Although Greenland has lately found itself in the crosshairs of global geopolitics, a first-of-its kind foreign policy opinion survey reveals that the Arctic nation’s residents care much more about economic challenges than military and security ones.
At the northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean lying between North America, Europe, and Russia, Greenland’s enviable location has made the world’s largest island militarily strategic since the dawn of air power in the twentieth century.
In World War II, Nazi Germany established four secret weather stations on the then Danish colony’s east coast in an attempt to secure a monopoly on meteorological information in the Atlantic. After the war, a victorious United States built airports and air bases, one of which it still operates in the far northwest.
More recently, in the past year, the Arctic nation has sparked geopolitical tensions involving countries both near and far. The U.S. and Denmark, which still maintains control over Greenland’s foreign affairs, including defense, suspect China of having designs on the island. The two countries allegedly cooperated to prevent a Chinese state-owned enterprise from securing a contract to renovate airports in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, and in Ilulissat, a major tourist destination, with Copenhagen instead agreeing to commit over US $114 million to the project. Then, as if to up the ante, former US president Donald Trump expressed interest in buying Greenland outright in August 2019, much to the consternation of many in Copenhagen and Nuuk.
Despite close to a century of geopolitical conflagrations, Greenlanders seem nonplussed. A first-of-its kind foreign and security policy opinion poll conducted by Ilisimatusarfik (the University of Greenland) and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German think tank, revealed that the economic situation, high living costs, and unemployment were the challenges facing Greenlandic society most frequently identified by respondents.
Climate change was the challenge next most noted by the 704 respondents, all of whom were contacted by phone.
Lying all the way at the bottom of the list were military threats in the Arctic and terrorism.
Greenlanders to military officials: we have bigger fish to fry
Greenlanders’ nonchalance towards military issues flies in the face of warnings by national governments, especially the U.S., that the Arctic is entering a heightened period of tension. As I wrote last month, for instance, the US Navy’s Strategic Outlook for the Arctic underscored that China’s growing “economic, scientific, and military reach…presents a threat to people and nations, including those who call the Arctic Region home.”
But it doesn’t seem like Greenlanders are buying that claim. In fact, over 80% of respondents oppose America’s hardening policy towards China.
Nevertheless, Greenlanders aren’t exactly eager about cooperating with the Asian nation. While 38.7% of respondents think that the country should partner more with China, nearly half think that the country should actually do less with Beijing. And while a third of respondents would welcome investments from China, two-thirds want to protect the country’s economy from such flows.
Greenlanders seem relatively more eager to work with their northern neighbors. Over 85% of respondents think that the country should expand cooperation with Iceland, the Arctic Council, and Canada. That’s an encouraging sign for Iceland, which released its first report on enhancing cooperation with Greenland in December of last year. The document builds on the work of the three-person Greenland Committee appointed by Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2019. The survey results also underscore the growing significance and visibility of the Arctic Council in helping northern nations and Indigenous Peoples pursue their political and economic objectives.
Next among Greenland’s most desirable partners was the U.S., which just barely edged out Denmark in the rankings. 69.1% of respondents favor building closer ties with the military juggernaut, with which Greenland negotiated a new agreement regarding Thule Air Force Base last autumn. A similar number of respondents, 68.2%, would like to see more cooperation with Greenland’s former colonizer.
Weighing the risks of jobs disappearing versus submarines appearing
Ultimately, the results demonstrate that security concerns and even climate change—issues that dominate coverage of the Arctic outside the region—pale in comparison to economic issues and jobs.
Greenland is a society with 56,000 people. That makes its population roughly equivalent to Dubuque, Iowa – the 499th largest city in the U.S. At that scale, every job counts, as does every suicide, as this thought-provoking NPR article details. It notes that in 2013, 219 people started college in Greenland. Out of that student body, ultimately, one person became an architect. “That one young architect is a Greenlandic national statistic,” Rebecca Hersher writes.
When you’re basically a small town stretched out over a giant island, no matter how geostrategic, jobs are going to be the number one issue on people’s minds. Similar to a small farm town in Iowa, China matters, but ensuring that people can provide for themselves and their families is the first and foremost foundation for a good life.
A recent, eye-opening study conducted by Naja Carina Steenholdt at the University of Aalborg involving interviews with 17 people in East Greenland, one of the most impoverished parts of the country, shed light on the relationship between work and a happy life. She found clear differences between how employed and unemployed people responded to her question of what a “good life” entails. Those with jobs were able to define a good life, tying the concept to predictability and structure.
In contrast, one unemployed man found the question “too overwhelming to answer, and he could not relate to the Good life question at all. Seemingly, the notion of a good life was unimaginable; thus, he did not know what to answer, and when asked to think about it a bit, he shrugged his shoulders.”
No matter what the generals in Washington, D.C. say, at the end of the day, people in Greenland seem to be more worried about jobs disappearing than submarines appearing. The landmark survey thus offers a sobering reminder to foreign policymakers and military officials to put away their Arctic editions of Battleship, Stratego, and Risk and remember that even in geostrategic frontiers, domestic policy still matters.