President Donald Trump’s much-mocked desire to buy Greenland, which was rebuffed by the Danish government to his great displeasure, might be the closest he has come to acknowledging the gravity of global warming—though hardly the sort of acknowledgment one might hope for. According to the Wall Street Journal article that first broke the news about Greenland, Trump’s interest was piqued when advisers spoke of the island’s “abundant resources and geopolitical importance.” The reason those resources—including reserves of coal and uranium—are available for exploitation is because of Greenland’s rapidly melting ice sheet. Its geopolitical importance has been greatly increased by the melting of Arctic Ocean ice, which has made new shipping routes accessible and opened up a new theater of strategic competition for the United States, Canada, Russia, the Nordic countries and, increasingly, China.
Trump probably doesn’t realize it, but he’s not the first president in recent years to look at the coming impact of climate change and decide to buy land. And with dislocated populations and scarcer resources looming on the horizon, he might not be the last.
In 2014, the pacific island nation of Kiribati purchased 7.7 square miles of land of the Fijian island of Vanua Levu for a little less than $9 million. A nation of 33 low-lying atolls, Kiribati is one of the countries that’s most vulnerable to sea level rise. According to the government’s climate action plan, submitted to the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, a substantial portion of Kirbati’s capital island, Tarawa, where nearly half of its 110,000 people live, could be inundated by 2050. Smaller outlying islands could disappear even sooner.
Then-President Anote Tong described the Fiji purchase as an insurance policy, telling the media, “We would hope not to put everyone on [this] one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it.” At the Paris summit, Tong thanked the government of Fiji for opening the doors to his people.
The purchase made international headlines, with Kiribati described as the first country to purchase land abroad specifically for relocation because of climate change. But it was a little more complicated than that. For one thing, since the purchase, there’s been little in the way of preparation for any mass relocation of Kirbati’s population. The administration that followed Tong’s is mostly dismissive of his plan. The government’s story on what the land was intended for also changed several times—sometimes it was described as for relocation, sometimes for agriculture to provide food security for Kiribati. The land itself consists of steep hills and mangrove swamps, not particularly suitable for either habitation or agriculture. It’s also already home to several hundred Solomon Islanders who have lived there since the 19th century.
Just because Trump’s Greenland purchase is a nonstarter, doesn’t mean our notions of territorial control won’t get a little more fluid in the future.
When I interviewed Tong at his home in Tarawa in 2016 for my book, Invisible Countries, he told me, “It’s a statement to the international community that our situation is serious. But, apart from that, it’s a damn good investment.” If all goes well, he told me in language that would likely make sense to the current, real estate-minded U.S. president, “in 50 years we can sell the land.”
Looking ahead, Kiribati might offer a model for other countries. Food security in an increasingly crowded world could be another factor that drives governments to purchase land abroad. This is arguably already happening. Chinese state-run firms have been accused of a new “land grab,” having gobbled up agricultural land in Africa and Latin America. In 2008, the South Korean company Daewoo Logistics negotiated a lease on 3.2 million acres of farmland in Madagascar, nearly half the island’s arable land. The deal was highly controversial and contributed to the proteststhat led to the overthrow of Madagascar’s government in 2009.
But these deals and the Kiribati purchase differ in an important way from Trump’s Greenland gambit: They did not actually involve the transfer of sovereignty from one country to another. The land in Fiji is still the territory of Fiji, even if the government of Kiribati owns it. The small population that lives on the land didn’t suddenly become citizens of Kiribati overnight. It’s more akin to the sovereign wealth funds of countries like Norway or Qatar gobbling up New York real estate. You don’t need a passport to visit these buildings in Manhattan.
The actual purchase of sovereign territory was once relatively common. Blockbuster deals like the Louisiana Purchase, the Alaska Purchase and the Adams-Onís treaty, through which Florida was acquired, were key to America’s early territorial expansion. Today, this is almost unheard of. (One possible exception: In 2011, Tajikistan agreed to cede 386 square miles of territory to China under a deal, the terms of which were not publicized at the time.)
Why has the market for territory gotten so tight? In large part, it’s because the world’s landmass is now dominated not by large colonial empires, but by nation-states that zealously guard the territory they control. Moreover, thanks to prevailing notions like nationalism and popular sovereignty, the people who live within those nation-states expect to have some say in the matter of what country they live in.
Germany learned this the hard way after 1871, when, after its victory in the Franco-Prussian war, it demanded payment from France in the form of real estate, as countless victorious powers had done since time immemorial. But even though the French government agreed to transfer the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, the people who lived there refused to accept that they were now Germans, and France nursed a grudge until it won the provinces back in World War I. Times had changed, and, as historian Martin Van Creveld has written, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck came to view the annexation as the worst mistake of his career.
A century and a half later, Trump too wants to take over a territory whose people don’t believe their sovereignty is something to be traded like poker chips between leaders hundreds of miles away; Greenland, though part of Denmark, is a semi-autonomous territory with its own government managing its domestic affairs. This isn’t the first time Trump has expressed some premodern ideas about territorial conquest—he has on several occasions argued that the United States should have “kept the oil” after invading Iraq—but he’s going to have a hard time finding negotiating partners for his expansionist dreams.
Still, just because Trump’s Greenland purchase is a nonstarter, doesn’t mean our notions of territorial control won’t get a little more fluid in the future, particularly as climate change physically reshapes the planet. Perhaps some countries will be forced to pick up and move. There’s historical precedent for this. In his book, Vanished Kingdoms, the British historian Norman Davies identifies 15 different locations called “Burgundy,” dating back to the 5th century and occupying locations from the west bank of the Rhine to what is now Switzerland to the Netherlands. These countries more closely resembled family-run holding companies than a modern nation-state. But relocation is a pretty alien concept in a world where countries are first and foremost thought of as particular pieces of land.
The predicament of Kiribati and other low-lying island states has also prompted some environmental law scholars to propose ideas like “ex-situ nationhood,” under which governments would maintain some level of political sovereignty and a role in international institutions, even after territory they used to represent becomes uninhabitable. These might end up looking less like currently existing states than entities like the Sovereign Order of Malta (not to be confused with the country of Malta)—a religious order dating back to the Middle Ages that is recognized as politically sovereign by 106 countries and enjoys observer status at the United Nations, despite controlling no territory and having no citizens. The scenario might seem far-fetched, but traditional notions of sovereignty and citizenship might no longer hold up in a world of growing migrant populations and statelessness.
It probably wasn’t what he had in mind, but Trump’s Arctic dreams could point toward an era in which both the countries of the world and the physical land they sit on are a lot less fixed than they are now.
Joshua Keating is a senior editor at Slate and author of the book Invisible Countries.
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