What Trump means for the Arctic
By Martin Breum
Under president Donald Trump, Thule Air Base, located in the far north of Greenland, is likely to take on renewed significance for America’s defence. Greenland’s vast landmass, right on the top of the American continent, is an important strategic buffer for the US against China, North Korea, Russia and Iran.
A brief glance at the globe will illustrate how the US Air Force’s radar installation at Thule forms a vital part of its defence against intercontinental ballistic missiles.
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Trump has expressed his desire to develop a more robust missile-defence system.
Cantech Letters, a Canadian technology news outlet, predicts that the Pentagon will seek to increase its presence in the High North by building more radar and communications installations, and by stationing more air-force and naval units in the region.
All of these elements will find support at the Thule base: it has the only deep-water port in the region; it has two 3,000 metre-long, all-weather runways, where even the largest US bombers can land; and - most importantly - it is home to advanced radar and satellite installations.
These installations are directly linked to the US Air Force’s Space Command, in Colorado, which Trump’s advisors have pointed to as the heart of an improved missile-defence system.
Thule Air Base
For the devolved government in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, such a development would mean that Thule Air Base and Greenland itself suddenly become more important to Washington.
Greenland’s decision makers and their colleagues in Copenhagen will now have to analyse what effect this will have not just on their complex relations with the US, but also on Russia’s appreciation of the Danish kingdom’s role in the Arctic.
Greenland also has a more immediate interest in the lucrative base-service contract which, after being held for 40 years by a Danish-Greenlandic firm, was lost to Exelis, a subsidiary of an American firm, in 2014.
Nuuk calculates that this loss will cost Greenland approximately €20 million a year in lost revenue and taxes. This is a significant amount in Greenland and has forced Nuuk onto the offensive, as it seeks to convince Washington to pay some other form of compensation for the use of Greenland’s territory.
The issue is so high on the list of priorities for Naalakkersuisut, the elected government in Nuuk, that Kim Kielsen, the premier, brought it up already in his official letter of congratulations to Trump.
“Naalakkersuisut looks forward to continuing co-operation and negotiations on how we can ensure that Greenland’s contribution to the defence partnership can be modernised”, he said.
As many European governments will realise, Greenland is struggling uphill.
The US has traditionally refused to pay any rent on land for its bases abroad, preferring instead to frame the issue as one of mutual efforts to secure peace and stability. Danish diplomats, still responsible for Greenland’s sovereignty and for its security affairs, are working hard to find a compromise.
If Thule Air Base becomes significantly more important for the US, Nuuk might be able to squeeze more money of Washington, but it will not be easy: the Pentagon is already sceptical of Nuuk’s evaluation of the impact of its loss of the base-service contract, and there is no traceable optimism that that this would change under a Trump administration.
As Inuuteq Holm Olsen, Greenland’s representative in Washington, noted in Sermitsiaq, a weekly in Greenland, Trump has shown little respect for native people: “He has put down senator Elizabeth Warren, whom he calls Pocahontas because of her Native American heritage.”
Trump’s America-first attitude has caused worry. Speaking to Arctic Deeply, a Canada-based news outlet, Rob Hubert, of the University of Calgary, reckoned that “this means that the support of the Arctic Council, which has been one of the major elements of the Obama administration, will decrease”.
It is easy to underestimate how significant this would be. Copenhagen and Nuuk are conscious of the fact that much of the Kingdom of Denmark’s influence in the Arctic stems from its place in the Arctic Council.
The council gives all its members, regardless of size, an equal say and decisions are only taken if the indigenous peoples support them (the EU is still waiting for a new status as a permanent observer to the Arctic body).
For most of its 20-year history, getting Washington to fully involve itself in the council’s work has been a struggle. This changed in 2011 when Hillary Clinton became the first US secretary of state to attend an Arctic Council meeting.
Her successor, John Kerry, took part in council meetings in 2013, in Kiruna, and 2015, in Iqaluit. Also in 2015, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Alaska and villages north of the Arctic Circle.
He sat down with representatives from the entire Arctic, including the Danish and Greenlandic foreign ministers, and six months later, Kerry visited Greenland, emphasising the significance of the three-way relationship.
The Obama administration’s interest in the Arctic has, by and large, been guided by concerns about global warming, while Trump has made plain his scepticism in the scientific consensus that climate change is being caused by mankind.
Mia Bennet, an American academic and author of Cryopolitics, an Arctic blog, has noted that Trump has selected Myron Ebell, a climate-change sceptic, to become the next head of Washington’s Environmental Protection Agency.
William Moomaw, from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the US and an expert on climate, was, according to ArcticDeeply, equally pessimistic: “President Trump will undermine most attempts to address climate change, and the US will become a drag on the future development of the Paris accord [a global deal to slow rising temperatures]. This has devastating consequences for the Arctic.”
The future of the Arctic is determined by the balance between those whose main concern is climate change and protection of the environment, and those who are focused on commercial exploitation of its riches, whether oil, gas, minerals, fish, or arctic bio-tech and shipping lane opportunities.
The Obama’s course was often in line with the wishes of Copenhagen and Nuuk and meshed with Denmark’s Arctic strategy.
The US under president Obama has had its focus on sustainable economic development in the Arctic; a path which Greenland has worked hard to pave.
Since taking over as chair of the Arctic Council in 2015, Washington has used it to inform Americans about global warming, and to make gains for indigenous peoples in the Arctic and in Alaska in areas such as health, climate adaptation and telecommunications. Internationally, the US has lobbied for improved efforts to protect the oceans.
The Obama administration will also be remembered for placing such strict limitations on offshore oil and gas exploration in America’s Arctic that it led Shell and other oil firms to stop their activities there.
Washington is at the head of an effort to place restrictions on fishing in the central part of the Arctic Ocean until scientists figure out how receding sea ice affects fish stocks. This initiative has the warm support of all parts of Denmark.
A final deal on fish stocks that includes China, Japan, the EU and South Korea may be reached in Torshavn in the Faroe Islands this week.
We know little about what precise targets a Trump administration will pursue in these Arctic matters, but we do know that Donald Trump is sceptical about global warming, that he is in favour of rolling back restrictions on oil and gas in Alaska and its offshore zones, and that he has shown little interest in the Arctic peoples welfare.
Martin Breum is a Danish journalist, author of ‘The Greenland Dilemma’. He writes regularly on Arctic affairs for media in Denmark, Greenland and Norway