Perhaps this goes some way to explaining what historians might one day call the Denmark Incident, which began the Friday before last when The Wall Street Journal revealed that Trump had discussed with senior advisors the option of buying Greenland, which, to be clear, is not for sale.
The moment might have faded quickly from memory, just another Trump-related glitch in the matrix, had the White House itself not confirmed the story and then sought to cast the proposition as anything other than absurd.
Trump told reporters on Sunday that purchasing Greenland was “just something we talked about” and that the discussion was not “top in the list”. The White House economics advisor Larry Kudlow expanded on this. “Denmark owns Greenland, Denmark is an ally, Greenland is a strategic place, up there. And they’ve got a lot of valuable minerals.”
The timing of all this nonsense was significant too. Trump was preparing to visit Denmark as part of a broader European trip. On Tuesday morning the US ambassador to Denmark tweeted bravely, “Denmark is ready for the POTUS @realDonaldTrump visit! Partner, ally, friend”.
By then Denmark’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, had responded. “[Greenland Premier] Kim Kielsen has of course made it clear that Greenland is not for sale. That’s where the conversation ends,” she said.
Apparently affronted that Denmark had not taken his speculation about purchasing an autonomous nation about a third the size of Australia within the Kingdom of Denmark more seriously, Trump did what he always does; he escalated. Via Twitter.
“Denmark is a very special country with incredible people, but based on Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s comments, that she would have no interest in discussing the purchase of Greenland, I will be postponing our meeting scheduled in two weeks for another time,” he tweeted.
“The Prime Minister was able to save a great deal of expense and effort for both the United States and Denmark by being so direct. I thank her for that and look forward to rescheduling sometime in the future!”
(It is probably worth noting here that 43 Danish soldiers were killed in Afghanistan after September 11 and another 214 were wounded or injured. This was one of the highest per capita casualty rates of coalition members in that war.)
A day after Trump postponed his trip, Arkansas senator Tom Cotton claimed he was the source of the idea, that it was in response to alleged Chinese interest in Greenland, and that he had embarked on some freelance diplomacy to advance it, meeting with the Danish ambassador about the possibility of a sale.
Now all this should be funny, and it would be if it were make believe, but it isn’t and it isn’t.
At around the same time that Trump was busy creating a diplomatic incident with a NATO ally, Australia was announcing it would contribute forces to a US-led effort to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz from potential aggression from Iran or its proxies.
This is not such a radical proposition, or at least it wouldn’t be in normal circumstances. Australia should contribute to defending key global trade routes for the same reason it should, say, take meaningful steps to tackle climate change: because it is good policy, because acting as a stout global citizen is both in the global interest and in our interest, because in backing such action we place ourselves in better stead when we seek support on other matters. It is how diplomacy works. Call it “punching above our weight”.
It has been widely noted that the commitment of forces outlined by Scott Morrison – a frigate, a surveillance aircraft and support personnel for a set period – is both limited and reasonable. It appears to be carefully calibrated to allow the US to claim that another flag has joined its force without over-extending Australian military capacities. Some have noted that it also demonstrates support for the US without engaging in US efforts to challenge China’s increasing presence in Asia. A neat solution to our own impossible foreign policy conundrum then.
But the fact that the needle needed to be threaded so carefully only highlights a bigger problem.
There is a good chance that we will make this commitment, risk the lives and wear the cost but enjoy none of the benefits of orderly global citizenship because the world now quite reasonably holds our key ally in contempt.
Shipping in the Hormuz Strait is under threat at present in large part because Trump unilaterally abandoned the deal painstakingly negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany – to limit Iran’s nuclear program. Why Trump did so, even though his own Congress found that Iran was keeping its end of the bargain, is anyone’s guess. Effective lobbying by Israel and Saudi Arabia might have contributed. Maybe he believes its is the right move. Equally Trump might simply want to undo the work of the previous administration, which sealed the nuclear deal. Wrecking Barack Obama’s legacy is as close as Trump has come to an identifiable governing philosophy.
That the Hormuz Strait should need to be policed, and that nations like France and Germany have unsurprisingly chosen not to help, is concrete evidence of Trump’s destabilising global influence.
Due to the unofficial blacklist and his White House’s native mistrust of expertise, Trump’s administration is starved of talent and vigour.
Those who looked into this vacuum were once reassured by the President’s supporters that his idiosyncrasies would be curbed by the “the adults in the room” a mythical handful of high-level patriots who would make up for the empty desks that once made up Washington DC’s foreign policy and security ecosystem.
Some sought to. Rob Porter, who served for a time as White House staff secretary and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, stole documents from Trump’s desk rather than letting Trump sign them, Bob Woodward reported in his impeccably sourced book Fear: Trump in the White House. One of those documents would have ended a treaty with South Korea that allowed for America to maintain early warning systems for incoming intercontinental missiles from North Korea. “I stole it off his desk,” Cohn told an associate. “I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.” Cohn quit when Trump started with his trade tariffs, one of a slew of high-level departures.
“We’re in Crazytown,” said Trump’s controversial second chief of staff, Marine Corp general John Kelly, as he quit. “This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
Those who remained close to the President subsequently are reportedly reluctant to challenge him. One of them is John Bolton, today Trump’s National Security Advisor, an Iran hawke perhaps best known for his previous work advocating for the invasion of Iraq during the George W Bush administration. Another is Mike Pompeo, a West Point graduate who translated an unremarkable record in business and then Congress into the role of Secretary of State. It was Pompeo who visited Australia earlier this month and floated the idea of basing US missiles here. A recent profile in the New Yorker magazine quotes a former US ambassador as describing him as being so sycophantic to the President as to be “a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass”.
One of those who signed that original letter about Trump’s presidency is Peter Feaver. Now a professor of political science at Duke University, Feaver once served on the staff of the National Security Council under George W Bush. He says he would sign the letter again today, but he believes that even if he and his cohorts had been allowed to serve this administration they would not have been able to reshape it, just as he doesn’t believe Bolton or Pompeo can either.
“I don’t know anyone at staff level who would be saying that this was part of the great master plan,” he says of the Denmark incident. And he adds that the American public is unaware of the loyalty of smaller allies like Denmark and Australia. Only the foreign policy experts notice that, he says.
As Morrison prepares for his upcoming state visit to the US, he might bear this in mind.
He might also consider comments made by Ted Cruz, the Texan senator who was, like most elected members of his party, an anti-Trump firebrand before he became an indefatigable Trump sycophant. “I wake up every day and laugh at the latest thing Donald has tweeted, because he’s losing it,” said Cruz during his own presidential campaign in early 2016. “I mean, we’re liable to wake up one morning and Donald, if he were president, would have nuked Denmark.”
Nick O’Malley is a senior writer and a former US correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.