Articles - January 2021


Inuuteq Holm Olsen: Greenland's Voice in Washington
James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Officially, Inuuteq Holm Olsen is Minister Plenipotentiary and Head of Representation for Greenland in the Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C. He holds the same title in Canada’s capital of Ottawa as well.  Yet, he does not hold the title of Ambassador because he does not represent a sovereign state.  Instead, Greenland is a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, its former colonial ruler.  In an international legal world comprised of nation-states, Greenland is a nation and a people with its own cultural identity and unique national interests.  Despite a high degree of autonomy, however, Greenland is not fully self-governing,

Global interest in Greenland has risen in recent years as climate change has thawed the iced over waters of the Arctic Ocean opening polar sea lanes to commercial shipping, allowing greater access to the world’s naval powers, and expanding opportunities to develop the region’s natural resources.  So, too, recognition of Greenland’s geostrategic position as an extension of both North America and Europe, its Arctic presence, and its location astride critical passages from the Arctic Ocean into the North Atlantic and beyond mean that Greenland - the world’s largest island, once a Cold War outpost, and now a critical locale for missile defense, satellite tracking and interplanetary space development - has assumed renewed global importance.   These new realities mesh productively with Greenland’s own ambitions to achieve ever greater autonomy and to expand and diversify its economy.

Inuuteq Holm Olsen is among Greenland’s most experienced diplomats.  He nurtured his diplomatic career as an intern at Greenland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and formally entered diplomatic service in 1996.  From 1997–1999 he served as Private Secretary to Greenland’s Premier and was subsequently posted to the Danish Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen and Greenland’s Representation in to the European Union in Brussels from 2000-2003. At that point he returned to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Nuuk serving as Head of Department, then as Acting Deputy Minister, and later Deputy Minister for the Department of Foreign Affairs for the Government of Greenland (2006-2012).  He was then posted to the Danish Foreign Ministry as Senior Advisor for Greenland and Arctic Affairs before being named as Greenland’s representative in Washington, D.C. in 2014. He has additionally been named as Head of Greenland’s Representation in Canada.

Given the realities of the current COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and the limitations on face-to-face contact, Minister Holm Olsen was kind enough to make time in his schedule for an extended telephone interview with us.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is the international status of Greenland?  How would you explain the relationship with Denmark – past, present and future?
Minister Holm Olsen:  It is an evolving relationship.  Greenland is still a part of Kingdom of Denmark, but we are also a separate people.  We are recognized as a people under international law with an inherent right to self-determination. 
Greenland is officially an autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Together Greenland and Denmark are engaged in an on-going political and an economic process that moves Greenland toward greater autonomy.   That process formally began in 1979 with the Home Rule Act, and it was expanded in 2009 with the Self-Rule Act.
Greenland was once a colony of Denmark.  As Greenland has taken growing responsibility for its own affairs, we have made a great deal of progress toward self-government.  But, we are not a sovereign state.  There are still areas that we cannot take over under the current Danish constitution.

Diplomatic Connections:  Some of those areas would be security and defense?
Minister Holm Olsen:  Yes. That would be true of foreign affairs as well.  But, given the relationship under the current law between Greenland and Denmark, the Greenlandic government actually has some foreign policy prerogatives in areas for which it has taken responsibility. The areas of policy where our government is in control include taxation and infrastructure, trade, environment, education, business, natural resources, fisheries and a whole range of other sectors.

Diplomatic Connections:  Your offices are housed in the Danish Embassy.  Are you accredited as a Danish diplomat as well as Greenland’s representative?
Minister Holm Olsen:  Technically, yes I am accredited to the United States as a Danish diplomat.  The 2009 Self-Rule Act provides that Greenland may have a number of representations abroad.  We do operate pretty much independently in all those areas where we have full political control.  But, technically we are – for example, in the eyes of the U.S. State Department, diplomats posted at the Danish Embassy and accredited as officers of the Danish Foreign Ministry even though I am named to my position by Greenland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nuuk.
I answer to my superiors back in Nuuk.  But, there are areas like foreign affairs or defense where the Greenlandic authorities cannot act independently.  On these concerns we work together with Danish colleagues on issues that are directly related to Greenland.  Take, for example, the U.S. military presence in Greenland.  That work is done together with the Danish Embassy since both Greenlandic and Danish interests are involved. An easier way of describing it is to say that we have a division of labor.

Diplomatic Connections:  You studied at the University of Alaska for your BA and at George Washington University for your MA in international relations.  When did the idea of becoming a diplomat enter your mind?
Minister Holm Olsen:  I took a very practical approach.  Politics has always been something that I’ve been interested in, probably because my parents were politically active, so I studied political science as an undergraduate and then specialized in international relations as a graduate student.  Experience as an intern at our Ministry of Foreign Affairs when it was in its infancy cemented my interest in diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections:  You are “double hatted” as Greenland’s special representative to the United States and to Canada. How do you carry out that double role?
Minister Holm Olsen:  It is not exactly easy. In many ways, however, this dual assignment makes sense.  Greenland’s Foreign Service is limited in size.  We have important Arctic interests, and covering North America as a sort of single entity makes sense.  There are clear over overlapping interests with Arctic Canada, the state of Alaska and increasingly with the state of Maine.

Diplomatic Connections:  You have described Greenland’s becoming self-governing as an evolving project.  That prompts the question: evolving toward what?  Is the eventual goal to have full sovereignty?
Minister Holm Olsen:  That is the dream for many Greenlanders.  The act that regulates the relationship between Greenland and Denmark has a chapter dealing with secession, meaning independence, and acknowledges this is a possibility if the people of Greenland through a referendum decide that is what they desire.  Ultimately, we want to be masters in our own house.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is there a timetable for secession and full sovereignty?
Minister Holm Olsen:  There is no timetable.  There is not a fixed date on the issue of full sovereignty.  We see national independence as a long-term process.  It will come according to Greenland’s wishes and according to
our abilities to be self-sustaining.  Future independence is very much tied to our economic and political development.
Greenland receives roughly $650 million U.S.D. from Denmark annually in a block grant.  One of our goals is to reduce that subsidy and eventually to bring it to an end so that Greenland stands on its own.  In order to do that we need to develop other sectors of the economy alongside fisheries – minerals, natural resources like water for energy and consumption, tourism and a broader range of export products.

Diplomatic Connections:  The total population of Greenland is a bit under 60,000 people.  Is there a way to grow in population?  Can Greenland develop a viable economy at that size?
Minister Holm Olsen:  There are real questions of whether Greenland can develop a sustainable economy or not.  Population is one of those questions.  Should our country be 60,000 or 90,000 people, more?  It is a question of will as well as ability.  We will always be dependent on foreign labor.  All countries are dependent on the import and export of knowledge as well as “foreign” workers to some degree.
The notion of independence is somewhat different for us than it might be for others.  It is not so much whether we are able to provide all of the labor needed from Greenland’s population.  It is more about developing the economy and making the best use of our natural resources in order to strengthen and build the economy.  It is also about having the political control in order to design legislation that fits Greenlandic reality.  The idea is quite straightforward:  “We know best.”  We the people of Greenland know best what is in the interest of Greenland – its people and its environment.

Diplomatic Connections:  The critical issue for Greenland is its geostrategic position in the Arctic.  Because of climate change, the Arctic has assumed a new kind of strategic importance because it is now possible for nations to navigate the top of the world.   That new reality not only creates potential dramatic changes in commercial shipping routes and exploitation of Arctic resources but opens the Arctic to a new kind of strategic competition between leading Arctic states.  It is also attracting the strategic interest of non-Arctic or near-Arctic global powers, China among them.
The long search for the fabled “Northwest Passage” is now over.  Passage through the Arctic is now a reality.  How has that opening, literal and figurative, of the Arctic impacted Greenland?

Minister Holm Olsen:  Greenland has to adapt to whatever changes are going on.  Climate change has certainly had a direct impact on Greenland.  The melting of sea ice opens up new shipping routes.  If you can ship goods between countries by way of polar routes, you can shorten the length of voyages and significantly reduce shipping costs.  It remains true, however, that weather and climatic conditions will always make these shipping routes challenging, requiring special attention to maritime safety and closely coordinated search and rescue procedures between the Arctic countries.

Diplomatic Connections:  Beyond the commercial opportunities that are opening up, there has also been greater military activity and growing international security concerns in the Arctic region.  How has this activity impacted Greenland?
Minister Holm Olsen:  Of course, new opportunities create negative as well as positive changes.  Any change that confronts us always has two sides.  There are negative concerns that have to be mitigated while taking harnessing the positive new possibilities.
Ever since the beginnings of the Cold War Greenland has been part of the North American Defense perimeter because of its strategic location in relation to the defense of the mainland of the North American continent.  That relationship has strengthened in recent years as the Arctic shipping lanes have opened and greater exploration has been possible.  At the same time, the United States has expressed growing concern about Russian military build-up in its Arctic territory as well as increasing Chinese presence in the polar region.
All these factors have added up to making Greenland “interesting” again.   Greenland is part of the North American continent.  Ethnically, linguistically Greenlanders are part of the Inuit people in Arctic Canada as well as in Alaska.  There are traditional cultural ties to North America as well.  Politically and economically, we have been part of the Scandinavian way of life for several centuries.  We are very much a part of the North Atlantic and Arctic worlds.

Diplomatic Connections:  You described Greenland as becoming more “interesting” in terms of global politics.  That was underscored last year (2019) when President Trump openly speculated about the possibility of the United States buying Greenland from Denmark.  That idea produced at least briefly heightened rhetorical tensions between Denmark and the United States, and President Trump went so far as to cancel a planned presidential visit to Denmark as a result.  What was the response to that idea in Greenland?  Are there any lasting impacts from that episode?
Minister Holm Olsen:  What Greenland said together with Denmark was that: “We are focused on developing the constructive and positive relationship that we already have with the United States.”  The response to the offer from the U.S. to buy Greenland came from our Prime Minister as well as the Danish Prime Minister: Greenland is not for sale.
Greenland opened a representation in the United States in 2014 in order to advance Greenland’s interests: to increase trade with the U.S., to continue to strengthen the security relationship between Greenland, Denmark and the United States; to develop cooperation in the Arctic; to develop tourism; and to carefully consider critical environmental questions.  My focus as Greenland’s representative to the United States and to Canada has always been to build upon that.

Diplomatic Connections:  In other words, the answer to President Trump’s idea was “no sale,” but no ill feelings either.
Minister Holm Olsen:  The most correct version of our response might be: “No sale, but open for business.”

Diplomatic Connections:  The United States opened a U.S. Consulate in Nuuk this year (2020) for the first time since 1953.  What is the importance of that opening to both countries but particularly to Greenland of having a U.S. Consulate on the ground there?
Minister Holm Olsen:  It is very important because before the opening of the consulate it was the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen that took care of relations between the United States and Greenland.  Being in Copenhagen is very different from being actually present in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, and being able to speak directly with representatives of the Greenland government.  It makes a difference to have the relevant persons and to have the facts-on-the-ground at hand, to talk directly with each other, and to see and hear first-hand the immediacy of Greenland’s concerns and vice versa.  That is something the value of which cannot be understated.
We have seen willingness from the U.S. side to engage with Greenland in a number of sectors because the U.S. now has a greater awareness that they can play a constructive role in the development of the Greenland economy.  The United States can assist us in important ways in education, tourism, mineral resource development, and other areas.  We are beginning to see the fruition of the work that both the U.S. and Greenland have done in the last few years to expand our relationship.

Diplomatic Connections:  Secretary of State Pompeo was in Copenhagen earlier in 2020.  What was the upshot of that visit?  What impact does it have on Greenland that those bridges are being mended and new initiatives being started?
Minister Holm Olsen:  The Danish Foreign Minister included the Greenland Foreign Minister in those meetings with Secretary of State Pompeo.  Being able to talk directly with the Secretary in order to represent Greenland’s interests was very important.  Personal relations are important when it comes to advancing and deepening relations. 
We are pleased that Denmark has made a commitment:  whenever Greenlandic interests are at stake, we have to be at the table.  The four party meetings between Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the United States at the foreign minister level have represented an enactment of that policy.  And, the opening of the U.S. consulate in Nuuk further underscores that key point.  The government of Greenland should speak for Greenland’s interests, and those interests are supported by the government of Denmark.

Diplomatic Connections:   As the Arctic has begun to open up for shipping and trade, China has sought to identify itself as a “near Arctic state” by expanding its “Belt and Road” project and seeking investment opportunities in the Arctic region.   What is the extent of Chinese investment in Greenland?  How do you see Greenland’s relationship with China developing?
Minister Holm Olsen:  China’s economic engagement in Greenland is limited.  They have shown interest in our mineral resources.  Asia is also an important market for Greenland’s fisheries products and is the second largest export destination for Greenland after Europe.  We export roughly $200 million USD of fisheries products to China every year and roughly half that to Japan.  We want to continue and expand those exports in the future.  Of course, it should be remembered that our neighbors in the North Atlantic are also fishing nations and our competitors for market share in Asia.  It is in Greenland’s interest to advance and protect our exports.
To that end, Greenland is actively exploring the possibility of opening a Greenland representation housed in the Danish Embassy in Beijing, very much like the current arrangement we have for our representation in Washington, D.C.

Diplomatic Connections:   Some concerns have been expressed by Denmark and others about China’s growing presence in Greenland.  Does the Greenland government share those concerns?
Minister Holm Olsen:   Greenland is aware that we have to protect critical infrastructure as well as our standards, and we are pursuing that goal in collaboration with Denmark and the Faroe Islands. Nevertheless, we are dependent on trade with other countries.  We want to be able to trade freely with other countries.  It is very much a question of wanting to develop our own economic activity to the benefit of Greenland.  In that respect, China plays a role, but so does the United States and so does Europe.
Even as we seek to expand trade, it is imperative to underscore that Greenland has rules and regulations in place to protect the rights of labor, safeguard the environment, and assure compliance with our tax code.  These must be adhered to by any country that wants to invest in Greenland.  The expectations of our social contract must be met if a company or a country wishes to operate in Greenland.

Diplomatic Connections:   Russia has a lengthy Arctic coastline and has been very active in pushing trans-polar shipping routes and in conducting military exercises in the Arctic.  How does Greenland see Russia’s role in bilateral relations and overall in the polar region?
Minister Holm Olsen:  Russia is in every respect part of the Arctic family.  There are some military capabilities that Russia has always focused on developing.  There is also concern about the GIUK (pronounced “jook”) Gap, the naval chokepoint across the North Atlantic between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom, and Russian naval activities there. 
At the same time, for Greenland it is very important that the Arctic remain a region of cooperation and low tension.  No one has an interest in seeing the Arctic region become a theater of any conflict at all.  We are very focused on keeping the Arctic as a zone of peace and stability and cooperation.  That is a sentiment shared by all.

Diplomatic Connections:  It is interesting that the Russian Navy is operating more and more in the Arctic.  Historically, Russia has had major Arctic ports and major naval facilities in the Arctic.  But, NATO has now done some operational exercises in the Barents Sea.  The U.S. Navy is once again establishing a more visible presence in the region.  How does Greenland successfully prevent itself from simply being overshadowed by the great power movement into the Arctic?
Minister Holm Olsen:   We realize that greater focus on the security challenges of the Arctic is inevitable, but Greenland wants to underscore the importance of focusing on all the other issues that impact the Arctic in order to assure that security concerns do not overshadow the cooperation we have had for many years between all Arctic countries.  It is vital to recognize that where Arctic interests are concerned, one country cannot do it alone.  Consultation, discussion and cooperation are essential.

Diplomatic Connections:  Expanding Greenland’s economy depends on developing its natural resource base, including energy resources, mineral exploitation – especially rare earth minerals that have many high technology applications, and fisheries including whaling.  How does Greenland envision these resources being developed?  Are you seeking greater foreign investment?
Minister Holm Olsen:  We see the need for foreign investments, but we also want to develop Greenlandic companies and assure that the economic benefits of such projects are significantly reinvested in Greenland’s expanding development.  It is important for Greenland to be able to develop a range of minerals.   
We hope to develop the U.S. as a market precisely because Greenland has highly valued rare earth minerals, for which China today is the primary source.  China dominates the rare earth market.  Both the United States and Europe would like to become less dependent on Chinese sourcing than is the case today.

Diplomatic Connections:   What is the Arctic Council, and how does it operate?  How would you describe the level of cooperation that goes on between the Arctic powers?
Minister Holm Olsen:  The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum for the eight Arctic nations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation, and the United States.  It is the Kingdom of Denmark that represents Greenland in this group, but we would like to change that.  Greenland is the primary Arctic presence of Denmark, and we would like to represent the Kingdom ourselves.
There are also more than a dozen observer states almost evenly split between European states and Asian states, including China, India and Japan.  All observer states are required to "recognize Arctic States' sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the Arctic." These observer states are invited to most meetings of the Council, but they have no voting rights.
There is also a provision for Indigenous Permanent Participants to take part and have a seat at the table next to member countries.  Though these indigenous representatives do not have voting rights, there is a strong commitment to hearing their concerns and assuring full consultation with them.
The Arctic Council is an important forum because it is a relationship between governments.  But, it is very heavily focused on environmental concerns.  As a result it is not always the best forum to deal with the wider range of Arctic questions and challenges, particularly questions of military security with which it is forbidden to deal.  While it has been suggested that the Council should expand its agenda to include military and security concerns, there has been reluctance to do so for fear that these issues would dilute the Council’s scientific and environmental agendas, amplify the voices of the observer states, and make consensus more difficult to achieve.

Diplomatic Connections:  What are the most important lessons you have learned in your diplomatic career to date?  What insights would you want to pass along to the next generation of Greenlandic diplomats?
Minister Holm Olsen:   That’s a very hard question.  One of the things that I am always struck with is how much of a difference an individual makes, in the conduct of a nation’s foreign policy or in the conduct of diplomatic dealings between persons and states.  Values, interests and visions really do make a difference.  Yes, you must represent the interests of your country and follow the directions of your foreign ministry, but every diplomat has a personal style . . . a way of dealing with counterparts and the general public that inevitably makes a material difference when you work together.
When you deal with different individuals in the same position, you can have very different outcomes. That is the experience that I have.  The profile of the person you are dealing with is very important in how you approach problems.  And, diplomacy is a problem-solving business.

Diplomatic Connections: Minster Holm Olsen, you have been extremely generous with your time and insights.  And, you have helped our readers better understand Greenland’s 21st century place in the international community. Thank you.

FREE Digital Edition
See and read Diplomatic Connections Magazine
View Archived Digital Editions