By imposing costs on Denmark for its prime minister’s refusal to discuss selling Greenland to the United States, President Trump gave further evidence that he is on the side of the autocracies against the free world, Thomas Wright argues. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.
Yesterday, President Donald Trump canceled a meeting with the new Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, because she refuses to discuss the sale of Greenland. Greenland used to be a Danish colony but now belongs to the people of Greenland—the Danish government could not sell the island even if it wanted to. Trump likely did not know that Denmark is one of America’s most reliable allies. Danish troops, for example, fought alongside U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered 50 fatalities, and Danish forces were among the earliest to join the fight against the Islamic State.
Many Americans may laugh off Trump’s latest outrage, but Trump crossed an important line. It is one thing to float a cockamamie idea that no one believes is serious or will go anywhere. “Let’s buy Greenland!” Yes, very funny. A good distraction from the economy, the failure to deal with white supremacy, White House staff problems, or whatever is the news of the day. It is quite another to use leverage and impose costs on Denmark in pursuit of that goal—and make no mistake, canceling a presidential visit is using leverage and imposing costs. What’s next, refusing to exempt Denmark from various tariffs because it won’t discuss Greenland? Musing on Twitter that America’s defense commitments to Denmark are conditional on the negotiation? Intellectual justifications from Trump-friendly publications, citing previous purchase proposals and noting Greenland’s strategic value and abundance of natural resources? (That last one has already happened.)
This is the kind of thing the Russians and the Chinese do. It is territorial revisionism—the use of national power to acquire territory against the desire of its sovereign government and its people. The use of leverage would also call into question the U.S. commitment to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which is the cornerstone of stability in Europe. In it, all parties, including the United States, commit to “refrain from any demand for, or act of, seizure and usurpation of part or all of the territory” of all states in Europe.
The cancellation of Trump’s visit to Denmark is part of a disturbing pattern. Trump regularly beats up on and abuses America’s closest democratic allies while being sycophantic to autocrats. His staff has followed suit. In July, for example, Trump hounded British Ambassador Kim Darroch out of his job. This followed two years in which Trump and his administration sought to undermine Prime Minister Theresa May’s government at every turn. Trump has been scathing in critiques of Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel. The U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, never misses an opportunity to criticize his hosts. The U.S. ambassador to Poland publicly called for U.S. troops to be moved from Germany to Poland. Trump has reportedly said the European Union is “worse than China, only smaller.” Several senior U.S. officials have also attacked the European Union, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
Meanwhile, Trump writes autocrats and wannabe autocrats blank checks. In May, Trump called a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to complain about a bipartisan letter asking the president to raise concerns about democratic backsliding in his meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. When the two leaders met, Trump instead praised Orbán in front of the press and expressed no concern. He has also embraced the Brazilian strongman Jair Bolsonaro. The Trump administration has gone out of its way to help Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, ride out the storm following the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He can’t say enough nice things about the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. He has done worse than nothing on Hong Kong, secretly promising Chinese President Xi Jinping that he would not condemn a crackdown and calling the peaceful protests by more than 1 million Hong Kongers “riots.”
And yesterday, on the day he canceled his visit to Denmark, he said he favored Russia rejoining the G7 without mentioning any preconditions, which would have the effect of abolishing one of the only forums for major democracies to meet with one another.
The Danes, like the British and the Germans before them, will downplay this latest episode. They value their alliance with the United States, and their governments will take whatever abuse Trump metes out to them in the hope that better days will come. However, this strategy may not survive if Trump wins a second term on his “America First” platform. At that point we can expect U.S. withdrawal from NATO and a partnership with Russia to be on the table.
One uncomfortable truth is already inescapable. Free societies and autocracies are at odds with each other—over human rights, the rule of law, technology, freedom of the press, the free flow of information, and territorial expansion. At this particular moment, it is not sufficient to say that the free world is without a leader. He has actually defected to the other side.