April 13, 2024

Trump-Danish Fallout over Greenland Echoes Historic Expansion

Author: Jonny Lupsha, News Writer
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By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

President Trump’s failed inquiry into purchasing Greenland led him to cancel a visit to Denmark, NBC News reported. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called the offer “absurd.” However, the proposed expansion has historic precedent.

President Trump waving
Although he had planned to visit Greenland, President Trump canceled his trip after his thoughts of buying Greenland were rejected. Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour / Flickr (Public Domain)

The canceled presidential trip to Denmark is only the latest development in a story that began on August 16 when The Wall Street Journal reported that President Trump had discussed the notion with several aides of buying the nation of Greenland. Greenland is an autonomous territory of Denmark and its prime minister soundly rejected the proposal shortly after inviting Trump to visit Denmark. In turn, Trump announced his plans to postpone the trip via Twitter. Surprising as this event may sound, it isn’t without historical precedent. New Imperialism, which exploded in the late 1800s, led to many land grabs in the West.

New Imperialism: What, Why, and How

“In general, the pattern of New Imperialism of the late 19th century flowed directly out of the free-trade rhetoric of the time that championed removing tariffs and other barriers to trade,” said Dr. Donald J. Harreld, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Brigham Young University. “Nineteenth-century imperialism followed a progression, whereby, an industrialized nation first invested capital in a less industrialized country in order to develop methods to extract natural resources and to build infrastructure that was necessary for the industrialized Western nation to move resources back home.”

According to Dr. Harreld, Europeans saw this as a win-win. They employed natives, exposed them to Western civilization, took limited political control of the country and propped up a local ruler to govern the nation. By leaving the nation with some degree of autonomy, Europeans would be seen less as invaders and more as offering a helping hand in the growth and progress of the countries they colonized.

The Causes of New Imperialism

Many factors led to this boom in imperialism. “First, economic—imperialism was closely linked to questions of development, free trade, and protectionism,” Dr. Harreld said. “Second, social motives—many Europeans thought that overseas empires could solve social problems, as well as economic ones, back home. Third, nationalistic competition—nationalistic rhetoric [arose] out of the revolutionary fervor that gripped much of Europe during the first half of the 19th century.”

Dr. Harreld said that nationalism was focused on power, and by the time imperialism began to take off, the United States and Russia had both become recognized the world over as two great super powers. Many Europeans, therefore, figured that the only way to compete was to also acquire large territories.

“Fourth, cultural motives—many Europeans saw their duty as being perhaps even divinely inspired to civilize the world along European lines,” Dr. Harreld said. “While this might all sound altruistic, we need to consider the context of the times. The vast majority of Europeans and Americans in the late 19th century viewed Asians and Africans as inferior peoples. Many political, social, and religious leaders felt that it was their duty to lift the ‘lesser breeds,’ as it was said at the time, to a higher social level.”

The recent proposal for the United States to acquire Greenland is likely rooted in economic interests; and although that deal seems to be off the table, it isn’t the first time a surprising “land grab” has made headlines.

Dr. Donald J. Harreld contributed to this article. Dr. Harreld is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Brigham Young University, where he has taught since 2001. Dr. Harreld graduated from the University of Minnesota with academic majors in History and Psychology. He received his M.A. from Minnesota in 1996 and his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 2000.

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