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Greenland gets its own Strategy for Foreign, Security and Defence Policy: Nothing about us, without us

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POLICY PERSPECTIVE

by Jan Top Christensen
June 2024

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Table of Contents


Introduction

In late February 2024, Greenland’s parliament, Inatsisartut, in the capital of Nuuk, approved with an overwhelming majority the first strategy for the autonomous Arctic region of Greenland. Naalakkersuisut, Greenland’s government, presented the strategy for the public. The title of the strategy is telling of today’s political aspirations in Nuuk, Greenland in the World: Nothing about us without us – Greenland’s Foreign, Security and Defense Policy 2024-2033.

The process of developing a revised Arctic strategy for the Kingdom of Denmark may now be resumed. A new Arctic Strategy was in fact due back in 2021 after the previous one for 2011-2020 had expired. But a new strategy has yet to come to fruition, although a draft is rumoured to be gathering dust in the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen. Some observers would argue that the delay is due to internal disagreement on the Greenlandic side. Other observers see the delay as a clear and conscious signal from Greenland – that they demand to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to the Kingdom’s dealings with the Arctic and not only contribute with input to something already largely conceived in Copenhagen. 1 

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Danish arrogance slowed down the process

The collaborative process can now move ahead to develop a new Arctic strategy for the Kingdom of Denmark. The Danish Foreign Affairs Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who has eagerly been waiting for Greenland to act (he himself has used the words “desperately waiting”2), is keen to rejoin the ranks of other Arctic Council member states that have updated and reissued their strategies to reflect the geopolitical realities of today’s world.

One major stumbling block has been the open and fierce disagreement regarding the criteria for the appointment of the next ambassador for the Arctic. When that process began in 2023, Denmark used existing procedure as previous appointments, following bureaucratic guidelines in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen. This resulted in the appointment of a classic civil servant whose latest diplomatic assignment was to South Africa, and who lacks Arctic experience. The political elite in Nuuk took exception to this appointment and insisted that the new Arctic ambassador should be someone with Greenlandic background.3 Rasmussen responded that appointments were not based on ethnic criteria. This perceived arrogant response added to the anger in Greenland and was unhelpful in expediting the process for the Arctic strategy.4 So far, the dispute has led to not using the title Arctic ambassador for the appointed career diplomat, but instead Senior Arctic Official. It remains to be seen if Greenland will appoint its own Arctic Ambassador for the first time.

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Greenland in the driver’s seat in the Arctic Council

The relationship between Denmark and Greenland has been evolving towards more autonomy for Greenland for decades. It may one day lead to full independence for Greenland, however, economic sustainability remains a significant hurdle as Greenland currently relies on Denmark’s block grant for 50 per cent of government budget.5

As in Canada, several other problems with links to social and cultural issues stemming from colonial time did not receive sufficient attention from Denmark, according to Greenland. A recent agreement on terms of reference for a commission to look into the various historic cases of abuse has helped improve the ambiance between Copenhagen and Nuuk.6

In an assertive comment on the Danish high profile political website Altinget, early March, Aaja Chemnitz, who is a leading member of IA, one of the two governing political parties in Greenland, and one of the two Greenlandic members of the Danish parliament, did not mince her words when she said Copenhagen has to understand what the mantra “nothing about us, without us” really means.7 In the interview, she opens the door for a new Arctic strategy for the Kingdom, but with Greenland as the principal drafter. After all, she says, Greenland is the only Arctic country of the three entities in the Kingdom. Greenland has detailed knowledge and experience of what is going on in the Arctic region. And she refers to an understanding, apparently already reached among the three, that Greenland will be chairing the Arctic Council when the Kingdom takes over after Norway in May 2025.

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A complex geopolitical backdrop

Greenland’s foreign minister writes in the foreword to the Strategy about the need to adjust and have a comprehensive strategy in connection with the major changes in the world” and that “[t]he world has become a more insecure place”. Greenland’s strategy is published at a time when the overarching existential threat from global warming are piling up, including the risks of reaching tipping points because of the Great Arctic Thaw” – the thaw of the permafrost, melting of Greenland’s ice sheet and the perspective of an ice free Polar Ocean by 2050. Russia’s aggressive behaviour in Ukraine is also creating fear of further military build-up in the Arctic. Increasingly, countries, including in Asia, have expressed a keen interest in the Arctic, with China defining itself as a “near-Arctic state”, showing significant interest in being involved in critical infrastructure projects and extraction of minerals in Greenland.8

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NATO - a key security partner

“We should not be naive, but we should not either give up working for peace”, Greenland’s Minister for Independence and Foreign Affairs, Vivian Motzfeldt states in the introduction to the Strategy. Greenland wants to walk on two legs. It is important to stress that Greenland foresees continued and intensified cooperation with NATO, however this is far from a given thing. The Alliance was not always well regarded in the pacifist Greenland, but is today recognized as a natural and key partner when it comes to security in the North. The increased interest is mutual, and Greenland has since 2023 sent its own representative to NATO in Brussels.9

According to Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of NATO’s Military Committee, the “Arctic remains essential to NATO’s deterrence and defence posture”.10 Already, the year before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a NATO report on security in the Arctic concluded that “the Arctic will become of increasing strategic significance for Euro-Atlantic security, as the region transforms at an unprecedented rate and at a time when the international system is increasingly strained.’’ As such, the Alliance plans to increase its presence in the North Atlantic. Greenland is stating its readiness to play a more important role in the monitoring of the so-called GIUK-gap (gap in the North Atlantic between Greenland, Iceland and U.K.) and the only way out into the North Atlantic for the Russian fleet.11

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EU opens Arctic office in Nuuk - critical minerals of prime interest

Mid-March this year, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU Commission, visited Nuuk to open the EU's first Arctic office. Although Greenland is not a member of the EU, there has for many years been close cooperation, with the EU providing financial assistance, including to the education sector. The EU updated its own Arctic policy late 2021, where it stated that “the EU’s full engagement in Arctic matters is a geopolitical necessity”.12 During her visit to Greenland, von der Leyen expressed enthusiasm about the upgraded relations, “It is a win-win situation, that the EU helps to develop Greenland’s huge potential within sustainable energy and critical minerals”.13

Greenland, as Denmark, signed up to EU’s sanctions against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.

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Greenland’s strategy proposes closer cooperation with Canada and the United States

A closer examination of Greenland’s Arctic strategy should be of interest to both Canadian policy makers and academics, as several elements point directly to hopes for increased cooperation with Canada (and the U.S.).

According to the Danish Constitution, foreign and security policy formally rests with the Danish government in Copenhagen. But the 2009 Act for Greenland’s self-government allows for Greenland to enter into international agreements within areas where jurisdiction has been transferred to the Greenlandic government in Nuuk.

Greenland’s Strategy foresees establishing a representative office in Ottawa, and encourages Canada to open a Consulate General in Nuuk (as the U.S. did in 2020). Greenland already has representations in Washington D.C., Beijing, Iceland and Brussels to the EU, and the Strategy foresees the opening of an office to the UN in New York and sending personnel to the UN in Geneva. 

The strategy is keen on stressing Greenland’s emphasis on peace and on keeping the Arctic as a low-tension region. To that end the strategy recommends establishing a Peace Center in Nuuk.  Knowledge and dialog about peace need more attention. In a situation where further military build-up is foreseen for the Arctic, Greenland sends a clear signal of wanting to avoid radically changing the security situation in the region. Greenland expects other countries to show interest. Japan is mentioned as an obvious partner with its long tradition for peace research. What should make Canada shy away from becoming another interested and active partner?

In reference to the deepening of ties with Canada, the importance of free movement between North Greenland and North Canada, as has historically been the case, is stressed, and it is argued that Inuit living in Northern Nunavut and the North of Greenland should have as few restrictions to free movement as possible.

Furthermore, Greenland aims to widen relations with Canadian provinces and territories, in particular cooperation with Nunavut as already defined in an agreement between the two governments in 2022.14 Cooperation is foreseen to further develop in sectors of common interest, for instance transportation, communication, tourism, research and culture.

More broadly, Greenland wants to intensify cooperation among the local governments and Parliaments in the Arctic, first and foremost among Alaska, Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Nunavik. An Arctic North American Forum is proposed to facilitate meetings among the local institutions to share ideas and exchange solutions about common challenges brought on by the changes in the Arctic Region and Arctic Ocean. The strategy lists a number of sectors of relevance, e.g. climate adaptation, education, health and social sectors.

The American military base in Thule, or in Greenlandic, Pituffik Space Base, has played a key role in the security set-up in the Arctic since the Second World War. Greenland is realistic and understands that the command and control can only be with the U.S. But the strategy foresees a civilian administrative unit as part of Greenland’s administration to handle aspects of a civilian nature. Closer cooperation with the American base is key to Greenland. The strategy states having a positive dialogue with the leadership of the base with a view of developing local initiatives in the base area.

Greenland also insists on being more involved in the protection of its sovereignty. Historically, activities executed by Danish military units have created animosity among the local population. The strategy foresees Greenlandic participation in the Sirius Patrol, the Danish military’s dog sled unit that crisscrosses the High North. Likewise, a greater degree of involvement in search and rescue functions is expected, as is enhancing Greenlandic capacity for fisheries inspection and coastguard functions.15

However, one thing is to present goals in a strategy paper, another thing is implementation, including specifying the necessary means to accomplish such goals. This part is less developed in the strategy. Traditionally, Greenland has not factored in expenditures for defence, when calculating the financial cost of independence.

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Greenland and Denmark: Agreement on an “Arctic Package”

In a meeting in Nuuk in early March with the Danish Minister of Defence, Troels Lund Poulsen, the Greenlandic Minister for Independence and Foreign Affairs, Vivian Motzfeldt, expressed satisfaction with the new situation, including the approach from the Danish military command.16 She referred to the so-called “Arctic Package” as foundational for broader political agreement on substantial increases in investments in hard- and software in the Arctic. Two advanced drones would be procured for the amount of $200 million to increase monitoring capacity, and increased financing will be allocated for ship building. Additionally, basic education for emergency preparedness seems already to have become a success. The Danish Defence Minister stressed that Denmark fully shares the Greenlandic view that the region should be kept as a low-tension region. Motzfeldt noted that relations have improved significantly and are now based on trust and mutual respect. The general geopolitical situation may have helped bring the two parties closer together.

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Greenland is keen on seeing Russia back in the Arctic Council

The “security dilemma” remains. Deterrence needs a certain level of hardware. But there is always a risk that new procurement and new protocols will lead to adverse reactions and further mobilization on the other side. Greenland, as a traditional pacifist player, does not want to provoke Russia – owning half of the Arctic Ocean shore-line – to further weaponize the region. The question is how to strike the right balance, and how to maintain the Arctic exceptionalism?

Greenland is keen on keeping the Arctic Council together as a group of eight. The strategy talks about participation of all of the Arcticand in spite of difficult times, it is needed to have a long-term perspective and further developing the Arctic Council, but still without including security politics.” When the Kingdom of Denmark assumes the chairmanship in May 2025, with Greenland as the driving force and the true Arctic partner among the Kingdom’s partners, it is very much hoped that the Council can regain full membership function again.

Geopolitics and security matters cannot help but set the backdrop to this upcoming period as Chair, whether Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is over or not. Chemnitz argues that the present situation, with most of the working groups operating without Russian participation, cannot continue forever.17 Climate challenges are too existential and important for the Arctic region and must include Russia as well. Not only the Danish government - but also other Arctic Council members like Canada - will undoubtedly feel conflicted as to this ambition.

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Greenland - an exception in the Arctic?

In a book published in March 2024, Greenland in Arctic Security, the authors are putting Greenland on a special Arctic pedestal, stating that Greenland enjoys the most autonomy of any non-sovereign Arctic territory, situating itself between a colonial past and the future as a sovereign nation-state anticipated to materialize sooner rather than later”.

Canadian Inuit do not seem to share the same ambitions in terms of obtaining independence. On the other hand, the authors grapple with putting Greenland on a clear formula, as “the surrounding climatic thaw and geopolitical freeze of the Arctic, equally based mainly on futures yet to be realised, only adds to the elusiveness of Greenland”.

The trend has been clear for several decades. Greenland wants to be as autonomous as possible, and there are already political forces in Greenland ready to fully cut the ties. A year ago, a Greenlandic commission presented a draft for Greenland’s own constitution for its parliament, outlining the legal shape of a future, fully independent Greenland.

But there are indications that a majority of Greenlanders foresee some kind of link to Denmark maintained in the long-term. The hard facts are that the developing global security situation puts more pressure on Greenland. It is obvious that the island nation would not be able to defend itself in an escalated security situation, not even with Denmark’s help. If Greenland fully leaves the Kingdom of Denmark, in case of military conflict there is no doubt that the U.S. would need to significantly intervene. Perhaps some kind of link to Denmark – some observers have suggested a Free Association Agreement with Denmark, like the one the Marshall Islands shares with the U.S. – would still be more attractive for Greenland in the foreseeable future.18

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End Notes

1 Helle Nørrelund Sørensen, “Motzfeldt: Arctic strategy will be presented after Easter”, KNR (Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation), March 23, 2023, https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/motzfeldt-arktis-strategi-bliver-praesenteret-efter-paaske

2 During debate on the Arctic in Folketinget (Danish Parliament), March 14, 2023

3 Euronews, “A newly appointed ambassador sticks out for his lack of connection to the Arctic region.”, May 24, 2023, https://www.euronews.com/2023/05/25/greenland-premier-laments-tensions-with-copenhagen-over-new-minister

4 Sermitsiaq, “The case of Arctic ambassador flares up: Rattles with the saber”, May 4, 2023, https://www.sermitsiaq.ag/samfund/sagen-om-arktisk-ambassador-blusser-op-rasler-med-sablen/121678

5 Joseph Wehmeyer, “What Would Greenland’s Independence Mean for the Arctic?”, Council on Foreign Relations, August 10, 2023, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/what-would-greenlands-independence-mean-arctic

6 Terms of reference for historical inquiry into the relationship between Greenland and Denmark: Naalakkersuisut, June 22, 2023, https://uk.uni.gl/media/yrbavc23/terms-of-reference-historical-inquiry-into-the-relationship-between-greenland-and-denmark.pdf

7 Aaja Chemnitz, “Greenland should be the main author of the Kingdom of Denmark's Arctic strategy”, Altinget, March 4, 2023, https://www.altinget.dk/arktis/artikel/aaja-chemnitz-groenland-boer-vaere-hovedforfatter-paa-kongeriget-danmarks-arktiske-strategi

8 Andrew Wong, “China: We are a 'near-Arctic state and we want a 'polar silk road,'” CNBC, February 14, 2018

9 Marcel Burger, “Greenland “joins” NATO, almost 74 years after military alliance was founded”, The Nordic Reporter, March 24, 2023, https://nordicreporter.com/2023/03/greenland-joins-nato-almost-74-years-after-military-alliance-was-founded/

10 NATO, October 23, 2023, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_219529.htm

11 Anders Dall “Greenland will secure its own interests: Presents a ten-year foreign policy plan”, DR, February 21, 2024, https://www.dr.dk/nyheder/indland/groenland-vil-sikre-egne-interesser-fremlaegger-ti-aarig-udenrigspolitisk-plan

12 EEAS, “Joint Communication on a stronger EU engagement for a peaceful, sustainable and prosperous Arctic”, European Union External Action, October 13, 2021, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/joint-communication-stronger-eu-engagement-peaceful-sustainable-and-prosperous-arctic_en

13 European Commission, “President von der Leyen inaugurates the EU Office in Nuuk and signs cooperation agreements to strengthen the EU-Greenland Partnership”, European Commission, March 15, 2024, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_24_1425

14 Naalakkersuisut, “Partnership with Nunavut”, August 26, 2022, https://naalakkersuisut.gl/nyheder/2022/08/2608_partnerskab_med_nunavut?sc_lang=da

15 Lark Møller Hansen, “Overview: Here are all the points in the new defense agreement”, Altinget, May 1, 2024, https://www.altinget.dk/forsvar/artikel/overblik-her-er-den-nye-forsvarsaftale

16 Jensine Berthelsen, “Arctic Basic Training: Plans for expansion even before the first team begins”, Sermitsiaq, March 6, 2024, https://www.sermitsiaq.ag/samfund/arktisk-basisuddannelse-planer-om-udvidelse-allerede-for-forste-hold-begynder/1292659

17 Ann-Sophie Greve Møller, “Crisis in the Arctic Council: It is fundamentally about preserving the peace”, KNR (Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation), March 1, 2024, https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/krise-i-arktisk-raad-det-handler-grundlaeggende-om-bevare-freden

18 DIIS Policy Brief, “Free Association i Grønland vil kræve svære valg”, September 29, 2023, https://www.diis.dk/publikationer/free-association-groenland-kraeve-svaere-valg

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About the Author

Jan Top Christensen is a retired Danish ambassador, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and an international consultant.

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Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

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