The Case for Greenlandic Independence

By Thomas Bell

In the past few weeks, the independence crisis in Spain’s autonomous region of Catalonia has captivated the international community.  A complicated tangle of history, regionalism, constitutional law, and Spanish retaliation to the referendum culminated to create a divisive and complex debate.  Many international observers supported independence, despite low voter turnout, while others emphasized the strength of a united Spain.  It was the first intensive global look into separatism since the Scottish referendum of 2014.

The Catalan issue for many has been a reminder of other separatist movements around the globe.  Most of these are politically and culturally significant, from Taiwan to Texas.  However, one such regional independence movement that does not frequently enter the conversation is Greenland.  It is the world’s largest island, and it is dominated by its imposing glacial ice sheet.  Realistically, however, that fact is all that most people know about the nation.  Articles about Greenland tend to be about climate change, polar bears, or both.  That lack of media attention concerning its political history leaves a complex story undiscovered and unexplored by many.

Greenland has been occupied by native peoples for thousands of years, but the harsh Arctic climate has made settlement largely inconsistent.  Groups migrated from Canada, died out, and were replaced by subsequent individuals.  In fact, for a number of centuries in the first millennium, the island was completely uninhabited.  Europeans eventually reached the island, most famously when Erik the Red sailed from Iceland and established, in the 980s, the first Norse settlement in Greenland, or Grœnland as he called it.  But this group of settlers was also doomed to succumb to the climate: the Norse were gone by 1450.  Eventually, as navigation and technology improved, Greenland became increasingly inhabited by its native Inuit people and was subsequently colonized by Denmark.  Despite a 100 million dollar offer from the United States to buy the island in 1946, it remains Danish territory to this day.

Yet Greenland has a history that suggests that it does not approve of this reality.  It was not until 1951 that Greenlanders received representation in the Danish parliament, something that embittered the island for decades.  In 1979, Greenland took its ambitions a step further, voting for home rule in a critical referendum.  All internal matters from that point on were made in Greenland, with Denmark being responsible for foreign affairs, defense, and constitutional issues.

However, the biggest strides towards independence have come quite recently.  In 2008, Greenland voted on another self-government referendum, which proposed granting the home-rule government control over law enforcement and the courts, as well as the coast guard.  The referendum also included changing the official language from Danish to Kalaallisut, better known simply as Greenlandic in the west.  A staggering 75% of the population supported the measure.  In 2014, the most recent parliamentary elections were held, granting a pro-independence coalition of parties a commanding 26 seats in the 31 member unicameral legislature.  As if more evidence was needed, a 2016 poll showed that 64% of Greenlanders wanted full independence, which tops the support for Catalan independence by nearly 25%.

However, despite the obvious popular support for independence in Greenland, a clean break from Denmark would not be easy.  The principal reasons for this are economic concerns.  According to the United Nations, Greenland had a total nominal gross domestic product of about 2 billion dollars in 2015.  To put that figure into perspective, it is nearly a third smaller than the same figure from Danville, Illinois.  That might be acceptable if the economy was diverse and robust, but the reality is that 94% of Greenlandic exports consist of fish.  A down year or some environmental threat to the marine life would be a complete disaster for the economy, and without Danish support, the results could be catastrophic.  Deeply connected to this situation is the fact that Denmark largely funds the Greenlandic government’s operations as it is, handing a block grant subsidy to the island worth about £400 million every year.  This amount accounts for roughly 55% of the island’s annual state budget.  Though part of the 2008 referendum was to phase out this grant, doing so all at once would leave the new country with a massive deficit, one that Greenland would likely be unable to compensate with its fish exports.  Under current conditions, the country’s quality of life could go down remarkably if independence was immediately granted, and despite widespread support for independence, 78% of Greenlanders oppose it if it means a fall in living standards.

However, there are signs that the Greenlandic economy can change and diversify.  Massive amounts of mineral and oil deposits have been discovered beneath Greenland’s ice sheet or off the coast, representing a new industry that could drastically increase the wealth of the nation.  The new coalition government has allowed for uranium mining, while corporations such as BP and Shell have been granted licenses to explore for oil and gas.  Understandably, environmentalists worldwide have condemned such steps, declaring that it will ruin Greenland’s pristine environment.

Many Greenlanders, however, have a different view.  The simple reality is that climate change will have notable positive effects on the Greenlandic economy, and by extension, the independence movement.  Shrinking ice caps reveal much of the mineral wealth that has been hidden beneath them for so long, and allows for easier offshore drilling.  Fishing hauls have also improved, as warmer oceans drive more fish north towards Greenland’s coasts.  Additionally, rising temperatures will allow for more agricultural opportunities in the country’s south, not to mention a longer tourist season as well.  As one Greenlander puts it, “we are more concerned about the Maldives”.

Greenland occupies a unique position in the international sphere.  As tensions between Arctic states such as the United States, Russia, and Canada become more intense, the island holds a strong foothold in this new arena.  Global warming, heavily denounced at lower latitudes, could open up a myriad of economic possibilities for the nation, creating new jobs and a more diverse economy.  And historically, territories have been let loose with less going for them.  Decades after the collapse of the old imperial system and colonialism, Greenland seems to have become the last vast colony left behind.  While islands across the globe remain under European control, none are so visible as Greenland.  Despite this, it is among the world’s most ignored places, referenced mournfully in climate documentaries, never to be discussed further.  Yet while the world remains engaged and captivated by Catalonia, a region that lacks a simple majority in support of independence, the world’s largest island marches on.  As the economy continues to grow and separatist support intensifies, it will grow increasingly difficult for the Danes to restrain their northern territory, should they decide to crack down as Madrid did last month.  

Pro-independence campaigners have pointed towards the 300th anniversary of Danish colonization, 2021, as a possible goal for separation, meaning that Greenland could vie for statehood in only a few years.  Regardless of the exact date, the world’s biggest colony wants its freedom.  That much has become obvious, with referendums, opinion polls, and parliamentary elections all pointing in the same direction.  It has become a question not of if, but of when?  The question remains of how Greenland will step towards the future as an independent state.  Though it may be years off, it is likely that the world’s newest country will come not from northeastern Spain, but from the farthest reaches of the Arctic.

Iraqi Kurdistan: To Free Or Not To Free

By Casie Slaybaugh, Guest Writer 

The Kurdish Freedom Referendum that took place on September 25th, 2017 brought to light the long-enduring plight of a stateless nation. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been semi-autonomous since 1970. Recent developments in the fight against the Islamic State and advances of the Kurdish government have given rise to intensified nationalism and the belief that a free Kurdistan could not only survive as a nation but thrive. Despite many sources’ belief that this prediction could ring true, the Trump administration has put itself in agreement with Iran and stated that the United States does not support a free Kurdistan. I would argue, however, that this administration is mistaken in its disapproval of the independence of the region. A free Kurdistan would not only be beneficial to the Middle East but to the United States as well.

The Middle East is a region teeming with political turmoil. Between oppressive governments, Islamist militant organizations, and more armed conflicts, the Middle East is in dire need of a strong government to serve as a peacekeeping force. Iraqi Kurdistan has shown its military competence time and time again during the fight against the Islamic State. Kurdish forces, called the Peshmerga, played an influential role in the retake of Mosul, as well as in the Battle for Kobane in Syria. Not only can the Kurds hold their own militarily, but the region had been experiencing a decade-long economic boom prior to the rise of the IS. Technology in the Kurdish capital of Erbil is said to be “light years ahead of Baghdad.” The Kurdish government also serves as an example in modern diplomacy and trade: often holding meetings between Iraqi-Kurdish and Turkish leaders, for example, as well as negotiating trade deals with corporations including Exxon Mobil. Clearly, the Kurds are capable of leading their own people into a thriving democracy that is capable of serving as an example and strong military power in one of the most turmoil-stricken regions of the last two centuries. For these reasons, the United States has every reason to support the formation of a free Kurdistan.

Additionally, the American tradition of supporting democracies that share our values must not be ignored. In the decades since the start of the Cold War, a fundamental pillar of American foreign affairs has been a commitment to supporting fledgling democracies. It has been proven time and time again that democratic nations are less likely to engage in war with each other and generally foster good relations with and perceptions of each other. By setting up democracy in a region as chaotic as the Middle East, the Western perception of the area as a whole will evolve into considering it a more similar entity to the West itself, lessening the numerous negative stigmas associated with the region. Helping to establish a democracy that has proven its capabilities to be successful, as Kurdistan has done, in such a turmoil-stricken region could only improve relations between the Middle East and Western nations. The Kurdish people have more than earned the support of the United States and other large democracies and they deserve for their struggle toward full autonomy to be defended.

American must give support because the Kurdistan people share many fundamental values. Compared to other countries in the region, Kurdistan has shown a remarkable commitment to gender equality, with Syrian Kurds passing over 20 “equality decrees” in the year of 2014 alone, allowing women to hold political office, entitling them to equal pay and inheritance, and outlawing non-consenting marriage of women under 18. The Peshmerga is also one of the sole fighting forces in the area to allow female soldiers. Kurdish political parties also strongly favor the separation of mosque and state, clearly similar to the United States’ own separation of church and state. Kurdistan has also been known as a protector of minorities in the region, with many minority populations supporting the formation of a free Kurdistan, even those outside of Kurdish territory. Protection of Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities in the Nineveh Plain and around the Middle East has become a hallmark of Kurdish policy and a large reason for much of the local support of Kurdish independence.

Some would argue that a free Kurdistan would irreparably fracture the fragile political system of the Middle East even further. I would argue against with an analogy to a crumbling building. If the current situation in the region is collapsing ceilings, shattered windows, decaying drywall, wouldn’t it make sense to ensure that the foundation of the building was as strong as one could possibly make it before starting to add reinforcement to the interior? By ensuring the creation of a stable democratic institution in the heart of this “building,” the walls can be more easily rebuilt and the windows more easily replaced.

Certainly, the region would become unstable in the short term, but the high odds of long-term stabilization make this temporary destabilization a risk the West should be willing to take. The numerous issues that a free Kurdistan would immediately bring up—Kurdish revolts in Turkey, minority groups in other countries gaining confidence against their governments—should not be ignored, but instead, be weighed against future benefits that a stable democracy in the region would create.

After September 25th, Iraqi Kurdistan was thrust abruptly into mainstream news. The argument of whether a free Kurdistan should come to exist is one of complex political dynamics and colossal implications. Kurdistan has proved extensively their capability to become a thriving democracy despite their location in the center of one of the most turmoil-stricken regions of the world. This fact combined with the many values they share with the West and the American tradition of supporting fledgling democracies give numerous reasons for the United States to give its support to this prospective nation. While the chaos of the Middle East will likely remain for decades to come, it certainly will not harm the region in the long term for there to be a stable democracy at its center. The United States should support an independent Kurdistan to implement stability and prosperity in an area where these two concepts are seldom present.