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Starting from scratch

Greenland is sending a representative to Washington. That irks some in Copenhagen but Inuuteq Holm Olsen says it’s only logical
It’s a controversial job, but his supporters say he’s the right man for it (Photo: CSIS)

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On paper, Inuuteq Holm Olsen’s new job sounds clear enough: help strengthen trade and economic relations between his country and the US. But as with much involving Greenland and its international relations, it’s not that simple.

Ever since it was announced in 2012 that Greenland wanted to send its own representative to Washington – working out of the Danish embassy there – critical voices in Copenhagen have accused the self-governing country of “pushing the limits” of its international relations. The most nationalistic voices have even called on the Danish prime minister to investigate whether such a move is even permitted.

But, for Olsen, those concerns are misplaced.

“We have a better feeling for what’s going on,” he says. “We know what’s required and needed in the areas we have responsibility for.”

Establishing a representative office, he points out, is neither a new idea nor threatening to the integrity of the kingdom. Greenland already has a diplomatic office in Brussels. The Faroe Islands, the other self-governing country under the Danish crown, is in Brussels, London and Reykjavik, and plans to open a Russian office soon.

Diplomatic diversification
In 2009, Greenland officially became responsible for all areas of its government, with the exception of defence and foreign policies. Strictly speaking, diplomacy is a part of foreign policy, but there are a number of areas that Greenland is responsible for – mining, for example – that, according to Olsen, are only logical for the country to speak directly to foreign stakeholders about.

Critics of Greenland’s diplomatic efforts are upset at what they see as the country’s efforts to sever ties with the Denmark. Olsen sees it as a case of both-and, rather than either-or.

“We’re diversifying our relations, not scaling back our relationship with Copenhagen. We need each other. In a way, I guess you could call us co-dependent.”

This echoes the sentiment repeatedly expressed by Aleqa Hammond, Greenland’s premier. Even though she, in her own words, “gets teary-eyed at the thought of an independent Greenland”, she doesn’t foresee the two countries abandoning their 400 years of common history.

Olsen will be the Greenlandic government’s first official diplomatic representative to the US, but a long career as a diplomat, most recently as a special advisor to the Danish foreign ministry, and degrees from American universities, gave him, in Hammond’s words “the best qualifications possible” to do the job.

Still, with just one employee – himself – in the budget until 2017, he admits he’s got his work cut out for him.

“We’re starting from scratch, and it’s going to take time to build the office up, but I’m looking forward to develop it to the best of my ability. It’s a big task, and maybe even a little overwhelming, but it’s also a step-by-step process and it’s not as if we don’t have relations with the US. They have been in Greenland since the 1940s and my work will build on those relations.”

Don’t you mean Iceland?
Part of that job, he says, will be to give Americans a better picture of what Greenland is.

While he finds that people familiar with the Arctic – he mentions Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowsky – are well versed about Greenland, he says that in general, people have no knowledge of his country.

“I tend to get that Greenland/Iceland thing all the time. You the know the one: why is Iceland called Iceland if it’s not covered in ice, and why is Greenland called Greenland if it’s not green.”

But being an unknown, he says, is something he can use to his advantage.

“It’s actually easier to describe Greenland to people if they don’t have pre-conceived notions,” he says.

If there is one thing that people know (or “think they know”, as Olsen says) about Greenland, it is that is climate change is causing it to melt.

“Of course that’s an oversimplification, but I guess you could say the issue of climate change has helped make Americans more aware of Greenland. A lot more people know about Greenland, even if they aren’t aware of the specifics about our country.”

Complicated questions
But, he stresses, that Greenland is more than climate change and it is more than ice.

“One of my biggest jobs will be to explain to the world how Greenland sees itself. We’re not just melting glaciers that need to be preserved.”

Asked whether climate change is good or bad for his country, he describes it as “more complicated than that”.

“The only thing we can do is adapt and reap the benefits while dealing with the negative effects in the best possible way. The one thing we don’t want is to be seen as a victim of climate change.”

“Climate change,” he adds, “isn’t new. What’s different this time is that it’s caused by humans and the speed at which it’s happening. But, it’s important not to oversimplify the issue.”

How, then, does Greenland see itself?

“That’s a complicated question,” Olsen admits. “As a part of Denmark, Greenland has strong ties to Europe. But geographically it is part North America, and the country’s Inuit population shares a lot with the indigenous tribes of the American and Canadian Arctic.”

Greenland, he says, can be hard to pin down. Reflecting for a moment, he adds: “We’re Greenland.”

Plain and simple.