Thursday, 22 August 2019

Motes and beams

When I first saw the story that Trump wanted to buy Greenland, my immediate reaction was to check the date of the story.  There are far too many ‘old’ stories reshared on the internet – this one surely was from April 1st, wasn’t it?  But no, it was genuine.  The fact that the detail went on to say this wasn’t a priority for his administration, just some sort of vague suggestion was a little reassuring – until he cancelled his visit to Denmark and it became clear that he thought the whole purpose of his visit was to agree the details.  He also, it seems, took umbrage at the description of the Danish Prime Minister of the idea as ‘absurd’, claiming it was a ‘nasty’ comment.  It struck me as a rather restrained comment; countries buying and selling other countries over the heads of the inhabitants may have been done in the colonial past, but it isn’t acceptable now.
Closer to home, it seems that one of the proposals put forward by the PM to overcome the problem of the Irish border is that Ireland should leave the EU’s single market and follow the rules laid down by the UK instead.  The word used was ‘temporarily’, until such time as some other fix enables two countries in different regulatory regimes to maintain the integrity of their respective markets with no border controls, but since no such fix exists and there is no prospect of one  being developed, this would inevitably become a permanent arrangement.  And rather than try and agree this directly with the Republic of Ireland, the suggestion is that it should be negotiated with the EU who would then tell the Republic what they need to do.  What was that about buying and selling countries over the heads of their inhabitants?
How we all laughed at Trump’s ‘absurd’ suggestion!  But what, in essence, is the difference?  Playground bullies seeking to dispose of smaller countries over the heads of their inhabitants, not even beginning to understand what is wrong with their proposals – Trump and Johnson are increasingly two of a kind.  We often look at the US and wonder how anyone – let alone a significant section of the media – can treat Trump with any degree of seriousness, but looking at the way Johnson is treated here, it becomes a lot easier to see how it can happen.  The world, including the UK but excluding a large chunk of America laughs at Trump; the world excluding a large chunk of the UK is laughing at Johnson.  It’s just harder to see from the inside.


Anonymous said...


Jonathan said...

Writing from North Carolina, a notably sane State, I wish Europeans (of which I am one) would not display a knee-jerk reaction that Trump is an idiot. He is an American, and this has implications. Take this Greenland thing. The US bought what was called Louisiana (in fact about half the continent) because France did not have the power to administer it whereas the US did. The US then bought Florida because Spain did not have the power to administer it whereas the US did. The US then bought Alaska, a vast territory, because Russia did get the idea. The US felt it had a Manifest Destiny to expand into the West, not always a pretty sight I agree. You could say that the US has a natural interest not just in the West but in the Arctic too. The US was close to taking over Canada on more than one occasion - see War of 1812, Alabama Claims 1869.
Right, back to Greenland. You can see that the US feels a kind of Manifest Destiny to take over the Arctic. It makes a sort of sense from a global point of view. It true, Denmark does not really have the resources to run Greenland whereas the US does. In Thule, the US already has a gigantic military presence. I love the story of how Trump got interested in Greenland. He was at a meeting at which someone advised him that Denmark was moaning about the cost of running Greenland. Trump did not respond. But someone else in the room suggested that the US buy Greenland. He reminded Trump that in 1860 the US offered $100m for Greenland. (Which is why that figure is mentioned now.) So Trump reportedly asked "But is its not for sale. Er, is it?". From the US point of view it is not a loony idea at all. OK, so Denmark will not entertain the idea. The Danish PM is sniffy and claims to be insulted. I suspect that like so many in Europe, she suffers from Trump Derangement Syndrome whereby whatever he says or does is bad. The Danes, if they are honest, would probably admit that Greenland is a problem for them without an easy solution. But they won't admit it now. So, what you have is a gulf in attitudes and mutual incomprehension. But not an April Fool.

John Dixon said...


I don't quibble with the legal or historical precedents, but 'historical' is an important word in this context. What might have been acceptable in the past isn't necessarily so today. For a modern 'democratic' state to seek to buy or sell a semi-autonomous territory is anachronistic. It's also unnecessary; whether we are talking about Greenland or anywhere else, if the people of the territory want to transfer their allegiance from one master to another, they have every right to make that decision for themselves. In such circumstances, the US need pay nothing and Denmark should expect nothing. On the other hand, if the people reject the idea - either by plebiscite or through their elected representatives - then the idea of buying and selling is (or should be) anathema to any democrat.

The real lesson for a small country like Wales in the Trump / Johnson approach is that these are people who believe, ultimately, that smaller countries or nations and their people are tradeable commodities, whose future can and should be decided by the big boys.

Spirit of BME said...

I think Jonathan`s points are very valid .in fact Truman made a similar offer in 1946.
Since then Russia has declared its “ownership” of the Artic and the Chinese are moving into Greenland to exploit the rare minerals – so Washington is seeing this as a timely intervention.
Two small points, you refer to the US as “democratic”, are you measuring their democracy against the UK, where we are not allowed to vote for a Head of State? Secondly, in the last para you mentioned Trump/Johnson, did you forget Drakeford in that list?

Jonathan said...

I agree that its not easy being small, though Ireland seems to manage. The odd thing about Greenland is the reductio almost ad absurdam. Population under 60k, area vast. You can say that this does not matter in principle, but look at it from the point of view of the international order. To be a State you have to have effective control over your territory. Take Wales and Greenland.
Greenland struggles to control its territory, for the reason that nature and economics are against them. So its not really a viable State in some ways.
Wales is different. We could autonomously control our territory and be viable. The odd thing is that we don't. Not because nature or economics are against us. History does matter, not least in our case. We have not agreed in Wales to assert autonomy, though it is doable. It is not some much larger state that is stopping us, its us.
PS - been pointed out to me that US made 2 attempts to buy Greenland, the last in 1946. So as I say, you can't blame Trump for lunacy. But the US does act like an 800lb gorilla on occasions. Luckily its usually friendly, and will help small nations if you do it right. (Ireland, Israel) Again, Wales hasn't really tried to get the US on side, have we?

John Dixon said...


I used quotes around the word 'democratic' because the word has so many different meanings - I agree with your contention that a state in which the people can't elect their head of state and in which more than half the parliamentarians are appointees or bishops doesn't really justify the use of the word in the sense in which I understand it, yet there is a general acceptance that it is a 'democracy'. Strange world. The point, though, is that, however faulty the definition, and however flawed its implementation, there is, in countries such as Denmark and the US, a broad acceptance of the principle that people have certain rights; buying and selling a country and its people doesn't really fit with that.

No, I didn't 'forget' Drakeford, but as far as I'm aware, he isn't claiming that the country he nominally 'leads' has the right to determine the future of other countries. He's more in the category of being willing to allow others to determine his own country's future.

John Dixon said...


"To be a State you have to have effective control over your territory." Says who? And who decides what is or is not 'effective control'? For outsiders to set some arbitrary criterion to determine whether a country can be a state or not on such a basis looks to me to be opening a very large can of worms. Greenland functions as a semi-autonomous territory nominally part of Denmark, and in general terms, the people seem happy with that. As long as that remains the case, on what basis do you, I, or anyone else tell them that they're not a viable state?

"We have not agreed in Wales to assert autonomy, though it is doable. It is not some much larger state that is stopping us, its us." I agree. That wasn't quite my point though. Ireland has made the decision that Wales has so far avoided, and now finds itself in a position where its large bully of a neighbour is suggesting that it can decide the future of Ireland jointly with the leaders of the EU (essentially with France and Germany), and expects that suggestion to be taken seriously. There are two possible responses to a world order where that is considered possible. The first is to seek to change it, and the second is to suck up to the bullies. I'm fairly sure that you didn't mean it that way, but "Wales hasn't really tried to get the US on side, have we?" sounds more like the second option than the first.

Jonathan said...

Says who? Them's the rules, Borthlas. International Law. If you want to be recognised by other States, that is.States have existed which others don't recognise but they tend to struggle. And go out of existence. Kurdistan is interesting. Lot of control. But recognition....? Who now remembers Biafra, the Confederate States etc? No recognition, see.
I have been in Plaid since 1980s and I am always struck that a nationalist party has no general agreed knowledge and understanding of how Wales gets Statehood. It seems to be a Plaid cultural thing. Very very important because a good understanding would dictate and re-order Plaid's priorities. Surely the list of priorities would - logically - be
1. Get financial control of Wales
2. Extend this to other controls. Key one - armed services. Well, Wales has an embryo navy. And embryo diplomatic service. We do, really! No embryo army though. Need to make a start on that.
3. Seek recognition. You can open the discussion when you don't have 100% control, but you'll need say 90% control to be credible. Which would come with Dominion Status, say. With 90% you're in a good position to get 100% though in a way the last 10% is the hurdle at which many fall. The control has to be effective before the other States will look at you. And then the strategic/political angles some in. Ask Catalunya.
4. An equitable social policy is all very nice, but should not soak up too much energy.
I don't make the rules. I'm just pointing out how other countries did it. Hard work and logic. And at least the threat of a whiff of cordite. As I say, history and law talking, not me. Is Plaid up for this?

John Dixon said...

"Them's the rules, Borthlas. International Law. If you want to be recognised by other States, that is.States have existed which others don't recognise but they tend to struggle." I think that's an answer to a rather different question. I accept your point that 'statehood' depends on the willingness of other countries to recognise it, and I'd also accept that - in principle - whether the government of a state has effective control might be a factor in determining whether that recognition is forthcoming or not, at least in the context of there being warring factions contesting that control. But don't forget that you made this statement initially in the context of Greenland, where there is no such contention between rival forces. It may be that I've jumped to a conclusion unjustifiably; but I assumed that you meant that the government of such a large country with such a small population clustered around a small part of the coastline does not have 'effective control' over the territory as a whole, and cannot effectively defend it against outsiders. It was in the context of that scenario that I challenged the idea that such a lack of control should be a bar to statehood, and that anyone making it so would be establishing a precedent for any country which could not control its territory effectively in the face of outside aggression.

I tend to agree with your comment that you are "... always struck that a nationalist party has no general agreed knowledge and understanding of how Wales gets Statehood.", but suspect that it is, at least in part, because very many prominent members over the years haven't really been very interested in aquiring statehood.

As for your roadmap, I'm less convinced about the importance of armed forces than you seem to be. Historically, it's certainly been key, but that is in a situation where states have come into existence and disappeared largely as a result of military processes. In today's world, I think it perfectly possible, in principle at least, for states to come into existence by more peaceful routes. I don't disagree with points 1 and 3 though.

Point 4 is more a moot point, and one where we're likely to disagree. Whilst an equitable social policy is not a necessary pre-requisite to gaining independence in legal terms, it might well be a sigificant factor in gaining popular support for the proposal.