Trump, Greenland, and the Arrogance of Ages

Manifest Destiny Just Won’t Die

Steve Jones
Aug 28, 2019 · 4 min read
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Image for post
Greenland from space. (Photo courtesy CSC.)

Donald Trump and Republican crony Tom Cotton are doing their ham-handed best (or worst?) to resurrect the old American practice of Manifest Destiny, and Greenland is their target.

Manifest Destiny was the validation for American expansion in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It survived into the 20th Century under the guise of “New Internationalism” (a fancy term for American Imperialism).

As the Trump Administration’s flirtation with buying Greenland shows, American Manifest Destiny still exists — perhaps a bit rusty, but with as much arrogance as ever.

By now you know that in August 2019 Donald Trump suggested the United States buy Greenland from Denmark. When the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen scoffed and called the idea “absurd,” Trump got pissed and cancelled a state visit to Denmark.

Then, on August 26, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton agreed with Trump, saying the U.S. purchase of Greenland would be a wise move. He cited historical American interests in buying Greenland, ranging from Secretary of State William Seward in 1867 to President Harry Truman in the early days of the Cold War. Certainly Greenland was of strategic geographic importance to the Allies in World War II, and the U.S. has kept military units in Greenland since then.

He also said that other countries, notably China, are interested in Greenland.

Beijing understands not only Greenland’s geographic importance but also its economic potential. Greenland is rich in a wide array of mineral deposits, including rare-earth minerals — resources critical to our high-tech and defense industries. China currently dominates the market in these minerals and has threatened to withhold them from us to gain leverage in trade negotiations. Greenland also possesses untold reserves of oil and natural gas.

But what exactly was, or is, Manifest Destiny?

Simply, it was how early Americans justified westward expansion. The term itself wasn’t used until 1845, but the concept was apparent as soon as the American Revolution began in 1775, with Americans trying to grab a share of Canada. A second try at grabbing part of Canada was one factor leading to the War of 1812. Land was the main reason for the Mexican-American War, 1846–48, and it underpinned the removal of Native Americans across the continent.

Adherents of Manifest Destiny believed that the United States, with its republican Constitutional government, was the ultimate expression of political enlightenment. Thus, they thought Americans were obliged to spread that government as far as possible.

More importantly, they had a divine mandate to do so. Yes, they believed God approved whatever they had to do to control everything.

When the United States had taken as much of the North American continent as it could, Manifest Destiny simply took another form — imperialism. Recall that the U.S. broke away from an empire and couldn’t really style itself as imperial. So it called American Imperialism “New Internationalism,” declared war on Spain, grabbed Cuba and the Philippines, and became a junior empire holder.

Honestly, Americans had little taste for empire, especially after having to fight Filipinos rebelling against American rule. So the country promised the Philippines independence by 1946 and roped much of Central America and the Caribbean into a type of fiscal — instead of physical — imperialism.

And then, in the wake of two world wars, Manifest Destiny disappeared.

Or did it?

It is easy to see Manifest Destiny morphing into various forms to fit the needs of different eras — the Eisenhower Doctrine in Southeast Asia, the Bush II Doctrine of pre-emptive war in the Middle East.

While those certainly were rooted in the Cold War and post-9/11 panic, respectively, they show that the U.S. has continued to believe it can bullishly try to solve world regional problems with nothing but an arrogant belief in its own exceptionalism.

Which brings us back to Greenland.

In the Trump-Cotton version of Manifest Destiny, arrogance is still boldly on display. Notice the condescension in this Cotton quote:

An agreement to transfer Greenland’s sovereignty must also serve the interests of our good friends, the Danes, and the 56,000 Greenlanders as well. Their considerations ought to include the fact that despite Greenland’s long-term potential, a lack of infrastructure and financing still hamstring the island’s economy today. Greenland’s economy is less than one-tenth of Vermont’s, America’s smallest state economy. Every year, Denmark transfers $670 million in subsidies to support the island.

And then there is this tilt toward paternalism in Cotton’s remarks:

As the world’s largest economy, the United States could more easily assume support for Greenland’s communities while investing substantially in its future. The transfer of Greenland’s sovereignty would alleviate a significant financial burden on the Danish people while expanding opportunities for Greenlanders.

This is not the 19th Century, not even the early 20th. Globalism is here to stay.

This is type of arrogant return to Manifest Destiny has no part in modern American foreign policy.

As the Danish prime minister said, it’s “absurd.”

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