In August 2019, President Donald Trump created a stir when he asked aides to explore the possibility of purchasing Greenland from Denmark. As Fox News reported, Trump explained that "essentially, it's a large real estate deal, " and said it would beneficial to Denmark, which provides the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies each year to the island. "So they carry it at great loss, and strategically for the United States, it would be very nice," Trump said.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen quickly nixed any deal, noting that Greenland, which became a self-autonomous region within Denmark back in 1970 and has its own separate parliament, premier and flag, is not Denmark's property to sell. "Greenland is not for sale," she explained, according to a Google translation of her remarks as published in Sermitsiaq, a Greenland newspaper. "Greenland is not Danish. Greenland is Greenlandic. I persistently hope that this is not something that is seriously meant."
Some argued that Trump's interest in buying Greenland wasn't that outlandish. From the 1800s to the early 1900s, the U.S. actually did gain much of its territory through various land purchases, including the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, and the 1867 deal to buy Alaska from the Czarist government of Russia. And the U.S. and Denmark have done business before, though it was slightly more than a century ago. In 1917, the U.S. purchased the Virgin Islands from the Scandinavian nation. And back in 1946, the administration of a previous U.S. President, Harry Truman, even secretly explored buying Greenland from Denmark, as detailed in this National Public Radio story.
Still, Trump's proposed deal would have gone further than any of those, because he offered to buy an island that in many ways is now actually a separate nation-within-a-nation. Can one country actually buy another entire country? It's a mind-boggling concept.
Has It Happened Before?
Oddly, though, there's at least one historical example of that happening in the 19th century. Back in the 1880s, King Leopold II of Belgium and a syndicate of investors made deals with hundreds of local rulers, and eventually claimed control of almost the entire Congo River basin. The group aggregated the land and proclaimed it to be a new independent nation, the Congo Free State, with Leopold as the sovereign. The new country was recognized by other European colonial powers at the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-1885, giving it a thin veneer of legitimacy. Leopold turned out to be a greedy, horrifyingly brutal ruler. (Just one example: Many Congolese were forced to work as slave laborers on rubber plantations, where overseers armed with corkscrew whips made from dried hippopotamus hide kept them in line.)
Eventually, international outcry against Leopold's atrocities, which caused the country's population to decline by more than half, grew so great that Leopold was forced to give up his personal country. The king transferred control to the Belgium's parliamentary government in 1908, in exchange for a personal payment of 50 million Belgian francs, plus a donation of 40 million francs to the king's foundation and assumption of another 110 million francs in debt — roughly about $63 million in today's U.S. dollars. That might not seem like much for an entire nation, but remember that Leopold already had siphoned vast amounts of wealth out of the place. For a more detailed look at purchase and its implications for the transfer of sovereignty, take a look at this 2019 article by Duke Law School professors Joseph Blocher and Mitu Gulati.
Today's International Law
But purchasing an entire country would be a more complicated matter today, as would a major land purchase akin to the Louisiana Territory or Alaska deals.
"This kind of thing used to be quite common, and the traditional rules of international law made it pretty simple – the nations involved just had to agree on a price, essentially," Blocher explains via email. "But the legal landscape has changed in the past century, so that the old rules really shouldn't apply in the same way. Most importantly, the rise of the principle of self-determination means that, in order to be legitimate, any such sale of populated territory should be based on the approval of the people living on that territory. So even if Denmark did 'own' Greenland, as the President has put it, the people of Greenland would still need to be consulted."
"Aside from international law, and domestic law, it's difficult to see how the sale of territory would be seen as acceptable behavior in today's international system, especially when the territory in question is an autonomous dependent territory," Rebecca Richards, a lecturer in international relations at the U.K.'s Keele University in Newcastle and author of this 2017 article in The Conversation on national sovereignty, explains via email. "That is uncomfortably close to colonial practices, and it's very difficult to imagine a situation where this would be acceptable, especially given the states involved in this."
But in another sense, this all might be a moot argument, and not just because Denmark dismissed the notion of selling Greenland. "Buying and selling countries doesn't make good economic sense," emails Robert Deitz, former senior counselor to the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and currently a professor of public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. "There are more efficient ways to get the things we want. "
Instead of buying territory, Deitz points out, it's simpler and cheaper simply to lease land for military bases or work out a deal on rights to extract mineral wealth (such as Greenland's supply of rare earth minerals, which are essentials for modern technology such as smartphones. "I don't know anything that Trump really wants from Greenland for the U.S. that couldn't be obtained without transfer of sovereignty," he says.
Danish prime minister Frederiksen seems to agree. As she recently told a TV interviewer, "Thankfully, the time where you buy and sell other countries and populations is over. "