When a half-baked idea makes its way into prime time, it instigates the usual roster of opinion-makers to line up according to preconceived notions about the idea being floated, and then to quickly dig in along battle lines the minute one of their usual opponents floats a different opinion. The latest half-baked idea? Buying Greenland.
If the President were to wake up tomorrow and declare his intention to colonize the Moon with trained sea lions, you can rest assured that by the afternoon, there would be some sort of partisan bickering among the usual suspects on cable news shows and social media -- not about whether space exploration deserves more funding or whether we needed a viable multi-generational strategy for colonizing the rest of the Solar System.
No, the arguments would somehow find a way for the talking heads of the world to line up according to pro-sea-lion and anti-sea-lion camps.
And for 48 hours, we would hear and read intense debate about the subject, after which nobody would talk about space again for another 52 weeks. The scorched earth left behind from the sea lion affair would make any other question even remotely similar to it too toxic to even ponder.
The President's half-baked idea to "buy Greenland" is a perfect example of this pathology. It's like a glitter bomb has been thrown in everyone's face -- raucous argument has sucked all the oxygen out of the room, culminating in the President's announced cancellation of his upcoming trip to Denmark over his disappointment that the Danish prime minister won't entertain the idea of a real-estate deal.
None of this gives proper attention to questions that really do matter. Questions like:
- How could anyone "sell" a self-governing island?
- What is the purpose of territorial expansion?
- Should we look differently at how we treat existing U.S. territories that are not already states?
- Is there some reason we would think the 57,000 people of Greenland would want to become Americans?
- And does anything about the people of Greenland make them different from the thousands of people who voluntarily seek to immigrate to the United States -- rather than having their citizenship "bought"?
Perhaps the most important question of all that is being totally steamrolled by this half-baked Greenland buyout idea is this: Would America welcome the voluntary accession of a new state? If a country like Estonia, a modern city-state like Singapore, an autonomous region like Greenland, or even a prosperous municipality like Seoul or Monrovia expressed an interest in joining the United States, would we say "yes"? And if so, under what conditions?
This is a real, valuable, and important set of questions. But what hope is there that we'll actually have the debate, now that the President has stormed off and framed the matter as an irreconcilable difference between himself and a "nasty" (his word) Danish politician?
None. There is no such hope. And that's the real crime of this whole incident.
The United States should have a policy that welcomes voluntary accession. We should offer our willing embrace of new territory, especially in a world where adversaries are either taking ground by force (like Russia in Crimea) or staking artificial claims in the seas (like China in the South China Sea).
But we shouldn't look to grow because we covet something another place might have (like rare minerals or oil wealth). We should be open to growing when it would welcome people who already embrace the American idea into a fabric that would make the American idea stronger. We should be open to welcoming new Americans not because of what they have but because of what they believe.
Our job is to say that the door is open and the welcome mat is out; let others knock on that door and ask to come in. Our willingness to embrace new entrants would have to come with conditions -- at a minimum, peace, a commitment to American law, and a stable economy.
As long as a voluntary accession plan represents the will of the people of some new place (and not just the whims of a local autocrat), then it would be completely consistent with the American idea to welcome new territories. And we should have a clear policy debate over what conditions should apply.
But we aren't shaping up to have that debate. No, instead we're stuck inside some kind of psychedelic hamster wheel, where the lights are too bright, the noises are cacophonous, and no real forward progress is ever made. "Buying" Greenland was too half-baked an idea to even set loose. The crime, though, is that the debate fixated on this moment is going to cripple any serious conversation for a long time to come about what we should have been ready to say if the people of Greenland had approached us first with a request to become a new state.
Borders and boundaries change much more often than we give them credit for doing. Sometimes they change for convenience, sometimes they change due to war, and sometimes they change as powers re-align or as people assert long-neglected diplomatic respect. But it's also a wildly outdated notion to think of large geopolitical regions as places to be conquered or bought and sold.
We should be true to the American idea, once expressed by Dwight Eisenhower, that "Any nation's right to a form of government and an economic system of its own choosing is inalienable." That is the essence of self-determination, and surely it belongs to the people of Greenland as much as to any other people.
Our job is to know under what circumstances we would be willing to open the door if the people of any place came calling, not to think of them as trinkets to be exchanged at the whims of far-off politicians.