Greenland purchase tantrum reveals Trump’s cynical worldview
By now, you might think that you’ve heard all possible adjectives used to describe President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Here’s a new one: amoral.
Not immoral, amoral. It’s not that Trump goes out of his way to cause chaos and destruction, though given other events during his presidency, you could reasonably draw that conclusion. Even so, it’s hard to believe that he actively enjoys destroying the United States’ reputation. Rather, it seems more likely that he doesn’t understand why the United States needs a good reputation in the first place.
For evidence of this, look no further than our latest diplomatic spat. President Trump recently became tickled by the idea of owning Greenland, and, against the advice of the remaining adults in the White House, asked Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen about buying it. When Frederiksen made it clear that Denmark was not interested in selling, Trump announced that he had canceled a planned state visit to Copenhagen. Then came the usual cycle; outrage and condemnation from Trump’s critics, vapid justifications from his defenders, and no movement from his poll numbers.
The Greenland debacle may be nothing but an idiotic distraction from the real issues facing the United States right now, but it’s possible to learn something interesting from it. When carefully examined, it provides us with two fascinating glimpses into Trump’s psyche. First, in his view, “Making America Great Again” seems to be connected to making the United States larger, as “great” presidents like Thomas Jefferson, James Polk and William McKinley have done in the past.
For the record, our age of expansion ended a century ago; the United States has not acquired any new territory since purchasing the Virgin Islands in 1917 and assuming trusteeship over a handful of Pacific atolls after the Second World War. But reactionary thinking is gaining popularity these days, and the idea is already being praised by the president’s allies. For instance, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) penned an op-ed in the New York Times last week to this effect, noting the many benefits that would come with ownership of the island.
And Sen. Cotton has a point. There are serious benefits to us owning Greenland — improved national security, greater access to natural resources and weather data, to name a few. But Denmark isn’t interested in selling, and the people of Greenland seem far from enthusiastic about a change in ownership. Given this, why is Greenland still up for discussion?
The second, more consequential aspect of Trump’s psyche that this fiasco makes clear is Trump’s cynical vision of the world, a world in which America’s allies are its adversaries and international politics is a zero-sum game. In his view, it is our right to exploit other countries, as they are undoubtedly scheming to do the same to us. This worldview is reminiscent of the Second World War, which, in an incredible coincidence, was started by an egomaniacal leader who wanted to make his country bigger at his neighbors’ expense.
Trump-to-Hitler comparisons are usually nonsensical, and I seriously doubt that the president will invade Greenland, but his recent behavior begs the question: what will he do next? What he has done already is alarming enough; canceling an international visit is usually a move reserved for a serious diplomatic crisis, not a presidential temper tantrum. How much further could Trump go if he decides not to take “no” for an answer? If he believes that Denmark will concede the island if he applies enough pressure, his next steps could be the imposition of economic sanctions or a reevaluation of our defense commitments used as leverage to force Denmark to reconsider his offer. As we know well by now, none of his advisors or backers in Congress have the courage to stop him.
The truth is that if we threw all other considerations out the window, we could strong-arm Denmark into giving up Greenland. After all, the United States is a superpower, and Denmark is not. But to gain Greenland through coercion would come at the cost of the moral high ground if one of our rival superpowers tries to do the same thing. How are we supposed to prevent another Crimea when we’ve done the same to an entire prospective country?
Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it these days, but the world is a dangerous place. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the risk of a massive, full-scale war between two nuclear-armed superpowers was finally laid to rest. If we want to avoid digging it up again, the best way to do so is to lead by example. To make sure that other nations scrupulously follow the international norms that keep the world at peace, we must first do so ourselves. In this way, if our adversaries deviate from those norms, we have the right — and the votes in the United Nations Security Council — to condemn them. If Trump got his way, such a condemnation would simply be an instance of the pot calling the kettle black.
Besides, there are other benefits to doing the right thing. Right now in Hong Kong, millions of people are protesting, marching in pursuit of freedom from the influence of a totalitarian state. Some of them — a small minority, to be sure — have been waving the flag of the United States as a symbol of freedom. That’s powerful. It means something that the United States is, in a few places at least, viewed as a force for good in the world.
Giving up moments like those, even for Greenland’s many assets, is not a deal that we should be willing to make.