military and wonderful photos and mementos and great stories about scientific cooperation and also our security partnership in that part of the world. It’s really wonderful.

Allen: That is wonderful. That’s so lovely that they have that, and such a testament, I think, to that lasting partnership between the two countries.

Now, Greenland did get some press in the news last year when President [Donald] Trump made a comment about his desire to purchase Greenland. And I thought the country had a great response with saying Greenland is not for sale, but they certainly are open for business. And many do feel that it’s only a matter of time before Greenland may end up becoming its own sovereign nation.

If and when Greenland does end up separating from Denmark, how do you think this would affect America’s relationship with Greenland?

Sands: OK. Well, that’s a lot to unpack, so let me start at the top. I think that the president is a big thinker and he’s an outside-of-the-box thinker and that brings out unique things. But he’s also the third U.S. president to make the offer to buy Greenland. So, I think other presidents have looked at Greenland and said, “We need to make sure that Greenland is secure because it is our neighbor.”

When we think about Greenland, the No. 1 thing that we want to see is a prosperous Greenland that is secure, where the increase in the economic growth goes to the people of Greenland, that it benefits them.

We want to see that investment that flows into Greenland is transparent, that it’s according to the rule of law, that investors invest according to the international rules or international norms.

We’ve seen investment into other small economies where it has been destructive when it’s authoritarian nations investing with debt diplomacy, like the People’s Republic of China have done in other places. And so, I know that Greenland is anxious to develop, but I also know that the United States and Denmark want to be sure that it’s done in a way that benefits the Greenlanders.

Allen: Of course, of course. Thank you for explaining that.

What would you say in the immediate future are some of the things that you’re most excited for, for Greenland, whether that’s their economic development or just different plans that they have to expand tourism? What are the things that you really have your sights on for Greenland in the immediate future?

Sands: In the immediate future it will be the things that have the smallest lead time. It’s the fact that [the United States Agency for International Development] is going to do an analysis to see how can we cooperate best. And then the [International Visitor Leadership Program] teachers, they were asking for help with education.

We’ve already had … Fulbright scholars go up and work with the young people there to help them with English language capacity. And so, that’s been a great cooperation with the Fulbrighters. …

The virus has really slowed down our progress in our cooperation, but we will shortly have exchanges with our National Park Service and their folks that run their parks.

They have a couple of UNESCO World Heritage sites, and they want to be able to welcome Americans and have the infrastructure in place that they can support tourism to diversify their economy.

Then the longer-term goal for them, and one of their biggest wishes, is to build out their minerals extraction, to be able to mine their rare earth, for instance.

We’ve seen where the People’s Republic of China has threatened the United States not to sell us rare earth minerals. They process almost all the minerals in the world.

And that kind of threat, it actually is a national security threat because American cellphones have rare earth. Our electric car batteries have rare earth. Also, our defense equipment have rare earth. And so, we want to make sure that we have a secure supply chain for things that are necessary for our normal, modern life.

Allen: That’s so critical. Ambassador, before I let you go, I want to ask, I think so many Americans have Greenland on their bucket [list] of places that they want to visit. It’s such a beautiful, beautiful landscape. Where is your favorite place to visit in Greenland? What should I have on my list?

Sands: There are floating icebergs in the Ilulissat Harbor that are just extraordinary. If you can get a boat ride to go out and see those beautiful icebergs floating, it’s magnificent. And there are colors you’ve never seen before anywhere in the world, I think. You might also see whales when you go on a boat in Ilulissat. But the entire island is so diverse, has so many different, beautiful places to visit.

I think that my favorite visit was when I visited the scientists up at Summit Station. And it is very cold there, but it’s also a very unique place. We have American scientists from some of our finest universities, studying and doing research on the Arctic and on climate. Sometimes I meet three generations of researchers at one time, and that’s very special.

So, we have a great legacy of science cooperation in Greenland, and we include the Greenlanders in this cooperation. So, it’s one of the wonderful places where we have a wonderful partnership with the Greenlanders.

But I think if I were going to sort of frame our cooperation and our friendship with the Greenlanders and the entire Kingdom of Denmark, I would just say what we want is a secure and sustainable future for this beautiful kingdom; we want prosperity for our neighbors; and we have a friend in Greenland and the entire Kingdom of Denmark.

Allen: That’s wonderful. Ambassador, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate you coming on the show.

Sands: Thanks, Virginia. It was great to talk to you today.