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Resumé af Iben Fejerskov Larsens speciale

Specialetitel: “While we owe much to America I do not feel that we owe them the whole island of Greenland”.

Undertitel: How the triangular security relationship between Greenland, Denmark, and the United States is articulated in events of US’ attempts to purchase Greenland in 1946 and 2019, their reflections of the Arctic security political issues, and the effects in the triangular relationship


Throughout history, there has been some attempts from the USA to purchase Greenland from Denmark, indicating a longstanding American interest in Greenland. In my thesis, I focused on the latest attempt in 2019 in contrast to an attempt made back in 1946. According to existing research, the US has had a rather stagnant approach to the Arctic, however, over the last couple of years, the military strategical balance in the Arctic has increasingly been discussed in Washington, resulting in a more active security political Arctic strategy. Furthermore, the geopolitical environment of the Arctic has been affected by recent developments like climate change, Chinese interests in the region, and increased Russian military activities, which have spiked renewed great power competition.

The US achieved its first foothold in Greenland with the 1941 Defense Agreement of Greenland when Denmark was occupied by Germany, allowing American presence in Greenland, which resulted in periods of tensions between Denmark and Greenland and outright scandals, which were often blamed on the US, Denmark, or even both (Olesen 2017). Besides this, the American presence in Greenland has been a factor in Greenland’s wish for independence and especially due to the tendency between Denmark and the US to act without Greenlandic involvement (Qvist & Schultz-Lorentzen 2019). Once again, the international interest in Greenland has increased as a result of the increased great power competition and climate change with its opening up to military and commercial activity (Szymański 2021). Hence, this thesis sought to investigate and answer the following research question and sub-question:


  1. In the light of the renewed interest in the Arctic, and more specifically Greenland, how is the triangular security relationship between Greenland, Denmark, and the United States articulated in the event of the US’ proposal to purchase Greenland in 2019 compared to the US’ proposal in 1946?
    • How are these proposals reflecting Arctic security political issues and great power rivalry and with what effects in the relationship?

The purpose was to establish whether there has been a paradigm shift in the relationship and to assess the role of external developments in relation to this security relationship.


Methodological and theoretical foundation

In conducting this study, I followed a problem-driven research design and took departure in a phenomenon or problem that I thought needed to be further understood while drawing on existing theories and methodologies. My motivation and ambition of the thesis was to understand the articulations of the triangular security relationship between Greenland, Denmark, and the United States, and furthermore, how these articulations reflect security political issues and great power rivalry in the Arctic and with what effects in the relationship, and finally, if there had been a paradigm shift. The reason for focusing on the triangular security relationship is that, according to my understanding, Greenland has had a significant role in US Arctic strategy throughout history and more so in recent years, and furthermore, the US has, since 1941, played a significant role in the (security) relationship between Greenland and Denmark.

In my thesis, I took a social constructivist stance as I find that Greenland, Denmark, and the US may construct reality, and thus security, differently, which is expressed in what they each seek to secure against constructed threats, hence the reason for focusing on articulations, discourses and situational contexts, and speech acts identified in secondary qualitative data that was used for answering my research questions. The analyzed data consisted of official documents and speeches and statements from former and present officials in Greenland, Denmark, and the US. More specifically, I analyzed excerpts from:

  • The Defense Agreement of 1941 regarding Greenland’s defense against potential German occupation (Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, 1997, 13-23), which was made by Henrik Kauffmann (then Danish ambassador to the US in Washington) on behalf of Denmark without Denmark’s approval due to the occupation.
  • A memorandum from 1947 of a meeting between the foreign minister, defense minister, and military chiefs regarding then Danish foreign minister Gustav Rasmussen’s meeting with then US foreign minister James F. Byrnes (Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, 1997)
  • A Telegram from 1947 with Rasmussen’s response to the purchase proposal provided to me by Henrik Knudsen, senior research associate at the Danish National Archives, and Henry Nielsen, associate professor at Aarhus University, by inquiry.
  • A speech by former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in Rovaniemi, Finland, on May 6, 2019: Looking North: Sharpening America’s Arctic Focus (Pompeo 2019)
  • A statement by former US ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands from April 2020: Wake up to the Arctic’s Importance (Sands 2020)
    • A statement by President Donald Trump regarding his considerations on purchasing Greenland (Pengelly 2020)
    • A statement by Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen regarding President Trump’s purchase proposal (Kielgast 2019)
    • A statement by Mette Frederiksen on Trump’s reaction to her decline of his purchase proposal (Olsen & Jørgensen 2019)
    • Statements from Mette Frederiksen in a debate on the US’ foreign- and security political engagement in Greenland at the Danish Parliament (Folketinget 2019a)
    • A statement by former Premier of Greenland Kim Kielsen on President Trump’s proposal (Hyldal & Jakobsen 2019)
    • A speech by Kim Kielsen at the Arctic Circle Assembly on October 10, 2019 (Naalakkersuisut 2020a)
      • Statement by former Premier of Greenland Kuupik Kleist in an interview with High North News (Jacobsen 2019b)
      • The book Kuupik Kleist. Drømmen om frihed (Kuupik Kleist. The dream of freedom) by Niels Ole Qvist and Christian Schultz-Lorentzen

The data was obtained through internet- and document-based research and categorized according to which of the two US purchase-proposals they related to. I applied securitization theory by the Copenhagen School from which I used the following concepts: securitizing actor, existential threat, referent object, audience, and facilitating conditions in order to establish how securitization is used by the US, Greenland, and Denmark, and thus to determine the discourses evident with regard to the two purchase proposals. The potential securitizations are responses to how they perceive what is going on in the Arctic and the world in general. Thus, according to my perception, securitizations are socially constructed based on securitizing actors’ perceptions and thus constructions of reality, which are shaped by the social reality, i.e. the interactions in the world community. Thus, I agree with Lassi Heininen who states that “security is not an objective concept but rather is a relative one and thus socially constructed” (Heininen 2010, 38).

As mentioned, I applied securitization theory to analyze speech acts by using the framework presented by the Copenhagen School in Security: A New Framework for Analysis, which served as both the theory against which the proposals were seen in a security perspective and also as an analytical tool combined with aspects of critical discourse analysis due to their capabilities to provide insights into how the situational context impacts the parties’ constructions of threats and what should be securitized. By using the theory, I could identify the securitizing actors, threats, referent objects, audiences, facilitating conditions, and potential extraordinary measures. It also served the purpose to establish whether or not these proposals could be seen as securitizing an issue (referent object) from an existential threat or if they were rather securitizing moves unable to make the issue securitized, and furthermore, to see if there had been a paradigm shift in what should be securitized and how the three parties addressed the relationship. The theory was also used to answer the part of the research question related to how the proposals reflected security issues in the Arctic at two specific time periods, but also what was considered to be threatened and from what. The application of the theory also led to a discussion on how the proposals affected the triangular security relationship. Finally, the theory could also help understand Greenland’s role in the US’ Arctic strategy.


Analytical findings and conclusion

The analysis was divided into two sections: 1) the 1946-proposal and 2) the 2019-proposal, and was followed by a discussion. In relation to the first part, where the analysis took departure in official documents, I found that the discourse in relationship was to a great extent determined by external threats, initially that of Germany with the 1941 Defense Agreement, and thus the triangular relationship was initiated in the context of war. Hence, the discourse at this time was characterized by security. This was also the case in 1946 when the purchase proposal was made, although the threat shifted to that of the Soviet Union from both a Danish and US perspective, however, for Denmark, the US also represented a threat to Danish sovereignty over Greenland. I found that there was a mutual understanding between Denmark and the US that Greenland should be protected, although for different reasons. For the US, Greenland is located in close proximity to the US, which made the US vulnerable to attacks from first Germany and then the Soviet Union during the Cold War in terms of the new modern weapons that could reach the Thule Air Base and thus American defense. For Denmark, it was to a great extent protecting its own interests such as its sovereignty over Greenland, but also to keep the Greenlandic population safe, although less explicated in the analyzed official documents, the 1941 Defense Agreement and Memorandum in particular, thus Greenland did not have much of a say in the relationship at this point.

In relation to the second part of the analysis, where the analysis mainly took departure in speeches and statements, I found that the discourse in the relationship was to a great extent determined by the constructed threats of the US, Greenland self-determination and interests, and a Danish wish for maintaining a strong relationship within the Realm and with the US. I found that the US sought to securitize its interests in Greenland such as its defense and the Thule Air Base, while also attempting to securitize the Arctic region and western norms and values from the threat coming from mainly Russia and China, but also to some extent the threat of climate change (which took up less space in the analyzed US data). Compared to Denmark and Greenland, the US representatives applied security rhetoric to a greater extent. Denmark and Greenland were quick to reject the US purchase proposal, thus desecuritizing or even depoliticizing the US’ attempt to securitize its interests through obtaining Greenland. Denmark also sought to securitize its relationship with Greenland and the US and also its status as an Arctic state (although after handing in the thesis, Mette Frederiksen stated that Denmark is not an Arctic state – Greenland is). Greenland sought to securitize its development towards independency through economic investments, investments in infrastructure, and through cooperation with other countries. Moreover, Greenland also sought to securitize its voice in the international sphere, and additionally, the environment.

Finally, in the discussion based on the two parts of the analysis, I discuss the differences and similarities of the relationship in the context and periods of time of the two proposals. Some key points made in the discussion are:

  • In the context of the 1946-proposal, Denmark wished to remain neutral in tensions between the West and the East, whereas in the context of the 2019-proposal, Mette Frederiksen explicitly urged the Danish Parliament that Denmark (and thus Greenland) should take a clear ally position with the US.
  • Greenland was to a lesser extent involved in security discussion in the 1940’s compared to today, although there is still a tendency for Greenland to being kept in the dark, according to Kuupik Kleist.
  • The Danish-Greenlandic relationship is still articulated as a mother-child relationship from both Danish and Greenlandic sides, but with Greenland “growing up” while still seeking protection from Denmark
  • The US’ perception of the Danish-Greenlandic relationship was both in relation to the 1946- proposal and the 2019-proposal considered a mainly economic relationship with great economic loss to Denmark in “carrying” Greenland.
  • Greenland’s future independence was one of the major differences in the two proposals and the discourse, especially in the Danish and Greenlandic articulations of the triangular relationship. Recognition, inclusion and equality are important to Greenland today in the relationship with Denmark and negotiations with the US. Whatever goes on in Greenland must benefit Greenland. Moreover, for Greenland it is also about levelling out its dependence to other states and thus becoming gradually less dependent on Denmark.
  • There is a great difference in the triangular relationship with regard to the use of security rhetoric and thus what should be securitized. The defense and military play different roles to each party.
  • The view on security in relation to the 1946-proposal was more traditionalist with focus on military, the state, and national security, whereas in relation to the 2019-proposal, security has expanded to other sectors with focus on economy, the environment, and relationship besides national security.
  • The US and Denmark now have to include Greenland and take into consideration Greenlandic wishes and conditions for cooperation to be successful compared to the 1940’s when this was less of a priority.

I concluded that there has been a paradigm shift in the discourses present in relation to the purchase proposal in 1946 and the proposal in 2019 and in how the triangular security relationship is articulated. Moreover, I concluded that the security relationship is to a great extent determined by external factors. I further concluded that Denmark, Greenland, and the US each construct their reality in different ways, which impact their approach to security and how they articulate the relationship. I found that there has been a change in the discourses: 1946-proposal, the dominant discourse was mainly related to security in the traditional sense, whereas in relation to the 2019-proposal, the discourses developed to include relationships, independence, and environment as important factors in the relationship. The change in discourses reflect a change in security perceptions, constructions of threats and thus what shall be securitized. This is seen in that in relation to the 1946-proposal, the constructed threat was, for all three parties, Germany in the context of the Second World War, which shifted to that of the Soviet Union with the Cold War. In relation to the 2019-proposal, the constructed threat by the US shifted to come from Russia, China, and climate chance, whereas the threats constructed by Greenland and Denmark are mainly external threats, incl. Russia in particular, and external interference in the Danish-Greenlandic relationship and, moreover, Greenland’s self-determination and process towards independence. The parties’ approaches towards each other have also changed as seen through the articulations and discourses, mainly with Greenland’s development from a colony to a nation with Self-Governance as the main cause for the paradigm shift.

The purchase proposals reflect Arctic security political issues and great power rivalry in the sense that US’ interests in Greenland is highly determined by external factors, i.e. its constructed threats of other great powers. The Danish-Greenlandic relationship is also highly determined or influenced by external factors, but also its own internal struggles within the Realm, such as Greenland’s inclusion in security discussions related to Greenland. The situational context determines to a great extent the developments in the triangular security relationships, and thus, whether the Arctic is a place of cooperation or conflict, it impacts the security relationship.

Relation to the Realm

This thesis is highly relevant for understanding the relationship between Greenland and Denmark (and their relationship with the US) and how this relationship is also to a great extent affected by the US. The historical perspective also helps understanding the development that this triangular relationship has gone through and how and why each party construct their realities and thus their perspectives on security the way they do. It also helps understanding why the situational context matters and how it influences not only Greenland and its relationship with other countries, but also the Arctic as a region, which is gaining more and more attention as the effects of climate change continues to change the physical characteristics of the region and thus the debate on whether or not the Arctic is a region of cooperation or competition.

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Senest opdateret 25. november 2021