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Former Ambassador To Denmark Discusses Trump's Reported Interest In Buying Greenland


When The Wall Street Journal broke the story yesterday that President Trump might be interested in buying Greenland, the first reaction from some people was to check whether this was, in fact, The Onion.


AAJA CHEMNITZ LARSEN: It sounded a little bit like a joke because Greenland is not for sale.

KELLY: Greenland is not for sale. That's Aaja Chemnitz Larsen speaking today on NPR's Here And Now. She is a member of Parliament in Denmark representing Greenland, which is a Danish territory. But is buying Greenland such a crazy idea? Turns out Trump is not the first U.S. president to entertain the idea. Let's bring in Rufus Gifford. He was U.S. ambassador to Denmark and, by extension, to Greenland under President Obama. And we have caught him on a trip to Denmark.

Ambassador, welcome.

RUFUS GIFFORD: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: What was your reaction when you first heard about this development?

GIFFORD: Well, I actually - it was The Wall Street Journal article you referenced was the last thing I read before I took off from Boston to fly to Copenhagen last night. And I have to say, I think, like most people, I laughed until I cried. This just seemed like such a bizarre and cavalier way to talk about this really important relationship historically between the United States and Greenland.

KELLY: Although, as I mentioned, this is not the first time the United States has entertained the idea. President Truman offered to buy Greenland back in 1946. He was offering a hundred million dollars back then. And part of the thinking then, as now, appears to be acquiring Greenland could be awfully advantageous to U.S. national security. There are all kinds of natural resources, the strategic location between the North Atlantic and the Arctic. What do you think?

GIFFORD: All that's true. And let's be clear - we have to look at where we were geopolitically in 1946 and understand that we're in a dramatically different place right here in 2019. The United States had great concern in the aftermath of World War II, leading into the Cold War, about continued political instability in Europe. And the idea that somehow adversaries of the United States could get a foothold so close to a place like Greenland was a real threat. But this is before NATO. Denmark is part of NATO, which means Greenland is part of NATO. National security interests just doesn't ring true to me.

KELLY: To tease out the thread you're speaking to there about what a very different world we live in now than in the 1940s, is there a risk that if the U.S. doesn't find some way to get in there - whether it's purchasing Greenland or not - that Russia will, that China will?

GIFFORD: Well, we are there. And, frankly, we have scaled back our investment in Greenland since the end of the Cold War. We used to have a number of military bases on Greenland. We now have one. It's Thule Air Base. So I would never question a very, very strong partnership both economically and militarily with Greenland, both to the health of the alliance, the peace and security of the Arctic. But purchasing Greenland? That's a whole nother step and not particularly advantageous for any of the players - and I mean the Greenlanders, American taxpayers, et cetera.

KELLY: You've been to Greenland nine times. Is that right?

GIFFORD: That's right.

KELLY: Traveled all over, top to bottom. Describe it for those of us who haven't been there in terms of what it looks like but also the natural resources, the opportunities and risks for whoever controls it.

GIFFORD: You know, I get goose bumps when I think about Greenland. My first trip there - so I arrived in Denmark as my ambassadorship on August 30 of 2013. And one of my first trips as ambassador was to fly to Greenland. I went to a town called Ilulissat which is probably the most picturesque town on Greenland. And I saw icebergs for the first time in front of a sunset. And you saw raw natural beauty in a way that I have never seen before. And you realize that, damn, this place is pretty special.

It is changing, meaning it is - climate change is impacting Greenland at rates that we've never seen before in modern American history, and with the possible exception of Antarctica, more than any other spot on the planet. And, to me, our relationship with Greenland has got to keep that in mind. There's so much there, such a magical place.

KELLY: I mentioned we have caught you in Denmark. How big is this story playing there? Is it leading the news?

GIFFORD: Leading the news in every way and met with resounding skepticism and cynicism. I think this is not going to happen. Neither the Danes nor the Greenlanders are interested in this. Greenland - for the tension that does rightly exist between Greenland and Denmark, it's an important part of the kingdom. And they're simply not going to sell it to Donald Trump. They're very sensitive to some of the issues that we've discussed. And, ironically, I don't know if you knew this - we bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark. I think it was in 1915 - so 104 years ago or so.

KELLY: Yeah, there is history of property transactions between these countries.

GIFFORD: That is true, but we got it for a very good price, and they're still getting over it. Something tells me they're not going to let this one go. They're not going to let history repeat itself.

KELLY: Rufus Gifford - he is former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, and he joined us from Copenhagen.

Ambassador, thank you.

GIFFORD: Thank you so much, Mary Louise.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, former Ambassador Rufus Gifford incorrectly says the U.S. purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1915. That occurred in 1917.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 16, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this story, former Ambassador Rufus Gifford incorrectly says the U.S. purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1915. That occurred in 1917.