Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Carl Bildt: An Arctic saga of absurdity

By Carl Bildt Special to the Washington Post

First you get yourself invited to a state visit in a friendly allied country. Not just a visit of the usual sort: a state visit with a banquet by the queen and all the pomp and the ceremony that can be mustered. Hundreds of people start working on all the elaborate preparations necessary for these grand occasions. Monarchies take these things seriously. The palace is properly prepared to receive the dignified guest. Everyone starts polishing.

Then you suddenly launch the idea that it might be fun to acquire parts of the territory under that particular monarch. Just a simple property deal, really. You don’t actually inquire discreetly whether this idea would ever fly. Instead, you launch it straight out in public without any warning. Perhaps that’s the way property deals are done.

The authorities of the country in question are slightly taken aback. Losing territory wasn’t really on their agenda, and in these days, it’s not normally part of the concept of friendly state visits. They say in no uncertain terms that the land is not for sale.

Up until this point, it’s all pretty absurd, as was pointed out.

But then it goes beyond the absurd. The self-invited guest suddenly cancels everything and says if he can’t get his property deal and the territory he wants, he sees no purpose for the state visit. Everything is off. Tons and tons of preparations are just scrapped.

One could have thought this was something out of some saga from the Middle Ages. Whether it actually happened in those dark centuries I don’t know, but it is not entirely inconceivable. At least in the world of the sagas.

But it wasn’t a saga from a distant and bizarre past, but the present reality of the president of the United States and the queen of Denmark.

And in the modern world, I’m rather certain it is unique for one head of state to make an official visit to another head of state conditional on the latter being prepared to hand over some territory. It wasn’t just absurd – it was beyond the absurd. Rest assured that people all over the world have been shaking their heads in disbelief.

Apart from the surreal theater of the entire thing, and the profoundly insulting behavior toward a long-standing and loyal ally, the issues of Greenland and the Arctic are serious indeed.

But it’s certainly not exchanging territories that is the way forward. Greenland is not for sale, and neither is Svalbard or Iceland. Instead, the necessary way forward is developing cooperation between all the stakeholders of this vast and challenging region to address challenges that are common to all of them. And climate change and its effects are the by far most serious of them.

When the United States in the form of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, turned up at the ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland, he spent most of his energy attacking China and ended up vetoing the communique that had been agreed upon by everyone else. The reason? It mentioned climate change, and that was not acceptable to the Trump administration. All others had been discussing little but the rising temperatures, which are happening two or three times faster here than anywhere else on Earth.

All the others issued the paper agreed between them anyhow. Pompeo flew away, saying he was on his way to Greenland. He didn’t show up – he canceled the visit.

Canceling visits now seems to be what remains of Arctic policy for the United States. Perhaps just as well. All other countries are keen to try to prevent Greenland from turning green again. We would all suffer the consequences.

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and a contributing columnist for the Washington Post.