Let’s Hide the Svalbard Treaty Before Trump Finds It

Ny-Ålesund, the mining town that become the world’s northernmost research town. (Photo: Arne O. Holm)

Donald Trump’s failed attempt at buying Greenland may make it necessary to hide the Svalbard Treaty behind lock and bars.

Preferably before the American property mogul tears this international treaty too into pieces.

- Not likely, many will argue, but even political science has to give in when attempting to predict the future.

Presupposes rationality

Just like any other social science, political science assumes a certain amount of rationality from international actors in order to analyze their actions. That is a capacity lacking in Donald Trump.

Donald Trump’s conceiving of challenging the Svalbard Treaty, following his “losing” Greenland, rests on the assumption that he knows the Treaty. I am not convinced that he does, which is why it may be a good idea to lock it in.

Should he know the Treaty, after all, that does not mean that Trump understands its significance and contents. Interpreting a nearly 100-year old treaty into the present context requires far more reasoning than Trump can normally handle, lest say tweet.

Let us briefly recap the reasons why Donald wanted to buy Greenland, as summarized here in High North News early this week:  Greenland’s geographic location, increased opportunities for American military presence, positioning in the Arctic and countering Russia and China, in addition to Greenland’s ample natural resources.

Iceland said no too

In the euphoria over his own proposal, he simultaneously revealed Trumpism’s lack of knowledge and rationality: Greenland was not for sale. If Greenland were to be sold, that would have to be decided by the Greenlanders, not the Danes.

At this stage, while the issue of buying Greenland had not been explored anywhere else but on Twitter, Trump is heading from grumpy to furious. He lashes out at the Danish prime minister and cancels a long-since planned state visit to Denmark.

A few days later, a new political climate change takes place in the Arctic. Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir refuses to meet American Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to Reykjavik.

Two Arctic islands, both with strong American military presence, are on collision course with the world most self-obsessed state leader. Trump is deeply insulted. Not on behalf of his country; on behalf of himself.

He is on collision course with friends and foes, with the South, the North and the East of the globe.  

Along the journey of this dangerous political voyage of Donald Trump’s, he has tore apart every international agreement he has been able to lay his hands on. The world’s leaders barely dare mention multinational agreements out of fear that Trump will cancel them.

Svalbard, the jewel

And that brings me back to the introduction: What would happen if Trump were to discover the Svalbard Treaty?

The Treaty’s contents aside, like Trump would always do with international agreements, Svalbard satisfies every criteria in the book that has made Trump vie for Greenland and Iceland: Svalbard’s strategic location, its rich resources, Russians have been there for a long time already and have even reopened the formerly shutdown town of Pyramiden. China is expanding both economically as well as in research on the archipelago. And Longyearbyen is ideal as a hub for civilian as well as military vessels voyaging through the Northern Sea Route.

So is there any reason why the USA would withdraw as a Svalbard Treaty signatory country? None whatsoever. On the contrary. The treaty gives the USA rights they would otherwise lose. Sovereignty and the exertion of authority rests with Norway. The Treaty also places a ban on any military activity on the archipelago.

There is little doubt about the nationality of researchers behind this entrance at one of the research stations in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. (Photo: Arne O. Holm)

But then there is that American rationality during the Trump regime. There are enough stories to go around about Russian military activity on Svalbard for it to potentially trigger Trump. It also has to be annoying, to say the least, that China increases its presence in this part of the Arctic too. In a recent hearing statement, China even expressed its dissatisfaction with Norway’s right to govern research conducted by China in Ny-Ålesund.

Norwegian occupation

It may be even more annoying to Trump that the Norwegian expansion of its continental shelf off the coast of Svalbard to 200 nautical miles, approved by the UN, does not give any rights to the Treaty signatories. It constitutes Norwegian continental shelf, not a part of the Svalbard Treaty.

The continental shelf is not officially put on the agenda by other Treaty signatories, however, if this issue is raised, Trump would more than likely receive support from e.g. Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister. He is, as we know, no big fan of international agreements nor international diplomacy.

Trump’s desire to buy Greenland came out of nowhere. The resolute ‘no’ from both Denmark and Greenland has thoroughly annoyed the American president and is now being used to put leverage on Denmark, a NATO member state.

In other words, there may be every reason to prepare for any and all scenarios from the USA regarding the future of the Arctic.

There may be every reason to prepare for any and all scenarios from the USA regarding the future of the Arctic

And since it is Friday and almost the weekend, a couple of fun facts to go:

Unlike the USA, Norway has actually attempted to occupy parts of Greenland, an occupation with clear connections to Norway’s taking over Svalbard. Denmark promised to support Norway’s claim to Svalbard if Norway waived its claim to parts of Greenland. This was a debate moving back and forth from 1919 until Denmark in 1921 declared all of Greenland to be Danish. However, in 1931, Norwegian hunters and foragers nevertheless occupied parts of East Greenland. This gave rise to Denmark’s establishing the Sirius patrol, the only military power created for the purpose of preventing Norwegian occupation of another country.

North Korea on board

And if Donald Trump were to challenge the Svalbard Treaty, one way or the other, it may be good to know that the last country to sign the Treaty so far was North Korea. That happened as late as in 2016. Given the warm-hearted relationship between dictator Kim Jong-Un and President Donald Trump, there is no science in the world that can predict what this friendship may lead to.

Have a great weekend!


This text was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.