Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Greenland Kerfuffle Is Not Just an Embarrassing Sideshow

It demonstrates that Trump will risk relations with allies just to protect his own pride.
August 23, 2019
The Greenland Kerfuffle Is Not Just an Embarrassing Sideshow
US President Donald Trump speaks to the press before boarding Air Force One in Morristown, New Jersey, on August 18, 2019. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

The Greenland snafu—President Trump’s decision to pick a slapfight with the prime minister of Denmark over her refusal to sell an island one-fifth the size of the U.S. to America on a whim—has all the hallmarks of a classic Trump sideshow: one of those stories that rises above the constant barrage of mini-scandals and tiny crises that plague his presidency to hang around for a few days just due to its sheer weirdness. As Trump news cycles go, this one feels a lot closer to “the U.S. government plumps Melania’s jewelry line” than to, say, racist tirades against his political opponents—providing further evidence that the president’s brain is melting, but in a way that’s more goofy than horrifying.

Don’t be fooled. The Greenland controversy might make for some better-than-average late-night TV, but it’s certainly no harmless sideshow. Rather, it’s the latest example of a particularly destructive element of the Trump presidency: the way the president’s myopic domestic struggles against the media and his critics bleed over into and do damage to U.S. foreign policy.

In a sane world, one might expect that a U.S. president would see himself first and foremost as America’s commander-in-chief and chief diplomat. One of the president’s top priorities is to protect and improve America’s standing in the world: strengthening ties with our friends and allies, winning over or diminishing the power of those who wish to do us harm. Every president has domestic political enemies. But when he turns his attention to the outside world, he must tune out his squabbles with them and get to the work of defending the interests of the nation as a whole.

Does Trump do this? Let’s examine how this Greenland to-do came about. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had become intrigued with the idea of buying Greenland and was batting it around with his advisers:

In meetings, at dinners and in passing conversations, Mr. Trump has asked advisers whether the U.S. can acquire Greenland, listened with interest when they discuss its abundant resources and geopolitical importance and, according to two of the people, has asked his White House counsel to look into the idea.

The idea was wacky and unexpected and totally Trumpian and got everybody talking. The media reaction fell along predictable lines: left-leaning writers rolling their eyes, right-leaning ones suggesting it was actually be a good idea, and late-night TV comics making the usual hay out of it. (For The Bulwark’s take, here’s Jonathan Last: “I can’t think of a good reason for America not to buy Greenland.”)

What had begun as presidential foreign-policy spitball had become an honest-to-God domestic media moment. And suddenly Trump’s position seemed to change. Even though there was no indication that the White House had ever previously broached the subject of the purchase with the Kingdom of Denmark (of which Greenland is a part), he suddenly began to behave as though Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s mild response that Greenland is “not for sale” amounted to a serious foreign policy snub: canceling a previously scheduled state visit one day, then denouncing Frederiksen’s comments as “nasty” the next. Later, he expanded the attack with one of his standby foreign-policy gripes: that Denmark’s defense spending fell below NATO member nation goals.

In less than a week, Trump had managed single-handedly to open a serious rift between America and a European ally—all because of one leaked report to the Wall Street Journal. The president didn’t decide that this week was the strategic time to broach the subject of purchasing Greenland with Denmark, and he didn’t decide to just ignore the leak and go about the normal business of being president. The leak caused a domestic controversy, so Trump felt compelled to wade in—regardless of what damage it might to do our relations with an ally.

Some of the worrying over about  this particular squabble is overblown, of course. Denmark and other NATO nations consider the U.S. their most important strategic ally not because the U.S. president is better than any world leader at observing protocols and niceties, but because the U.S. is the richest and most powerful nation in the world. The most likely reaction from our allies to such snubs is not that they will sever ties with us and go hunting for new friends elsewhere, but that they will grit and grin and hunker down to wait until Trump leaves office, hoping that  things will eventually return to something like normal.

But this incident is undeniably part of a far more worrisome trend. What it shows us once again is that President Trump sees his squabbles with his domestic political adversaries as the central struggle of his presidency. And he has no qualms about using U.S. foreign policy as a bludgeon in his fight against those adversaries, even if it means compromising America’s aims on the world stage.

This tendency of Trump’s has often put stress on our relationship with our allies, but it has done the most damage with regards to our enemies. Dictators and thugs the world over learned early on that one of the best ways to get into Donald Trump’s good graces is to butter him up and bond with him over their common distaste for the hated press. Leader after leader, from Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil to Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to Bashar al-Assad of Syria, have adopted the language of President Trump to dismiss criticism of their regimes, often in Trump’s own presence.

No adversary has exploited this weakness better than Vladimir Putin, who, after being caught red-handed attempting to meddle in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, has managed to use Trump’s own fury about being suspected of involvement to ingratiate himself with the president. This could be most clearly seen in the debacle of Trump’s 2018 Helsinki press conference with Putin, where the Russian autocrat smirked as Trump behaved as his personal press secretary, swatting aside questions about Russian interference to complain that the news media had treated him badly.

“I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

The same dynamic was on display when Trump and Putin met at the G20 conference in Osaka this year, with the American president telling the Russian that they should “get rid” of the reporters around them for their talk.

“Fake news is a great term, isn’t it?” Trump asked. “You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.” Putin responded: “We also have. It’s the same.”

Chumminess with Trump gets results. The president is now calling for Russia’s reinstatement to the G7 conference of major advanced nations, from which it was expelled in 2014 for illegally annexing Crimea.

It shouldn’t be hard for anyone to see why this dynamic is so twisted. When he turns his attention to the world stage, President Trump remains preoccupied with his domestic contretemps. It renders him incapable of presenting a unified front on the world stage.

Trump’s response to the Greenland controversy may be a farcical example of this trend, but it underscores a unique danger: It’s unhealthy when the president turns foreign policy on its head—whether alienating allies or cozying up with foes—just to own the libs.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.