Tag Archives: Greenland

The Greenlandic Question: An International Relations Analysis of a Post-Independence Inuit Nation

Ever since the re-founding[1] of Greenland in 1721 when Lutheran ministers were sent to convert the Greenlanders to Protestantism, Greenland has been under the Danish realm due to the legal concept of terra nullius.[2] Over the centuries, Greenlandic sovereignty has been an issue, but only very recently with respect to the Inuit, the indigenous people of Greenland. One of the most important cases regarding Greenland’s sovereignty, the Eastern Greenland case of 1933,[3] was a disagreement between Norway building a radio station on what the Danes considered to be their territory. The only reference to the Inuit was in dicta, considering them objects needing protection of a civilized state, giving their welfare to the Danish realm without considering their wishes.[4] Since that time, however, Greenland has gained steps toward independence from the Kingdom of Denmark via the U.N. Charter in 1945, which promotes self-government,[5] Home Rule in 1979, and finally self-government in 2009. The logical next step is independence, when Greenland is no longer reliant on the annual Danish block grant, and its economy stable and diversified. This would be the first time in which an indigenous-majority country would exist. This begs the question: what type of State would this nation be? Would it fall into its former colonial master’s ways of realism and adopt a Westphalian attitude or would it continue to function within the “social institutions or set of rules guiding the behavior of those engaged in identifiable social practices,”[6] such as the ICC, which plays such a large role in Inuit identity? Perhaps they could even create a yet unseen hybrid governance system.

This piece explores the realism versus institutionalism debate in a post-independent Greenland, and identifies the key arguments and inflection points that are determining which way Greenland is leaning. Not only will the author draw from current Greenlandic actions on the world stage, he will critique and contrast multiple IR authors who are viewing Greenlandic sovereignty through an incorrect lens. Section II will discuss Inuit sovereignty and institutionalism, while Section III will address realism and Greenland’s current Westphalian actions. The contribution will end with a succinct conclusion that Greenland will more than likely end up as a Westphalian state, which portends particular legal complications and a vocal minority who wish to continue to identity as Inuit.

Institutionalism and the Uniqueness of Inuit Sovereignty

Defining Inuit Institutionalism

Arguably, Greenland currently acts as an Institutionalist sub-national entity. In general, “Institutionalists share many of Realism’s assumptions about the international system— that it is anarchic, that States are self-interested, rational actors seeking to survive while increasing their material conditions, and that uncertainty pervades relations between countries. However, Institutionalism relies on microeconomic theory and game theory to reach a radically different conclusion—that co-operation between nations is possible.”[7] Greenland enacts this cooperation through various fora such as the Arctic Council by having one-third of decision-making power for the Kingdom of Denmark’s delegation along with Denmark itself and the Faroese, having their flag displayed, and even taking the lead in the Sustainable Development Working Group.[8] Most Greenlanders have representation via the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a Permanent Participant of the Arctic Council, and Greenland’s branch of the ICC has signed “A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic,” which states:

Inuit are a people. Though Inuit live across a far-reaching circumpolar region, we are united as a single people. Our sense of unity is fostered and celebrated by the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), which represents the Inuit of Denmark/Greenland, Canada, USA and Russia. As a people, we enjoy the rights of all peoples. These include the rights recognized in and by various international instruments and institutions, such as the Charter of the United Nations; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action; the Human Rights Council; the Arctic Council; and the Organization of American States.[9]

Yet, Slaughter’s definition of Institutionalism is lacking given that it is in regards to nation-states rather than pan-regional organizations, such as the ICC, and refers the reader back to a sense of nationalism, which the Inuit attempt to transcend via “cultural integrity.”[10] Shadian brings the definition of Institutionalism to the Arctic by defining a new type of indigenous institutionalism: “Inuit institutional sovereignty . . . is brought to fruition through local, regional and international institutions and economic ventures (i.e. trade agreements among Greenlandic, Canadian and Alaskan Inuit). In all, the myth and structure combined comprise the Inuit polity — a post-Westphalian contemporary representation of political organization — and, equally so, it is polities which engage in politics. Sovereignty as a concept, therefore, does not diminish nor does the state disappear. Instead, sovereignty exists as the process by which being political is possible.”[11]

We also see this neo-institutionalism within the Arctic but outside the context of Greenland. The Inuit of Canada have helped buoy the sovereignty of the State within the Arctic. Article 15 of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement which deals with marine areas adds: “Canada’s sovereignty over the waters of the Arctic Archipelago is supported by Inuit use and occupancy. Inuit have negotiated four comprehensive land claims agreements covering northern Quebec (1975), the Beaufort Sea region (1984), Nunavut (1993) and northern Labrador (2004). All support Canada’s Arctic sovereignty generally, but only the NCLA explicitly addresses Arctic sovereignty.”[12] From this example, we see the success of cooperation and the possibility of an institutional Greenland, yet it would seem to only thrive were it to be bolstering a sovereign state, such as Denmark. Many understand and appreciate the legality of such a cooperation scheme between the State and indigenous people;[13] yet is this alternative a beneficial option when independence is on the table?

Some Greenlanders do believe operating within this framework would be beneficial. Sara Olsvig, former leader of the Greenlandic political party Inuit Ataqatigitt, argues that the while the Self-Government Act[14] implements many of the principles of the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it does not comply with one hundred percent of its tenets.[15] “Olsvig expresses frustration that now they are finally in a position to be able implement [all] of them because of self-government, [yet] they do not do so but instead claim they no longer apply.”[16] Therefore, some Greenlanders in the political elite still wish to follow the neo-institutionalist regime despite the self-government’s claims. The argument of the self-government is that it is the democratic representation of all Greenlanders, their consent through an election is the consent of all, indigenous and non-indigenous.[17] As Johnstone explains, “this is a pretty thin form of consent. In fact, it is a very western representative democracy kind of consent.”[18]  While we see the ICC as a thought leader and bridge builder for the Inuit and perhaps one of the best examples of Oran Young’s neo-institutionalism at work in the Arctic, it is not without its fault within the contemporary landscape.

Limitations of Inuit Sovereignty for Greenland via Institutionalism

The limitations to the neo-institutionalism regime of Oran Young within the Arctic occurs as it falls into the trap known as the “pragmatic approach, focusing on questions of . . . what is likely to occur.[19] Rather than the pragmatic or prescriptive approach, championed by Icelandic scholar Guðmundur Alfredsson, where questions of what should occur predominate,[20] the functional approach, “which seeks to analyze what does occur (in governance) and to understand the processes of decision-making”[21] is the most useful for a future Greenland IR analysis. Thierry Rodon is an example of such a political scientist in this camp.[22] These functionalists have created an analytical framework to assess success in international governance:

(1) effectiveness defined as mitigation or removal of specific problems; (2) political participation, highlighting changes in participation and influence in decision making on Arctic affairs; and (3) region building understood as contributions by Arctic institutions to denser functional or discursive connectedness among the inhabitants of the region.[23]

In the next section on realism, reflect on the following question: does a new consciousness, as desired by the ICC,[24] trump the establishment of a new country trying to navigate its nascent geopolitical reality? In reviewing the three goals of the functionalists, the next section will outline Greenland’s successes in those areas and show Greenland has been trending toward the realist model rather than the neo-institutionalist model.

III. Realist Actions and Trends Within Greenland

Realism Defined and Actions Taken

Slaughter defines Realism as the following:

States are sovereign and thus autonomous of each other; no inherent structure or society can emerge or even exist to order relations between them. They are bound only by forcible → coercion or their own → consent. In such an anarchic system, State power is the key—indeed, the only—variable of interest, because only through power can States defend themselves and hope to survive. Realism can understand power in a variety of ways—eg militarily, economically, diplomatically—but ultimately emphasizes the distribution of coercive material capacity as the determinant of international politics.[25]

Put more simply, States can only rely on themselves for survival and are skeptical of international institutions. Greenland is already looking toward the future and scholars have already begun exploring Greenland’s future. The regime of 2010 was already looking ahead towards independence and already was adopting realist attitudes:

[P]redominately Inuit leadership in Greenland has fixed its gaze on a further, though still distant goal [of] full independence. This attitude was often repeated in interviews I conducted with Greenlandic government officials and other Greenlandic political actors in the summer of 2010. Interestingly, in embracing this position the political role of the ICC is also seen as significantly diminished . . . for instance, the ICC’s significance for Greenland is essentially that of being an international advocacy group responsible for Inuit cultural preservation. Yet, it is the Greenlandic government, according to this official, that must strive to achieve greater sovereignty for the Inuit of Greenland through the establishment of an independent Greenlandic nation-state.[26]

When looking at the three goals of functionalism from the previous section, the Realist model is dominating. In the first problem of mitigating or solving an issue, an example can be seen in Greenland’s Home Rule Act of 1979. Working through the EEC, an international/institutionalist organization, Greenland (due to Denmark) was subject to the Common Fisheries Policy, which highly damaged their main source of income. Seeing their way of life threatened, the Greenlanders looked to the Faroe Islands, which already had Home Rule and did not accede to the EEC.[27] Upon receiving Home Rule in 1979, Greenland voted in 1982 to leave the EEC and created in 1985 a “bespoke treaty that retained access of the European fleet to certain fisheries in exchange for tariff-free access to the European market for Greenland-caught first and EEC financial support.”[28] Therefore goal one of the functionalists was supported through Greenland’s own actions rather than an international regime. While it may be argued the 1985 treaty showed Greenland’s acceptance of international institutions, they only entered it for their own survival and profit; a more realist objective.

In the second issue, political participation, highlighting changes in participation and influence in decision making on Arctic affairs, we again see Greenland adopting a realist attitude. It has been noted that moves are being made and sovereignty games are already being played in order “to adjust the boundary for what Greenland may do internationally by altering the level of representation, hence contributing to the process towards fulfilling the ideal national self-image of transforming the postcolonial hierarchy into one of sovereign equality.”[29] While sovereignty games are merely heuristic devices, they provide insight into the future actions of the specific player. Especially within the foreign policy realm, Greenland can act both within the school of realism and institutionalism in order to obtain the goals of realism, particularly within the Arctic Council:

In addition to the Danish Realm’s delegation, Greenland has two other channels for representation in the Arctic Council. The first is via the permanent participation of the ICC which pleads for Indigenous Peoples’ rights and takes a more critical stance on hydrocarbon exploitation and the state-centered sovereignty perspective. The other is via the West Nordic Council which was welcomed as an observer at the Fairbanks Ministerial meeting in 2017. In this parliamentary cooperation, Greenland and the Faroe Islands act on an equal footing with the sovereign state of Iceland, sharing the same past as a former Danish colony and often mentioned as a role model for future Greenlandic state formation. The extra channels of representation expand the number of possible moves in the game as Greenland representatives may both put forward their opinions as a member state, a permanent participant and an observer, hence gaining more influence in the Arctic Council and enhancing Greenland’s foreign policy sovereignty on the Arctic governance stage.[30]

In the third issue, region building understood as contributions by Arctic institutions to denser functional or discursive connectedness among the inhabitants of the region, one must understand that participation is for power and that such entrance into international institutions would be for one’s own nation state rather than progression of the cultural integrity of the Inuit in the Arctic, although Greenland is not so callous to believe those ideals to be mutually exclusive. Again, self-interest rules the day “as the Greenlandic government’s approach to the issue of sovereignty is ultimately grounded on an acceptance, even an unquestioned assumption, of the validity of a Westphalian political ontology. This is not to say that the Greenlandic authorities do not recognize how the ICC’s tactics of a circumpolar Inuit strategy have helped the Inuit in their respective areas promote greater autonomy, yet the idea and the subsequent practice of sovereignty persists as an ideal, and it does so via the scalar construct of the nation-state.”[31] In this sense, it would only make sense that Greenland join the EEC, Arctic Council, and others as an individual state rather than as a stronger voice for the ICC or the Inuit in general. If synergies are to be found, they will be used but rather as leverage than out of a sense of Inuit heritage.[32]

For example, Greenland’s entrance into the natural resource extraction regime to see “the desire for full sovereignty on the part of the Greenlanders . . . as grounded on a realist inspired belief that full sovereignty means possessing complete command over the laws and rules that are instituted.”[33] For example, in 2013, the Parliament of Greenland voted and overturned the zero-tolerance policy on mining and radioactive materials by a single vote, therefore welcoming multinational conglomerates to stake out mines despite strong protests not only within Greenland but with Denmark as Denmark gave mineral rights to Greenland but viewed uranium as a security issue (over which Denmark has control).[34] Therefore, within all three of the functional governance targets, Greenland best uses the Realist perspective while bringing in its Institutional capacity as needed to further its goals. Greenland has positioned itself wisely as a strong Arctic player with the IR capacity to negotiate beneficial treaties and alignments were it to become independent.

Legal Pitfalls of Adopting the Westphalian Attitude

The major question in this area becomes one, again, of sovereignty. While there is no set definition of indigenous peoples, the presence of ILO 169 and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples agree that one key concept is they “consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories . . .”[35] Would this mean that Greenlanders lose their indigeneity based on concepts of international law? One scholar believes so as “[i]ncreasingly in international affairs, the Greenland Self-Government is rejecting the indigenous label altogether at least in cases where the extent the Greenland Self-Government represents itself (rather than being represented by the Kingdom of Denmark), preferring, for example, to the use the ‘traditional knowledge’ rather than ‘indigenous knowledge.’”[36] Such actions may not speak for all Greenlanders but were this to continue to be the government position, along with Inuit being the predominant demographic, Greenland risks losing its indigenous status under certain interpretations of International Law treaties.

Not only would this hurt self-identifying indigenous peoples within Greenland, it arguably creates new legal obligations for Nuuk or what I will refer to as Western Greenland. There are arguably two other minorities within Greenland that are recognized by the ICC:  North Greenlanders and East Greenlanders.[37] They were colonized much later, as North Greenland was discovered by the Peary expeditions, and the United States recognized Danish sovereignty over them in 1916.[38] Eastern Greenland was known by other Inuit but were not visited until 1883 by Gustav Holm and their Inuit guides from southern Greenland.[39] At the very least, they are linguistic minorities (Tunumiit Oraasiat in the East with 3000 speakers and Inuktun in the North with 1000 speakers).

It has been asked why these are dialects rather than languages when they are incomprehensible to one another, unlike “so-called ‘Scandinavian.’”[40] Furthermore, the cultures and traditions of hunting and clothing differ.[41] This question has yet to be addressed by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, The UN Human Rights Committee, nor the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, yet neither Denmark nor Greenland acknowledge these groups’ legal, distinctive indigeneity despite signing the ILO 169 Convention.[42] If these groups are indigenous peoples within Greenland, the self-government must guarantee for them the rights that the West Greenlanders used to demand against the Kingdom of Demark . . . an insistence on the unity of the Greenlandic people risk the very assimilationist practices that have scarred Inuit . . . for generations.”[43]

  1. Conclusion

While such concrete analyses of IR framework futures prove useful, they are rarely fully accurate. Perhaps the best explanation of Greenland’s development will be one described by Rógvi, who receives criminally little attention in Arctic academic literature, whose analysis of Faroese governance shows in a similar fashion the coherence of governance processes and the logic of its development through time as Greenland.[44] The better functioning aspects of Faroese governance such as fish-farming, employment services, taxation and pelagic fisheries are seen as the results of trial and error, of evolved law and structures and vigorous debate, and not the results of planning or legal transplants.[45] Greenland will probably follow a similar trial and error method in achieving greater autonomy, even post-independence as it finds its footing in the international landscape.

However, it is this author’s belief that Greenland’s autonomy will be in line with Westphalian state actors rather than in accordance of an institutional supra-national Inuit identity. However, there are critics of this idea. Despite the evidence presented above, “the Greenlandic government must be recognized as pursuing a nationalism, or Greenlandization, that is distinct, although not necessarily exclusionary of, a broader suprastate Inuit nationalism.”[46] Nuttal’s viewpoint in 1994 strikes the author as unduly idealistic and detached from the current political developments given its age, yet it opens up the door for a creative hybridization that is worthy of future exploration. While perhaps Realism is best for most Greenlanders, it may be a loss for the Inuit as a people, with the possibility that Nuuk becomes the new Copenhagen for those outlying areas of Greenland. However, this agrees with Gerhardt, who stated “the ICC’s struggle over the years for self-determination is very much a struggle against the hierarchical power structure that has been imposed on them. Yet, this author contends that the political path taken by the Greenlandic indigenous people is not something that we, as outsiders, can or should judge.”[47] As said by The Who, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”[48] One can only hope Greenlanders would not shackle themselves with something similar to the chains of their past colonizing oppressors as an independent nation by having Nuuk engage in neo-Copenhagenesque actions.


[1] Norsemen from Iceland arrived in waves between the 10th and 15th centuries, yet those settlements were found abandoned in 1721 by the missionary Hans Egede.

[2] See Johnstone, Rachael Lorna, “The Impact of International Law on Natural Resource Governance in Greenland,” Polar Record (May 30, 2019).

[3] Eastern Greenland Case (Denmark v. Norway). (1933). Permanent Court of International Justice. PCIJ Series A/B, No. 53, 1933.

[4] Id.

[5] Charter of the United Nations. (1945). Adopted 26 June 1945, entered into force 24 October 1945. United Nations Treaty Series 1, XVI.

[6] Young, Oran, International Governance: Protecting the Environment In a Stateless Society. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. (1994).

[7] Slaughter, Anne-Marie, “International Relations, Principal Theories,” at pg. 2, published in: Wolfrum, R. (Ed.) Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (Oxford University Press, 2011).

[8] See Jacobsen, Marc, “Greenland’s Arctic Advantage: Articulations, Acts and Appearances of Sovereignty Games,” SAGE Journal, (Oct. 23, 2019), at pg. 10.

[9] “A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic,” The Inuit Circumpolar Council, at §1.3 (April 2009) available at https://www.itk.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Declaration_12x18_Vice-Chairs_Signed.pdf (last viewed April 14, 2020) (emphasis in original).

[10] Shadian, Jessica, “From States to Polities: Reconceptualizing Sovereignty Through Inuit Governance,” European Journal of International Relations, at pg. 12, (Sept. 2010).

[11] Id. at pg. 18.

[12] Fenge, Terry, “Inuit and Nunavut Claim: Supporting Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty,” Policy Options, at pg. 86, (2007-08).

[13] See Etok, Charles, “Science and the Indigenous Arctic – Legal basis for Inuit Sovereignty in the Circumpolar Region,” Center For World Indigenous Studies Publication Catalogue, (1993), available at http://www.nzdl.org/cgi-bin/library.cgi?e=d-00000-00—off-0ipc–00-0—-0-10-0—0—0direct-10—4——-0-1l–11-en-50—20-about—00-0-1-00-0-0-11-1-0utfZz-8-00&cl=CL1.11&d=HASH9f65bfef129d64203dcf42&x=1 (last checked April 14, 2020).

[14] The contribution is to reflect only on the actions and desires of the ruling class (Self-Government and Parliament) within Greenland when they enact certain anti-Inuit policies for Greenland’s benefit. This contribution by no means independence will change all Greenlandic individuals’ views of their heritage and prevent the millennia of cooperation and friendship they share with those from Chukotka, Alaska, and Canada.

[15] See Johnstone, note 2 supra, at pg. 6.

[16] Id.

[17] See id.

[18] Id.

[19] Pelaudeix, Cécile, “What is ‘Arctic Governance’? A Critical Assessment of the Diverse Meanings of ‘Arctic Governance’” The Yearbook of Polar Law VI, at pg. 412 (2015) (emphasis in original).

[20] See id. at pg. 415.

[21] Id. at pg. 418 (emphasis in original).

[22] See id.

[23] Id. at pg. 419.

[24] Stenbaek, M., “Arctic Policy — Blueprint for an Inuit Homeland,” Etudes/Inuit/Studies 9(2), pg. 9 (1985).

[25] Slaughter, note 7 supra, at pg. 1.

[26] Gerhardt, Hannes, “The Inuit and Sovereignty: The Case of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and Greenland,” Tidsskriftet Politik, pg. 10, (April 2011).

[27] See Johnstone, note 2 supra, at pg. 4.

[28] Id.

[29] Jacobsen, note 8 supra, at pg. 4.

[30] Id. at pg. 10 (internal citations omitted).

[31] Gerhardt, note 26 supra, at pg. 10.

[32] See note 14 supra.

[33] Id.

[34] See Vestergaard, C., & Thomasen, G., “Governing Uranium in the Danish Realm,” Report (2006). Danish Institute for International Studies, available at https://www.diis.dk/en/research/governing-uranium-in-the-realm (last viewed April 14, 2020).

[35] Martinez, Cobo J., “Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations,” Report, New York:  United Nations. U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1986/7 Add. 4 at. para. 379 (1987).

[36] Johnstone, note 2 supra, at pg. 6.

[37] See ICC Declaration, note 9 supra.

[38] See Nonbo, Andersen A., “Restorative Justice and the Greenlandic Reconciliation Process,” Yearbook of Polar Law (2019).

[39] See Thalbitzer, W., Andrup,G.C., & Holm, G.F., The Ammassalik Eskimo: Contributions to the Ethnology of the East Greenland Natives, vol. 1-2 (Meddelelser om Grønland). (Bianco Luna:  Copenhagen) (English Translation) (1914).

[40] See Johnstone, note 2 supra, at pg. 6 (citing personal communication with Tukumminnguaq Nykjær Olsen).

[41] See id. at pp. 6-7.

[x42] See Ngiviu, T., “The Inughuit of Northwest Greenland: An Unacknowledged Indigenous People,” Yearbook of Polar Law, Vol. 6, pp. 142-161, available at doi:  10.1163/18768814_006 (last viewed April 14, 2020).

[43] Johnstone, note 2 supra, at pg. 7.

[44] Kári á Rógvi, “Faroese Governance,” in Polar Law Textbook II, (Ed. Natalia Loukacheva), pp. 215–240, (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers) (2013), available at http://norden.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:701016/FULLTEXT01.pdf (last viewed April 14, 2020).

[45] See id.

[46] Nuttall, M., “Greenland: Emergence of an Inuit Homeland,” published in Polar Peoples: Self-determination and Development, (Minority Rights Group, London), pg. 24, (1994).

[47] Gerhardt, note 26 supra, at pg. 12.

[48] The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Who’s Next, Track and Decca Records (Released 25 June 1971).

High Stakes in the High North: Alternative Models for Greenland’s Ongoing Constitutional and Political Transformation

To the surprise of many two years ago, the global media and diplomatic community went into a frenzy after the Wall Street Journal published an article about then President Trump’s keen interest in purchasing Greenland from Denmark, generating worldwide headlines comparable to those that greeted Secretary of State William H. Seward when word leaked out of his 1867 secret treaty with Russia to purchase its ailing Alaskan colony, a move widely ridiculed as “Seward’s folly” (but which proved to be enormously prescient). News of Trump’s Sewardian interest in Greenland generated an immediate critical reaction in both Greenland, where a movement for increased autonomy and a gradual, incremental evolution toward sovereign independence has had majority support for many years, as well as Denmark, leading to a brief display of diplomatic sparks between Denmark and its American ally. As Greenland’s foreign minister Ane Lone Bagger put it, “We are open for business, but we’re not for sale.” Prudently, Greenland’s leaders, while vehemently opposed to the idea floated by Trump, nonetheless embraced the immediate (and sustained) rise in attention his proposal elicited, and in the months that followed, enjoyed multiple benefits associated with America’s rekindled interest in the world’s largest island, including fast-tracking the re-opening of a U.S. consulate in Nuuk for the first time since 1953.

At 2.13 million square kilometers, Greenland is equal in size to the combined areas of the world’s next three largest islands: New Guinea (785,753 square km), Borneo (748,168 square km) and Madagascar (587,041 square km), occupying a strategic location along the northeastern flank of North America comparable to Alaska’s position in the far northwest with a comparable geostrategic importance for hemispheric security, one recognized during World War II, again in the Cold War, and now once again as the polar thaw invites increased global interest in the Arctic. While Greenland has long been a colony of Denmark, its formal governing status has evolved in recent years from outright colonial governance toward more collaborative Home-Rule governance in 1979 to, in the wake of its 2008 referendum on autonomy and independence that garnered overwhelming (75.54%) support of Greenland’s electorate, to increasingly robust and meaningful Self-Rule in 2009 – with a path toward peaceful secession mutually endorsed by both colony and colonizer.

Roots of Greenlandic Autonomy: The Circumpolar Inuit Rights Movement

A key driver of this movement for increasing autonomy has been the steady empowerment of the island’s majority Inuit population – part of a wider, circumpolar movement for Inuit rights spearheaded by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), renamed the Inuit Circumpolar Council in 2006. This movement includes, and for many has been defined by, securing the protection of Inuit land rights through various mechanisms, such as the land claims process in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic which has formally transferred land title to approximately one-tenth the land in Arctic North America to the Inuit along with a variety of co-management tools to protect those lands and its recourses (in contrast to the Russian Arctic, where in the absence of gaining land title, there has instead been a more limited use of joint-venture economic development projects, occasionally augmented by the creation of national parks in the absence of a formal restoration of land title to Native ownership). In addition to regaining (and formalizing) land rights, the Inuit rights movements has sought, and successfully strengthened, the preservation and revitalization of Inuit culture and language, along with the increasing empowerment of Inuit through greater self-governing powers, with notable achievements in both Alaska and the Canadian Arctic in addition to Greenland.

The movement for autonomy in Greenland, and the collaborative path toward its eventual independence with the support of Denmark, is both part of this circumpolar movement and distinct from it, as noted by Hannes Gerhardt in 2011, and takes inspiration in part from the pioneering gains of the Arctic’s evolving experience with Inuit land claims, starting with the historic Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 which jumpstarted the process of Inuit-State reconciliation, and continuing through subsequent revisions as land claims were sequentially settled across Arctic North America until 2005, over three decades later. But at the same time, the constitutional and historical context for the Inuit rights movement in Greenland is markedly different from on the mainland of Arctic North America, with a colonial system largely in place, albeit with much increased autonomy. It is this asymmetry of constitutional and historical contexts that has propelled Greenland on what Gerhardt describes as a Westphalian trajectory, toward the emergence of what would be the first truly sovereign majority-Inuit state.[1]

ANCSA was the first land claim to transform the political geography of the North, and while it had many structural flaws and imperfections, it laid a foundation from which Arctic land claims continued to evolve, with each new iteration providing the Inuit with greater powers, increasingly augmenting Inuit self-governing powers, first through the integration of co-management with a land settlement, and later with the integration of self-government (initially via public governance models, and later – in the 2005 Labrador Inuit (Nunatsiavut) Land Claim – embracing ethnically-defined Inuit self-government.[2] Outside of Greenland, these iterations have been constitutionally subordinated to the sovereign states governing the Arctic region, with Inuit autonomy defined either municipally, regionally or territorially, but always subordinates to constitutional supremacy of the sovereign state itself. But in the case of Greenland, there is for the first time a process in which sovereign independence is a distinct possibility, as mutually recognized by both Greenlanders and the Danish state.

How this movement toward independence evolves, and the diverse constitutional forms the emergent sovereign Greenlandic state may potentially take, has generally not been discussed in great detail in the academic literature or press, apart from being the logical conclusion to the incremental approach to expanded Greenlandic autonomy that has taken place thus far, and thus with sovereignty limited to the island of Greenland itself, and not generally in any other form, expanded or diminished in geographic scope. But this does not mean that Greenland’s independence will remain confined by its present geography, and that over time we won’t see other manifestations of Inuit sovereignty and configurations of Inuit state extent emerge. This article presents a preliminary discussion of some of these variants, primarily sovereign or co-sovereign models that may at the present time seem highly improbable. Because the future of Greenland, and the ultimate extent of Inuit sovereignty asserted, is of such great importance to the stability of the High North Atlantic region and to North American security, it is vital that we consider all possible models and outcomes. The following paper is a preliminary effort to elucidate these possibilities.

Climate Consequences: Energizing the Inuit Rights Movement

Adding urgency to the contemporary circumpolar Inuit rights movement, with roots firmly planted in the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, has been the dramatic and volatile effects of the polar thaw, bringing global attention to a region that has, since the Cold War, been largely neglected. What was once something of a niche field understudied by international relations and strategic studies scholars has, since the polar thaw become a topic of global attention from the lay-public to the highest levels of governance, becoming front and center to not only study, but policy formulation and strategy development around the world – so much so that numerous non-Arctic states have their own Arctic policies, and non-Arctic observer states now outnumber the Arctic member states on the Arctic Council, the post-Cold War international regime that collaboratively overseas the Arctic region on a number of non-defense and non-security issues areas. Growing global interest in the Arctic brings along new diplomatic challenges, most recently the rise of China and its assertions of a special “near-Arctic” status aligned with its “Polar Silk Road” initiative which was noted in the 2019 United States Coast Guard Arctic Strategic Outlook, along with other U.S. policy papers and strategy documents, as particularly concerning.

The results of these competing interests in the near as well as more distant future are exceedingly difficult to predict, so considering a wide range of scenarios is essential. For instance, a determined China could develop regional alliances and dependencies through strategic capital infusions to the sovereign island-states of the High North Atlantic, which owing to their exceedingly small populations remain vulnerable to rapid demographic upheavals resulting from a small number of development projects staffed by overseas contractors – resulting in a potential stealth invasion of the region. Iceland, with a population around 364,000 and a long sovereign experience, far more resilient to such an external demographic threat, though were Iceland to break from NATO and pursue a non-aligned future, its vulnerability could increase. Greenland, while part of the Kingdom of Denmark, likewise remains embedded in a solid alliance architecture, but with only 56,000 people could, once it becomes independent, become highly vulnerable to external pressures, whether economic, demographic, or even military.

Similarly, with Russia resurgent and its recently illustrated appetite for foreign intervention (following its annexation of Crimea, incursion in Eastern Ukraine, and military interventions from Libya to Syria), and the renewed specter of a clash with NATO over the small Baltic states, or potentially, the non-aligned northern European states, scenarios of extreme instability in the High North Atlantic can also again be envisioned. In short, global interest in the Arctic introduces new risks which could in time threaten the hemispheric security of North America. This follows a long period that with few exceptions was marked by a steadiness and predictability; the pre-thaw Arctic region was more a strategic buffer in world politics that – even at the height of the Cold War – was defined foremost by its stability. The movement for Inuit rights emerged during this period of calm, and the incrementally increasing empowerment of the Inuit proceeded with the same stability during a half-century of policy innovation that began with ANCSA, culminated with the formation of the Nunavut Territory in 1999, and achieving its conclusion on the mainland of Arctic North America with the passage of the Labrador Inuit (Nunatsiavut) Land Claim in 2005.

Were the strategic and geographic landscape to remain stable and largely free of uncertainty, the emergence of a sovereign and independent Greenland would likely continue the current mutually amicable autonomy process and its multi-decade incrementalism further, and not upend regional geopolitics. But because of the dynamic uncertainties of the polar thaw, and the return of Westphalian state competition to the Arctic region in recent years, the potential independence of Greenland becomes instead a strategic wildcard needing to be closely studied and pro-actively engaged to ensure a future sovereign Greenland maintains the close, collaborative and friendly relationship with the United States and the West, optimally as part of NATO, that it currently pursues as a constituent component of Denmark.[3]

Alternate Models for a Post-Denmark Greenland: ‘Thinking About the Unthinkable’ Once Again

While most conversations regarding Greenland’s constitutional evolution, at least those  prior to the Trump White House’s surprise overture to purchase the island from Denmark, consider Greenland’s continuing movement for increasing autonomy strictly within the context of peaceful, and negotiated, Danish constitutional politics, there is good reason to consider alternative scenarios not widely discussed – including scenarios of a broader Inuit secession from the states that now assert constitutional authority over Inuit lands catalyzed by Greenland’s successes thus far.

The Inuit homeland has, in contrast to the more complex and diverse subarctic region, a cohesive ethno-political culture, and while it has until now deftly adapted its aspirations for the many different sovereign polities whose borders intersect the Inuit homeland, it is conceivable that as the prospect of formal independence grows for Greenlandic Inuit, the appetite for enhanced autonomy elsewhere, such as in neighboring Nunavut, northern Labrador (Nunatsiavut), Canada’s Western Arctic (the Inuvialuit settlement region), and Alaska’s North Slope, may grow in lockstep. It is imperative to thus ask: What if Nunavut and/or other Inuit regions join Greenland in a coordinated secession movement, or – in the face of successful lobbying by either party or a groundswell of support at home, Greenland decides to change sovereigns, and join either Canada or the United States? While these scenarios may seem unlikely, prior to 1989 one did not hear comparable discussions of a collapse of the Warsaw Pact, breakup of Yugoslavia, or implosion of the Soviet empire before events rapidly spiraled out of control, radically transforming the constitutional fabric of eastern Europe. With the prospect of an Inuit state ultimately and amicably emerging from the negotiated constitutional dialogue between Greenland and Denmark, the consequential implications of this profound and catalyzing transformation must not be overlooked. As Herman Kahn reminded us during the Cold War, it is now essential to think about the unthinkable. Below are what Kahn might dub relevant “metaphors and scenarios” to consider.

Joining Canada and its Exemplary Constitutional Embrace of Indigenous Rights

Were Greenland to change sovereigns rather than seek formal independence, there is much logic to the notion of Greenland selecting Canada as its new constitutional partner – finding in the Nunavut model of territorial self-governance aligned with a land claim treaty many potential benefits well-suited to its needs, and a refreshing break from its current colonial governing structure. Joining Canada is not without precedent: the province of Newfoundland and Labrador did so as late as 1949, around the time the United States was contemplating its own acquisition of Greenland – bringing under the Canadian constitution not only the island of Newfoundland, but the northern coastal territory of Labrador, home to several thousand Inuit who serendipitously are among the most recent beneficiaries of a comprehensive land claim treaty with Ottawa – presenting a logical path for Greenland to follow. Imagining how such a scenario could unfold will require much further study, and would depend, in part, on the emergence of a transnational movement for Inuit unification that, as of now, has not taken root in either Greenland or Nunavut. Should such a movement arise, and for it to succeed, Denmark would have to agree to Greenland’s departure and to Canada’s expansion (as would Canada) unless it were to occur in two separate steps sufficiently paced to forestall Denmark’s opposition – a scenario that may seem extremely unlikely today, but which, in a situation of war in northern Europe, might become more feasible.

Indeed, before Trump’s unsolicited overture, Canada seemed the more likely alternative sovereign partner for Greenland, given the advances achieved by Canadian Inuit through their dynamic mixture of comprehensive land claims, robust co-management, and increasingly powerful self-government processes as well as the long, close collaboration between Greenlandic and Canadian Inuit at the ICC. In recent years, Inuit leaders have expressed much dissatisfaction with Ottawa’s commitment to fulfilling the promises of Nunavut, turning to the courts in frustration on multiple occasions, and in 2006 calling for the moral intervention of famed jurist Thomas Berger, to many Canadian natives the conscience of Canada. More recently, native rail blockages across Canada have re-inflamed long-simmering tensions between the indigenous and settler communities in Canada, straining recent reconciliation efforts of the Trudeau government, a situation that will likely be even further inflamed by the recent discovery of a mass grave at a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. Amidst such circumstances, one can no longer presume that Canada, by default, would be the only logical choice for Greenlandic Inuit should they seek to change sovereigns.

Joining the USA: Not Necessarily as Illogical or Ahistorical as Many Think

Indeed, Trump’s unexpected interest in Greenland may – despite the initially critical response to his surprise overture to purchase the island – provide an alternative to choosing between joining Canada or remaining part of Denmark, with Alaska’s transition from territory to state serving as alternative model for Greenland’s future. Such a possibility, of Greenland joining the United States in a constitutional union not unlike that of Alaska, is a scenario that has been considered at the highest levels of the U.S. Government before, particularly in the immediate aftermath of World War II, during which Greenland was an American protectorate and its strategic significance the coming Cold War was keenly appreciated. Such a tectonic shift in North America’s sovereign political geography is uncommon now, and it has been a century and a half since a change of similar magnitude directly affected the United States, when, in 1867, Alaska was purchased from Russia – a move that was widely criticized at the time as a great “folly” but which, in the years since, has contributed much to American security, particularly since World War II. But it’s more frequent, and recent, than many would think, with the aforementioned entry of Newfoundland and Labrador to Canada’s confederation.

And while political leaders in both Greenland and Copenhagen quickly insisted that Trump’s idea was without merit, and inconsistent with their own step-by-step process of decolonization under way in addition to the very needle of history, Greenlandic officials did subsequently, and enthusiastically, embrace America’s renewed diplomatic and economic interest in what had largely been an overlooked Cold War outpost rediscovered amidst the dynamic flux and strategic uncertainty of the polar thaw, and the consequent (and significant) rise in high-profile official delegations to and from Greenland including an accelerated re-opening of an American consulate in Nuuk, the first since 1953, in addition to high profile visits by leading members of America’s strategic and diplomatic community, culminating in the May 14, 2021 visit by current U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken – notably via Copenhagen, and with the Kingdom’s official blessing (and an in-person greeting once arrived on the island by Denmark’s foreign minister and both Greenland’s premier and foreign minister) in contrast to the unilateral nature of the Trump initiative.[4]

Supporters of the Trump’s Greenland purchase initiative, few as they were, noted the increasing strategic importance of Greenland in a thawing Arctic, part of a wider process of Arctic integration with the world economy and its geostrategic architecture under way for many years, with roots dating back to the colonial era when Arctic furs and whale oil fueled the economies of both the New World and Old. They also understood it was a backdoor approach to recognizing the strategic implications of climate change in an administration that did not formally or publicly acknowledge global warming. Indeed, the economic integration of Arctic resources with the global economy is not only a contemporary phenomenon accelerated by climate change, but an historic one dating back centuries with deep and enduring roots. During the Gold Rush era, the mineral potential of the Far North would be equally recognized for its strategic-economic value (leading to a brief demographic imbalance in the Yukon Territory, with more Americans in the Klondike than Canadians, and Ottawa rightly concerned there could be instability and potentially a secession risk); and in the twentieth century, with the advent of air power, the strategic-military value of the region was recognized for its own sake, while its energy and mineral resources continued to be highly sought after by all of the Arctic states, driving a new wave of northern resource development.

During World War II, thousands of U.S. soldiers were stationed across the North, building the strategic Alaska-Canada (Alcan) highway, the lesser-known Canol road, a slew of air bases, and protecting the vital Northwest Staging Route ferrying Lend-Lease aircraft to the Eastern Front, where the Nazi military onslaught was, at great sacrifice by America’s Russian war-time partner, brought to a halt. At the same time, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Greenland Patrol defended Greenland, which came under America’s direct military protection after Denmark fell to the Germans, from becoming a North American beach head for further Nazi advances – indeed, the specter of Greenland falling, and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence becoming vulnerable to Nazi conquest, would concern war planners until the machinery of the Nazi state was decisively demolished. It wasn’t long after World War II came to an end that President Truman floated the idea of purchasing Greenland from Denmark for $100 million, an idea that Time Magazine endorsed for its strategic wisdom the very next year, with widespread encouragement from war planners who recognized Greenland’s strategic prominence for the post-war world.

During the Cold War, the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line was built across the Inuit homeland, protecting the North American continent from strategic bomber assault, the Thule air base augmented American air power in the region, and an American consulate in Nuuk helped to reinforce America’s presence. The waters off both Greenland and Iceland, the famed Greenland-Iceland-UK (G-I-UK) gap, would come to play a central role during the U.S.-Soviet confrontation and in America’s forward maritime strategy near the Cold War’s end. Soon after the Cold War ended, columnist and foreign affairs expert Walter Russell Mead proposed in all seriousness, in his July 1992 column in the LA Times, to purchase Siberia from Boris Yeltsin’s Russia for $1-2 trillion USD.

While the outright purchase of such a large portion of the globe is now  uncommon, and due to this relative infrequency is widely perceived to be better-suited to the world of yesteryear than that of today, it wasn’t all that long ago that large-scale shifts in borders were more the norm and less the exception. And in today’s world, so much is in flux, and let’s not forget that it was only a half-dozen years ago that Crimea quickly fell to Moscow’s expansionist ambitions, experiencing a rapid annexation by a resurgent Russia – changing hands largely without bloodshed (in contrast to the subsequent contest for eastern Ukraine), suggesting that such tectonic shifts in political geography do remain possible, and in some cases, might even contribute to geopolitical stability. It is thus conceivable that in a future world, Greenland’s union with the United States could again be envisioned.

It is no secret that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been fortifying his vast Arctic territories, with mothballed military bases unused since the Cold War period undergoing a recent and ongoing strategic refurbishment on a scale comparable to Beijing’s fortifications of contested islands in the South China Sea, gaining increasing strategic attention and media coverage – as both Russia and China seek to expand their global military influence and to secure their most proximate island chains.[5] There is every reason to expect the U.S. to do much the same, by strengthening its own strategic architecture and re-fortifying its own proximate island chains along its ramparts, from the Aleutian Islands guarding the Bering Strait, to the Canadian Arctic archipelago standing watch over North America’s northern flank, to the islands that anchor the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap. America’s rekindled interest in Greenlandic security, along with the return of U.S. forces to Iceland (now on a rotating basis), reflect this strategic re-awakening, as does its icebreaker modernization program, the Polar Security Cutter (PSC) Program. Thinking ahead to a more fluid geopolitical world, and toward the protection of the more isolated island outposts in the Far North that remain vulnerable in such a world, is a prudent exercise given the perceived risks associated with both increasing state rivalry in the Arctic, and of Arctic climate change.

Exchanging Colonial Sovereigns: An Alternative to Independence

To imagine a hypothetical world in which Greenland might become an American territory, on a path toward statehood not unlike that which Alaska followed, is to imagine a world in which North America is more secure and united than it is today. Greenlandic Inuit, who suffer from a long legacy of neglect and whose colonial experience, despite recent gains in autonomy, has not been entirely positive, particularly in the smaller and more remote villages lacking basic infrastructure and economic opportunities, could indeed stand to benefit in multiple ways.

First and foremost, the defense of Greenland in time of war would be strengthened by its constitutional integration into the U.S. polity, much the way Alaska’s has been since its purchase, and this alone could deter war from ever taking place. That the legacy of Russian colonialism, which under the RAC was brutal and exploitative, could be gradually reversed in Alaska over time – where particularly since the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 and the subsequent Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, gains by Alaska natives have been notable, even if still a work in progress – is illustrative of the changes we can expect in such a hypothetical future.

While Greenland’s gradual process of increasing autonomy and decolonization under Danish rule would be up-ended by such a change of sovereigns, a mutually positive outcome of a U.S. purchase could be a win-win for both Greenlanders and for America. There would have to consent to such an exchange of sovereigns, to be sure, and that would require a referendum to be held. But, once the people of Greenland make their choice, if they choose to join the United States in union, it would be an historically transformative event on a scale of the Alaska purchase, and with the same long-term potential strategic and economic benefits. It may not be likely, and at the moment is not under consideration by either the U.S.,  the Danes or the Greenlanders. Indeed, it may well have been just a brief flirtation, and not a long-term strategic commitment of the President’s, and thus different from, say, Secretary of State William H. Seward’s embrace of Alaska as a critical component of America’s expansion. But it is no less a scenario worthy of study.

Because the globalized world is vastly different from the colonial world, however, it would require additional parameters be met than required for the Alaska purchase. Like with the Alaska purchase, which Russia welcomed for the financial relief it provided, as well as its reduction in strategic pressure with the century-old United States providing a much-needed buffer between the British Empire in North America and the remaining territory of mother Russia on the Eurasian side of the Bering Strait. But in addition, the people of Greenland, who are majority Inuit, would have to also welcome a change in sovereigns, and find American policies and investment, in addition to its military protection, attractive enough to forego independence. Because securing and sustaining independence with a population of 56,000 is quite a difficult challenge, a formal sovereign association with the United States might, in some circumstances, appeal to the people of Greenland. Just as the earlier-mentioned scenario of Greenland joining Canada would require Greenlanders to find merit in the Nunavut model of regional self-governance, for the scenario of Greenland becoming part of the United States, Greenlanders would have to find merit in the “Alaska model,” with its combination of multi-level governance, settled land claims, still-evolving structures for co-management between the various levels of governance (federal, state, tribal, and municipal), and robust natural resource development experience.

Indeed, were Greenlanders to one day consider whether to join the United States or Canada (in lieu of pursuing independence), their choice may be between resource-development (more robust in Alaska, with its strong state government, than in Arctic Canada) vs. cultural and environmental protections (which are more robust in Arctic Canada than Alaska, owing to the absence of a powerful state level of government, more readily enabling an alignment of indigenous and federal interests), the very same fault line that divides contemporary Alaska. Issues of future settlement by non-Inuit would also surely be an issue: Alaska today is less than 15% native (and over 85% settler), while Nunavut remains nearly 85% native (and less than 15% settler), as if an inverse mirror image of one another. Greenland is, at present, closer to 90% native, so is more aligned with Nunavut in terms of its ethnography. On the other hand, Canada, by virtue of its proximity to the United States, is largely buffered from the risks and dangers of world politics, and unlikely to face an external threat to its sovereignty. Greenland, however, is quite exposed, on the outer edge of the North American continent, and in waters that are not only increasingly strategic, but also potentially contested. It faces existential risks as a polity much the way Iceland does, perhaps more so because of its smaller demography and more expansive geography. If alliance membership alone does not guarantee its independence, perhaps a closer constitutional relationship, such as territorial status and a path toward statehood, could one day prove to be an appealing option to the people of Greenland.

Dual-Secession Models: Strength through Confederation

Often, when Greenlandic independence is considered critically, its small population and vast territorial breadth (and its even more vast EEZ offshore) is presumed to leave the island in an inevitably unviable position, particularly should its independence ever be contested by force – suggesting there is at least some strategic and economic logic to a change of sovereigns rather than a bid for a fragile sovereign independence. But a mere changing of sovereigns may fail to find domestic support among Greenlanders; even so, going it alone need not be the only path left to pursue. Indeed, Greenland may in the face of so many obstacles to sovereign viability continue to choose to remain part of the Kingdom of Denmark by mutual consent, and thus decelerate its march toward independence and continue to refine its relationship, and expand its autonomy over time, with the same incrementalism as in the past.

Alternatively, it is also possible that the movement for independence in Greenland could inspire a similar movement in Canada – particularly Nunavut, which has close historical, cultural and familial ties to Greenland (with its north settled by Canadian Inuit just over a century ago) in addition to its close geographical proximity to Greenland, where Inuit already govern at the territorial level but face continuing implementation resistance from Ottawa – resulting in the theoretical potential for a transnational movement for dual-secession from both Canada and Denmark. While Canadian Inuit have gained much in native rights and self-governing powers, more than in any other Arctic region, their communities still remain traumatized, with multiple indicators of societal collapse including epidemic levels of suicide, substance abuse, and community violence. Should Ottawa remain unwilling or unable to fulfil the aspirations of Inuit for meaningful autonomy and the many material comforts enjoyed by southern Canadians (ranging from health security and community safety to educational opportunity), one can envision a movement emerging in Nunavut that aligns with Greenland’s independence movement, where seeds for a dual-secession movement may find fertile soil.

Dual-secession would be complex to manage, posing even greater risks to the United States and its NATO partners’ security, comparable in scale to the Quebec independence movement further south, which over the years has threatened to destabilize the northeast of North America, coming perilously close to a Quebec secession in 1995. While much progress has been made toward healing the enduring French-English divide in Canada, it is not inconceivable that the movement could re-intensify, and if it did, the fate of Nunavut to its north and Nunatsiavut to its east could be profoundly affected – either by overt Quebec military expansion to secure these vulnerable, majority-Inuit flanks, or covert efforts to destabilize these regions to prevent them from serving as staging grounds from which Anglo-Canada could destabilize Quebec’s energy-rich north. Further, in the event Quebec one day secedes from Canada, Inuit to Quebec’s north could seize the opportunity to make a similar bid for independence – and in so doing, may find many reasons to partner with Greenland in its quest. Such a scenario, while clearly improbable at the moment, remains worthy of future study, since the role Nunavut and Nunatsiavut might play in a post-Quebec Canadian confederation, and their likelihood of being caught in the whirlwind of chaos precipitated by a Quebec secession, could be of much consequence.

Joining Iceland and/or the Faroes: Dual Secession with a Twist — A Confederation of Former High North Atlantic Colonies

A similar dual-secession movement might emerge to Greenland’s east, where currently separate movements for a gradual and mutual secession from Denmark have emerged in both Greenland and the Faroe Islands, modeled in part on the successful independence movement by Iceland a century ago. If the movements for Faroese and Greenlandic independence were to merge into a single High Atlantic independence movement, once can envision the potential confederation of the Faroes, Greenland and Iceland – a union of former Danish colonies that share a colonial heritage and many post-colonial synergies. This scenario would create, in essence, a greater Icelandic sovereign entity, leveraging Iceland’s diplomatic, economic, and political strengths along with its central strategic role as a strategic hub between Europe and North America within the NATO alliance. The demographic diversity of such a union, united by its shared heritage of remote subsistence marine resource harvesting communities, whether seal, whale, or cod, would lay the foundation for a fascinating polity enriched by its own regional variation and distinctiveness.

In contrast to a dual Nunavut-Greenland secession, with all its risks and complexities, such an island-confederation of former Danish colonies could offer the region much promise of stability and cohesion, since the two new secessions would be equally embraced by both island colonies as well as their mutual colonizing sovereign, and their constitutional union with Iceland would further bring solace to their mutual alliance partners concerned with the emergence of new EEZs in newly independent microstates lacking the self-defense, search and rescue, or monitoring capacity for EEZ enforcement. Reykjavik could serve as a mentor to both Greenland and the Faroes, offering independence through confederation, much the way the union of the Malay peninsula with most of northern Borneo did after World War II – harnessing the movement for independence and away from colonialism while avoiding the specter of balkanization and instability. Originally, Singapore – the economic engine of that region – was set to be part of the new Malaysian state, along with Sarawak and Sabah, and had Singapore stayed in Malaysia, its role would likely mirror that which Reykjavik could play in an Iceland-Greenland-Faroe Islands confederation, as an engine of economic growth, a model for effective, efficient and democratic self-governance, and a center for education and training.

While a constitutional union with the United States was, from the moment the Trump White House proposed it, highly controversial and widely lampooned, a confederation of former High North Atlantic colonies seems less likely to face as much criticism, even if not actively under consideration now. Iceland, independent now for over seventy-five years and autonomous for more than a century, can thus serve as a mentor to its neighbors as they follow down the path that it earlier blazed, with the full blessing of their mutual (former) colonizer, and a close relationship with Copenhagen after independence. While Iceland’s sovereign independence is universally recognized, and a fixture of the Arctic’s political geography that contributes not only to the region’s unique and enduring collaborative balance between East and West dating back to the Cold War, but to its dynamic balancing of the interests of small and large states, as well as between hard-power and soft-power approaches to international relations and regional security; it would not be illogical to view Iceland’s independence experience as part of a sequential process of decolonization across the High North Atlantic, both inspiring and guiding the movements for independence of its neighbors – positioning Iceland as an exemplary leader on how to amicably decolonize, remain friends with the former colonizer, and emerge as a bridge between the many seeming contradictions inherent in the diverse NATO alliance, much the way Greenland (if and when it does secede from Denmark) can serve as a bridge between the indigenous and the Westphalian worlds.

So while each movement for independence in the High North Atlantic is generally viewed as sui generis, viewing them in tandem and in sequence raises an interesting possibility of confederation after independence. All three, once sovereign, will emerge on the world stage as relatively vulnerable microstates, with populations that would be hard pressed to secure independence in war time on their own – but whose strategic geography, despite their asymmetries in scale, infrastructure, and resource potential, positions them as important future alliance partners. With a shared security challenge and a common history of colonization, and with strong cultural, maritime, trade and diplomatic ties, there could be numerous benefits of forging a common union, one highly decentralized to ensure maximal achievement of sovereign aspirations, but not necessarily independent of one another. Just as there is a logic in Greenland uniting with the Inuit of Canada’s Eastern and High Arctic, one can as logically imagine a High North Atlantic union. Whether the will for such a union ever emerges, or can overcome centrifugal forces pulling the three insular polities apart, remains to be seen, but the theoretical potential is no less intriguing.

Village Sovereignty, Multi-Village Secession, and the Return of the Polis?

There is one other secession model to consider, one more complex than these models of dual secession contemplated above, and that is a secessionary cascade in the more isolated and remote villages which share a strong tradition of independence and survival against adversity, harsh climate, and limitations in resources and their accessibility, from both the colonial sovereigns (where they exist), and regional governments (that have gained much autonomy), and which the more remote communities often find pose a common threat to their interests, and in many cases, their survival as distinct ethnolinguistic communities. Whether that means cutting ties with both Ottawa and Iqaluit on one side of Baffin Bay, and with Copenhagen and Nuuk on the other, or just breaking free of Nuuk and Copenhagen, the result is the same: a Balkanization process in favor of localized forms of micro-sovereignty. One can even envision a restoration of a security relationship between pro-Copenhagen remote communities and Denmark even as they sever their ties to what some perceive as a neocolonial governing structure in Nuuk, no better than the more distant sovereign Nuuk aspires to replace.

Such yearnings have been felt across the Arctic and subarctic for generations and appear from time to time in different places, such as a 1992 “study” the Inupiat leadership told the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (as it was then called) they would sponsor to investigate their potential to secede from Alaska and form not an independent sovereign polity, but a “51st state” in the U.S. union, a research endeavor that catalyzed a formal response by the state of Alaska to forestall. After the Alaska land claim was enacted in 1971, standing up a new system of native corporations and in time a new generation of corporate leaders, a tribal sovereignty movement erupted across much of rural Alaska in search of a return to village autonomy, and federal protection from not only state-level governance but from the assimilating pressures of modernization and globalization. Alaska’s constitution allows for the formation of municipal boroughs for Alaska’s distinctive natural regions, such as on the North Slope where the Inupiat reside, providing a path for municipal governance to embody the sovereign aspirations of a unified region – but which in 1992 seemed far too limited against a state government in Alaska that opposed greater protections of Inupiat subsistence rights. Across the border, efforts to construct a Western Arctic Regional Municipality to jointly govern Inuvialuit and Gwich’in communities, shared a similar aspiration, albeit one that ultimately fell short of implementation, despite coming close more than once – for a more localized version of sovereignty and autonomy.

Justice Thomas Berger, when heading up the Alaska Native Review Commission in the mid-1980s, called his series of hearings a “village journey” which ultimately called for a re-tribalization of Alaska lands, away from corporations and corporate values, toward governance more traditional. Not long after, in 1993, the U.S. Department of the Interior recognized the more than two hundred Alaska Native villages as tribes under federal law. It is possible that the people of Greenland, along with their counterparts in the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic, may choose to pursue a similar model, one that will lead to a new conversation about what sovereignty means, and how it can be nurtured at the local level. The fact that the city-state of Singapore, known affectionately as the “little red dot” on maps of peninsular Southeast Asia, has achieved such a vision, building a modern state with its own sovereign form at the municipal level, is proof there is no limit to what can be achieved within the city-gates, and in the Arctic region, each village is in its own way a country of its own, so why not assert a new sovereign form that embodies the strength of the village as a unit?

Seizing the Moment: Asserting a Stronger Commitment to, and Presence in, the Arctic

Given the widespread attention and curiosity that accompanied the critical response to the Trump White House’s Greenland initiative, even in the absence of forward movement on the plan, the White House’s renewed (and continuing) interest in the Arctic and its increasing commitment to engagement and forward presence in the region, has nonetheless been positively reinforced in the many months since – and this surely has not escaped the attention of America’s principal rivals in Beijing and Moscow, nor of its friends in Greenland and across the lightly-settled and strategically vulnerable High North Atlantic.

Leveraging this moment, by extending America’s Arctic presence through greater economic, diplomatic and military engagement with the region and its people, can achieve many of the very same benefits of an outright sovereign accession of Greenland, but without either its risk or controversy. As Greenland considers is many options, and continues its transformation from colony to a more autonomous and beyond toward a more formally independent sovereign status, continued engagement, and support of the people of Greenland, no matter what sovereign model they choose, will go far to ensure the High North Atlantic remains secure and free.


[1] Hannes Gerhardt, “The Inuit and Sovereignty: The Case of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and Greenland,” Politik 14, No. 1 (2011): 6-14.

[2] See the author’s 2008 monograph, Breaking the Ice: From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic (Lexington Books) as well as his 2009 monograph, On Thin Ice: The Inuit, the State and the Challenge of Arctic Sovereignty (Lexington Books) for more details.

[3] For an overview of Arctic geopolitics in the post-Cold War era, including the era of the polar thaw, see the author’s 2010 monograph, Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom: The Geopolitics of Climate Change in the Arctic (Praeger Books); for more on the evolution of the land claims model and its contribution to Arctic stability and security, see the author’s Chapter 16 of The Fast-Changing Arctic: Rethinking Arctic Security for a Warmer World, “Stability and Security in a Post-Arctic World: Toward a Convergence of Indigenous, State, and Global Interests at the Top of the World.” For a discussion of the complex diplomatic environment of the contemporary Arctic, see the author’s “A Missed Opportunity: How China Ceded its Claims to What Is Now the Russian Far East, Leaving Japan as Asia’s Pre-eminent ‘Near-Arctic state’,” Intersec: The Journal of International Security, October 2019, 26-28; “China and the ‘Near-Arctic’: An Opportunity Lost Over 150 Years Ago,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, September 5, 2019; and “China Lost Chance to Be ‘Near-Arctic’ 150 Years Ago,” Stars and Stripes, August 8, 2019. For a discussion of Inuit involvement in Arctic diplomacy, please see the author’s Spring 2010 article in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, “Cold Front: Hillary, Ottawa, and the Inuit: A Year after the Inuit Re-Assert their Sovereignty, Washington Takes Their Side.” An earlier version of this article was presented by the author at the International Small Islands Studies Association (ISISA)’s Global Island Studies Webinar (GISW) on June 24, 2020, on a panel discussing the future of Greenland chaired by his colleague from the University of Akureyri’s Polar Law Centre, Jonathan Wood, who is also contributing to this special issue of NoMe.

[4] Ned Price, “Press Statement: Secretary Blinken’s Travel to Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland,” U.S. Department of State, May 14, 2021, https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-travel-to-denmark-iceland-and-greenland/. As noted in the State Department’s press briefing on Secretary Blinken’s visit, before heading to Reykjavik for the Arctic Council ministerial, Blinken began “his trip in Copenhagen, Kingdom of Denmark, where he [met] with Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod to discuss our strong bilateral ties, commitment to combating the climate crisis, and our shared interest in strengthening the transatlantic relationship” and “then travel[ed] to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, where [to] meet with Greenlandic Premier Múte Bourup Egede and Minister Broberg, together with Foreign Minister Kofod [to] discuss the strong partnership between the United States and Greenland and our shared commitment to increase cooperation in the Arctic.”

[5] For instance, see Andrew E. Kramer, “In the Russian Arctic, the First Stirrings of a Very Cold War,” New York Times, May 22, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/22/world/russia-us-arctic-military.html.

Local Democracy in the West-Nordic Countries

The geographical structure of people’s settlement in the three West Nordic countries, The Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland is in itself a considerable challenge for the provision of municipal services. It can be argued, therefore, that this can be a challenge for the democracy at the local level. The municipal structure varies in the three West Nordic countries and has changed in the past decades. Geographically the three countries are quite different although the similarities are more obvious when we look at the economic structure – fishing and fish processing are the mainstay of the economy. It can be argued that local communities in the West Nordic countries are facing a certain type of dilemma. On the one hand, decisions at local level need to be based on sound knowledge of local circumstances and conditions and taken in harmony with the local people, if they are to be sensible, successful and legitimate decisions. On the other hand, very small or “too” small local decision-making units often have problems mobilizing and providing the expertise needed to make rational decisions – something that can be called a capacity problem. The problem, or question, on the optimal size of a municipality – or should we rather say optimal smallness – is a relevant and emerging question in, for example, the four larger Nordic countries. But the difference between the West Nordic and the East Nordic (Scandinavian) situation in this sense is that the countries and the municipalities in the west are historically much more smaller in population.

In 2012, the research project West Nordic municipal structure. Challenges to local democracy, efficient service provision and adaptive capacity was granted money from the Arctic Co-operation Programme 2012-2014. The overall aim of the project was to collect knowledge on the local level in the three West Nordic countries; the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland by mapping the situation and development in the municipal sectors, focusing primarily on four aspects. The first was; the municipal structure. The second was; the democratic aspect – that is, which consequences the structural development has had for local democracy – to identify the main challenges to democracy, caused by the structural developments. The third; to map the service production capacity and effectiveness of the municipalities, and the fourth; to try to map the municipalities’ capacity to manage the development processes which often accompany municipal amalgamations. An overall research question was: What consequences have developments in municipal structure in the three countries had for democracy, local self-government and autonomy, as well as the ability to manage the processes accompanying amalgamations? In September 2014 a report containing this analysis was submitted (Eythórsson, Gløersen and Karlsson 2014).

In a second phase of the project, the project team tried to develop and deepen the insight into these matters by undertaking a survey among all elected local politicians and chief administrators (mayors) in all of the municipalities in the three countries[1]. In the survey there were asked questions aimed at deepening our understanding of the problems and challenges facing the municipal level in the three countries, with a special focus on the findings of the earlier mentioned report from 2014. The survey contained among others some questions focused on local democracy as such as well as its development after amalgamations that have been taking place since year 2000 or so (Eythórsson, Gløersen and Karlsson 2015).

In this article I use the data from this survey to answer following main research questions:

  1. What is the general status of local democracy in the three countries?
  2. Is there a connection between size and democracy when we are looking at municipalities in a small scale size as is the case in the West Nordic countries?
  3. Does peripheral or central position in a municipality affect the attitudes towards democracy as measured in the survey reported?

The operationalization of local democracy is threefold: First, looking at the perception of power and influence by different territories in each municipality. Second, looking at the perceptions of access to the municipal administration. The third is by looking at the perception of ties and contacts to the local politicians.


1.             Municipal amalgamations and the impact on democracy

When taking territory into consideration; that is, in this case territory within municipal boundaries, there are different views on democratic aspects such as equality between parts of the municipality or neighbourhoods. The main idea is that citizens in more peripheral, with less population and/or more sparsely populated parts of the municipality are at a disadvantage for influencing decisions, making contact with the elected officials and, in general, find it more difficult to access the administration, compared with those living in, or close to, the central area of service and administration.

This general assumption is often linked to municipal amalgamations where two or more municipalities merge into one, despite different population structures, varying degrees of peripherality and different preconditions for acting as centres for administration and service. In these cases, there are winners and losers. The largest units usually attain a central role while the smaller ones and those more distant from the centre have to live with the fact that they are peripheral with a view to administration and services. Both Swedish and Icelandic studies have shown the fear or scepticism of people and local politicians in prospective peripheries facing amalgamations with this upcoming situation (Brantgärde 1974, Eythórsson 1998, Steiner et al. 2016). The expected power position of people’s current municipality within the proposed new one has clearly shown to be the strongest explanatory factor for attitudes towards amalgamations, both in the Swedish and the Icelandic case. Those residing in the expected administrative and service centre of a new municipality are likely to be much more positive than those residing in the municipalities that are not going to occupy that role. People in the administrative and service peripheries are clearly less interested in amalgamating with the big brother who is expected to consolidate power and use that to its own advantage. This resistance is strongest in the bigger peripheries, often municipalities who have had their own administrative structure, which has not always been the case in many of the small rural municipalities in Iceland. In that way, the big ‘losers’ have more to lose and thus manifest more resistance in many cases. This means that the correlation between municipal size and attitudes to amalgamations is not always linear: the relationship is more complicated since the possibilities of being the centre have more to do with proportional rather than absolute size.

An evaluation study in Iceland by Eythórsson and Jóhannesson (2002) in 37 municipalities which were amalgamated into 7 in the 1990s showed clear democratic deficits for the smaller and peripheral and gives support to the results from the former Icelandic and Swedish studies. There was considerably more discontent with democratic aspects and administrative structures among people and local leaders in the parts or neighbourhoods of municipalities that had now become the smaller and more peripheral neighbourhoods of a new amalgamated municipality. All the municipalities surveyed showed that people outside ‘central places’ defined as the proportionally biggest municipality, that became the centre of administration and services after the amalgamation – felt that they were now more distant from their political representatives than before and thereby their opportunities to influence and lobby decisions were much more limited. Furthermore, the majority of the people living in the periphery believed that political power was now concentrated in these ‘central places’ (See in Eythórsson 2009 and Eythórsson 2011).

In 2006, just before the great municipal reform in Denmark, Danish political scientists published the anthology Kommunalreformens konsekvenser (Blom-Hansen, Elklit and Serritzlew 2006). The results show a clear negative correlation between the size of a municipality and several indicators of democracy, such as trust, voting participation and attending political meetings (Juul-Madsen and Skou 2006).[2] In another study presented in this book Nørgaard-Petersen and Christensen did not find any correlation between municipal size and representation – that is, in bigger municipalities, voters in various social groups used their potential for participating in the democratic process (Nørgaard-Petersen and Christensen 2006). Lassen and Serritzlew (2011) conducted research on the correlation between jurisdiction size and local democracy. Using the Danish structural reform as a case they looked for evidence on internal political efficacy. By internal political efficacy they mean that citizens believe they are competent to understand and contribute to political decision making and by external political efficacy they mean that citizens feel government authorities are responsive to their demands so that participation is something worth struggling for. Among their findings was that in terms of population larger municipal units were necessary for economies of scale but at the same time larger size incurred cost with regard to the quality of democratic order (Lassen and Serritzlev, 2011).

These examples of research on democracy and the impact of structural reforms show that structural territorial reforming by enlarging municipal units is, at the same time, a question of the balance between economies of scale and local democracy – both when citizens and local politicians are asked. These studies have mostly shown us that too much emphasis on seeking economies of scale can have negative consequ­ences for the local democracy. This is in line with what was argued already in 1973 by Dahl and Tufte, that correlation between size and democracy exists.

However, looking at the research examples from Denmark we have to realize that in that case the question was about much larger municipal units than in the case of the West Nordic countries – this even though we are talking about the newly amalgamated Greenland municipalities.


2.             Municipal structure in the West Nordic countries – A short overview
2.1.        Faroe Islands

Already in the mid-twentieth century there were 49 municipalities in the Faroe Islands, an autonomous territory of 18 islands with a population of less than 50,000. This structure of numerous small municipalities, with more than half of them having a population of less than 1000, stayed the same all the way into the beginning of the 21st century. The Faroese municipal geography during this period is summarized by Hovgaard et.al. (2004) as following:[3]

  • A capital with more than 40% of the population
  • Constantly improving conditions for commuting to the capital of Tórshavn have connected over 85% of the nation by road
  • A rather peripheral island of Sandøy in the south with a little over 1200 inhabitants and four municipalities
  • The even more peripheral Island of Suðuroy, 2:15 hours ferry trip from Torshavn. On Suðuroy there are 7 municipalities with a total population of around 4600
  • Geographically remote small islands (municipalities) with low population and difficult communications

Despite massive resistance against law-enforced reform, voluntary amal­gamations in the beginning of the 21st century reduced the number of municipalities from 49 in 2000 to 35 in 2005. Early in 2008 a new government came to power and the coalition paper contained clear statements on the municipal structure. “Regional development initiatives and changes in the municipal structure shall ensure fair and balanced opportunities for all areas of the Faroe Islands.” Furthermore, the coalition paper contained statements on deadlines by which municipalities should have grouped into suitable entities that were able to take over more tasks from the state government – and this would ensure even standards of services in the whole country (Aalbu et. al. 2008).

Prime Minister Jóannes Eidesgaard, said in his opening speech to the parliament (Løgtinget) in July 2008, where he said that the government had decided to reduce the number of municipalities to 7 during the mandate period. (Aalbu et. al. 2008). The government coalition broke up already in the autumn 2008 and these intentions have not yet become reality as other less interested parties have been in power since then.

The amalgamation issue was more or less put off in 2012 with a nationwide referendum on the people’s will to amalgamate, with the potential result that the number of municipalities might have gone down from 30 to 7. With only 33 percent voter turnout, this proposal did not receive majority support in any of the 30 municipalities.

Today the number of municipalities remains at 29 – the radical intentions of the 2008 government were never realised as the people of Faroe Islands refused. And people seem to think that this amalgamation wave of the first decade of the 20th century has come to an end. “The referendum stopped everything” and “The reform is dead” were the answers the authors of this report received from interviews with people from the federation of municipalities in the Faroe Islands. However, if we look at what has happened since year 2000 we see a reduction of municipalities by almost 40% – so the change is noticeable even though the municipal structure characteristics remain the same: Fewer very small and more rather small municipalities. Only one amalgamation has taken place since 2009 when Húsa amalgamated with Klaksvík in 2017.


2.2.        Greenland

When the home rule system was established in 1979 the 18 municipalities in Greenland acquired a more central role in the domestic welfare system taking care of social services, culture, education, housing, planning, fire brigades, water and electricity (Dahl, 1986; Bærenholdt, 2007). In 2007 the Greenland Parliament directed the Greenland Home Rule to implement a new municipal structure for Greenland. This decision led to radical structural change when 18 municipalities were amalgamated to only 4. New municipal councils were elected in spring 2008 and established from May 2008. The change was formally implemented 1st January 2009. The rationale behind this development was set by the Structural Committee (Strukturudvalget). The main purposes were:

  1. To make all municipalities large enough to be able to take over more tasks from the Home Rule.
  2. To ensure that the citizens in the municipalities received better and safer services.
  3. To gain effectiveness and economies of scale in the municipal service provision.[4]

The number of municipalities was reduced in 2009 from 18 to 4 municipalities but from 1 January 2018 the municipality of Qaasuitsup was split in two: Avannaata and Qegertalik. Therefore, the municipalities in Greenland are five, as we see in table 1:









Table 1. Municipalities in Greenland 2019 and their population.[5]



With the largest municipality of over 20,000 inhabitants, two around 10,000 and the two smallest of around 6,500 the structure has changed dramatically.

In their report Administrative Reform – Arguments and Values, Aalbu, Böhme and Uhlin map and analyze the municipal structures, structural reforms and the arguments and values behind them, in all eight Nordic countries. They conclude that no clear public opposition to the reform process in Greenland emerged. Further, they conclude that the in the debate around the reform, the main focus was on efficiency, accessibility and quality in local administration. Thus they think the main emphasis in the Greenland case has been on effectiveness and improved services, just as in the cases of Sweden and Denmark.


2.3.        Iceland 

The main development pattern is that the number of municipalities in Iceland increased slowly until the middle of the 20th century, and then began to decrease, especially after 1990. The main reason for the increasing number of municipalities until the 1950s (229 at its peak) was the industrialization of fishing, leading people to move from the countryside to the coast in order to work where there were better hopes of earning a decent income. This meant that new fishing villages emerged, and new municipalities were established.[6]

A slow decrease was in the number of municipalities after the mid-twentieth century (204 in 1990) is mainly explained by two forces – a number of rural municipalities ceased to exist due to total depopulation; and some municipal amalgamations. The rapid changes since after 1990 were indirectly facilitated by two referenda on municipal amalgamations – one in 1993 and the second in 2005 – and their implications. The number was down in 124 in 1998 and is at present 72.

In November 1993, referenda were held in 185 municipalities out of 196. Had all the submitted proposals been accepted, they would have meant a drastic reduction in the number of municipalities, down to 43. However, every proposal except one was voted down in these referenda. Only 67 out of the 185 municipalities involved voted for amalgamations. This only caused an immediate reduction of municipalities by 3, but nevertheless the ball had been set rolling and an amalgamation trend never known before had started. By the time of the local government elections in spring 1994, several voluntary amalgamations among those that had voted ‘yes’ in the November 1993 referenda had already reduced the number of municipalities to 171. By the next elections in 1998, the number was reduced further to 124 and was as low as 105 in the local government elections in 2002. Thus, a process was initiated in 1993 which had led to a reduction of municipalities by as much as 47 percent in only 9 years (Eythórsson 2003. Eythórsson 2009, Eythórsson 2012).

In 2003, the Icelandic Ministry of Social Affairs launched a reform project on the strengthening of the municipal level, in cooperation with the Federation of Municipalities. The main objectives were to strengthen municipalities so they would be better able to pro­vide their current level of services and eventually some additional ones. Bringing about such a change would make it possible to move certain public services from the state to the local level. This required both a revised division of tasks between state and local level, as well as a revision of local govern­ment finances. The cornerstone of the project, however, was to strengthen the local level by amalgamating smaller municipalities. Even though the number of municipalities had been reduced by almost 50 percent since 1993 the project commission argued that this had not changed the characteristics of the municipal structure. Still there were far too many small municipalities lacking the capacity to take over more responsibilities from the state.

A referendum took place in 66 municipalities out of 97 in spring and autumn 2005. In these 66 municipalities, residents voted on a total of 17 merger proposals; so a ‘yes’ to all proposals would have meant a reduction of 49 in the number of municipalities. Referenda were held in April and October on 17 different amalgamation proposals. The 17 different proposals were voted down in 42 municipalities and accepted in only 25. This however led to immediate reduction of municipalities by 8.

No serious or extensive attempts to reform the municipal sector have been implemented in Iceland since 2005. Besides, interest in further amalgamation reforms seems to decline. Surveys among all elected local politicians in 2006, 2011 and 2015 show this. Interest and belief in amalgamations as a measure to strengthen the municipal level became significantly less than before. There is, as earlier, no majority support for law enforcement with regard to amalgamations.  Instead, local politicians showed increased interest in inter-municipal cooperation as the way to go further and take over more responsibilities from the state government (Eythórsson & Arnarson, 2012).

But in spite of all attempts to change, the main characteristic of the Icelandic system remains in the year 2019. More than half of the municipalities in the country have less than 1000 inhabitants and 1/3 has less than 500 (see Figure 1) – a trait which has been considered as the main problem through the decades; too many too small municipalities with limited capacity to provide modern services.


2.4.        The West Nordic municipal structure in sum

When attempting to sum up and compare the municipal structure in these three countries, the most striking fact is the dramatic development in Greenland, where the structure of local administration was changed after 2007 by amalgamating 18 municipalities to 4 (later 5). In this respect, the Greenland structure differs significantly from that of the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Now, Greenland has few and large communes, both measured in population and areal – at least in West Nordic terms. Even though bigger steps towards reforming the municipal structure have been taken in Iceland than in Faroe Islands, the characteristics are in principle the same. In both cases there are proportionally numerous very small municipalities with limited capacity to take over more welfare tasks and thereby provide modern services. In Iceland, however, there existed a will to strengthen the local level by other means than amalgamating after the referendums in 2005.

Figure 1 illustrates the municipal structure in the three countries at present:










Figure 1. Municipalities in the West Nordic countries in different size categories 2018.



It is clear that the share of small municipalities; that is, with a population of less than 1000, is similar in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, at 55 percent. At the same time municipalities of such limited size do not exist in Greenland anymore.

Table 2 provides an overview of some facts about the number of municipalities and their populations in the three West Nordic countries:









Table 2. Municipalities and their population in the West Nordic countries in 2019.

 (Based on data from: www.stat.gl, www.hagstova.fo, www.hagstofa.is)



There are, for example, significant differences between the three countries in the average size of municipalities. While Greenland has about 11,000, Iceland has almost 5,000 and the Faroe Islands just under 1,800. However, the average for Iceland is strongly affected by the size of Reykjavík with its 129,000 inhabitants. Therefore, the median scores give a better picture with the Faroes at 675 and Iceland at 826.


3.             Local democracy in the three countries
3.1.        Local democracy in the Faroe Islands

The coalition paper published by the 2008 government in the Faroe Islands contained clear policy statements on enlargements of the municipalities in order to increase their service capacity and ensure even service standards in the whole country. This was emphasized by Prime Minister Eidesgaard in Parliament in summer 2008 where he announced that the goal was to reduce the number of municipalities to seven. He underlined the democratic aspect in his opening speech to Parliament on the 29th of July 2008:[7]

An important part of democracy lies in decisions being made as close to the citizens as possible, and this is one reason why more and more functions are being transferred to the municipalities. (Translation from Danish)

These arguments of attracting young people to the more peripheral regions by transferring challenging tasks to the municipalities from the state were central in his speech. By this, Eidesgaard was in fact saying that the municipalities were too many and too small and had too limited tasks. In other words, local democracy, even though formally present, lacked content to be effective. This kind of argumentation has, for example, been presented in this context by Dahl and Tufte (1973) as well as by Harald Baldersheim (1987) who stated that it could of course be claimed that municipal amalgamations, which reduced the number of municipalities and thereby the number of local politicians, appeared to be a centralization of power. But such arrangements could actually prove to be a way to decentralize power, since an increased capacity for service provision also made local units capable of taking over more tasks from state level.

The emphasis in local democracy in the Faroe Islands was, according to this, clearly to make the units bigger and through that give the democracy some content. At the same time further amalgamations can increase the distance between the people and the politicians and even the distance to the administration, for some of them at least.


3.2.        Local democracy in Greenland

In a report to the Greenland Structural Committee (Strukturudvalget) in 2005 the Danish political scientist Ulrik Kjær pointed out what the consequences of the reform would be for local democracy in Greenland. He raised a warning flag as to the form of geographical representation in the new extensive municipalities, not at least due to the many instances of very difficult communi­cations between regions, villages and towns. In such a situation small and isolated places would suffer democratic deficits as peripheries in more than one sense. Kjær argued that it was very important, from a democratic point of view and with consideration to welfare services in the new municipalities, that smaller neighbourhoods should not lose all power within the new enlarged municipality (Kjær, 2005). Binderkrantz and Jacobsen (2007) also raised similar questions about the democratic aspect. According to them, increased costs, due to more travel between neighbourhoods in the new municipalities was to be met with a law on the use of videoconferences between isolated villages and neighbourhoods.

In the Annual Report 2011 of The Greenland Federation of Municipalities (KANUKOKA), local democracy is discussed in a separate chapter. It is stated that local democracy was not discussed broadly before the great amalgamations in 2009 – warnings from the scientists did clearly not get through. But in the report it is further stated that 3 years after the reform it is time to go deeper into that discussion. In the beginning of 2009 each of the four new municipalities was to establish a “geographical mandate” for every one of the former 18 municipalities. However, this was only to apply for the first four year mandate period. The annual report refers to hearings on experiences of this, conducted by the Ministry of the Interior. The hearing showed clearly that the mandate had had different practical significance in the four municipalities and that it seems that the municipalities had understood the term “geographical mandate” very differently.

In a meeting of representatives held by the Greenland Federation of Municipalities (KANUKOKA) in June 2013 representatives from the municipalities formally expressed their evaluation of the impact of the 2009 structural reform, and there were some critical voices on both democracy and services:[8] For example Kelly Berthelsen from Kommune Kujalleq:

When discussing the impact of municipal amalgamation on us, it must be said that on the economic situation it has meant very negative experiences. The intended improvements for the population have been difficult to spot. Reductions in the service-level have been found to be necessary. Also because the conditions within the municipality have been different. Those who had the worst conditions before have noticed improvements. But those who had had better conditions before have experienced deterioration of the service level – e.g. prices for waste management have increased in some places. This is why the benefits of the amalgamation have been difficult to realize. Villages/towns that did not receive satisfactory representation in municipal councils last election period have felt a decline in their part in decision-making, and some settlements that did not get elected representatives in the new joint local councils have also felt the deterioration. This is still the case today. (translation from Danish).

And from the representative Asii Chemnitz Narup from  Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq:

In establishing the larger municipalities, like the towns of Nuuk, Paamiut, Tasiilaq and Ittoqqortoormiit their citizens noticed that the local democratic influence became somewhat weaker. There were fewer elected officials, and the municipal council members were now for the entire municipality. The smaller rural communities still have their own elected sub-councils. They are gathered annually for a meeting with the municipal council. But since the participation of the urban population seems to be weaker, we are now setting up local councils, which will serve as an external branch of the municipal council, which has now been reduced from 21 to 19 members. (translation from Danish).

These two examples taken from the resume of this meeting in June 2013 clearly show that there are problems with the representation of the small villages all over Greenland in their new democratic order.


3.3.        Local democracy in Iceland

The earlier mentioned evaluation study of seven amalgamations undertaken in Iceland in 1994 and 1998, where 37 municipalities were involved, showed evident signs of democratic deficits for the smaller and peripheral municipalities. Surveys among the citizens clearly indicated that people outside the central service and administration locations felt that they were now more distant from their politicians than before and thereby their opportunities to influence and lobby decisions were much more limited. Furthermore, the majority of the people living in the peripheral parts believed that political power was now concentrated in these ‘central places’ (Eythórsson & Jóhannesson, 2002). No other evaluation study has been done since and the results remain. There are some examples of discontent in former municipalities and attempts have been made to accomplish splits or breakouts. This has, for example, been done several times in Sweden since the municipal structural reform in the 1970s and seven such requests were accepted by the Swedish government between 1974 and 1985 (Erlingsson 2005). In the Icelandic case such attempts have always been rejected. The democratic consequences of amalgamations have not been high on the political agenda and can hardly be seen as an emerging problem. (Eythórsson & Jóhannesson, 2002; Eythórsson, 2009).


3.4.        West Nordic local democracy in sum

As we have seen, current municipal structure in these three countries is less similar than it used to be. After the great reform in Greenland the municipalities are not only largest in areal but also in population in the West Nordic comparative perspective. In table 2 above it is shown, however, that the Faroese and Icelandic municipal structures are quite similar compared with the situation in Greenland. The most emerging question about local democracy in Greenland is the geographical representation of small villages and neighbourhoods after the great reform. The concern, just before the amalgamations came into practice, was how these smaller and often very isolated neighbourhoods could be democratically included in the new municipalities and have something to say or decide about their matters. In the Faroe Islands the big issue seems to be mostly connected to the content of local democracy, since the numerous small municipalities have limited tasks. This is, however, not the standpoint of the smaller municipalities which run their own federation and claim that they are doing well as they are. But recently, the two municipal federations were merged into one, so the possibilities for the smaller municipalities to act as such are perhaps at risk. In the Icelandic case much of the discussion in the latest years on democracy on the municipal level is about direct citizen democracy versus the more traditional representative democracy and increased citizen participation in decision making between elections seems to be a key word nowadays. This concern was clearly emphasized in the Local Government Act of 2011. The connection between size and democracy seems to have vanished from the agenda with the latest attempt to reform the structure in 2005.


4.             The local leader’s perceptions of local democracy
4.1.        A West Nordic net-survey

The questionnaire sent out to the local politicians and administrators in the three countries was a net-survey (Eythórsson, Gløersen & Karlsson 2015).

In Iceland there are at present 504 elected representatives, in Greenland 305 (including neighbourhood councils – bygderåd) and in the Faroe Islands there are 208 elected delegates. Only those with accessible e-mail addresses could be included in the population in this research. In no case we were able to find the e-mails of all elected local politicians; In Iceland we found 454/504 politicians and additionally 41 top administrator. In the Faroe Islands we found 200/206 politicians and, in addition, 14 top administrators. In Greenland we had the toughest problems. Nevertheless, we found the e-mails of 103/305 elected representatives either in municipalities or in the sub municipal units (Bygderåd), as well as 34 administrators. This gave us a population of 495 in Iceland, 214 in the Faroe Islands and 137 in Greenland.

The questionnaire was sent out 21st April 2015 and closed 2nd June. The final response rate varied from something that could be expected in Iceland and Faroe Islands down to a very low rate in Greenland. In Iceland the response rate was 54.0%, in Faroe Islands 52.9%[9] and in Greenland we only received 38 answers which gave a rate of 29.2%. Greenland is problematic in this sense. Even though responses from 38 people can give us some valuable information, any generalization on the basis of such few answers is difficult. Therefore, we had to try to make the best possible use of answers to open-ended questions – especially from Greenland. Our results in the Greenland case have to be seen in this light and should perhaps rather be regarded as indications. Additionally, the survey was conducted at the time when municipalities in Greenland were four and not five as today.


4.2.        Democracy and the influence of territories: Status in the new context

In our survey we asked the question (as a statement): Small and peripheral neighbourhoods in the municipality have less influence. This was done in order to get the local leaders attitudes towards what in earlier research in Iceland and Sweden was evident and to what extent the attitudes existed in the two other West Nordic countries, since this had not been studies there.  In this case we do not only show an analysis by municipal size but also by the leaders’ perceived status of a former municipality after amalgamation – whether it was perceived as a central area or a periphery.

The Faroese case does not show strong support among the local leaders for this statement. What is anticipated is the lowest score among leaders from centrally placed municipalities (3.63) and the highest score among those from the peripheries (4.82) on our 1 – 7 scale where 4 is the mid value. Scores in size groups are more confusing. In smaller units, the leaders give the statement less support than in larger ones, which is against what earlier has been found in other countries! But we have to bear in mind how tight the scores are only ranging from 3.63 to 4.82, just a small part of the scale.










Figure 2. “Small and peripheral neighbourhoods in the municipality have less influence”. Mean scores on a scale 1-7 on the above statement (1=Completely disagree; 7=Completely agree). (N=91).




Faroese local leaders do not give much support to the statement that people in smaller and peripheral parts of municipalities are less influential. We see clear sign of Centre – Periphery dimension in the sense that leaders believe that the peripheral parts have less influence. In there is any correlation between this and municipal size it is more of that the ones in the smaller feel less loss of influence. Here we do not see any real difference between tiny and small.

The limited data we collected from Greenland has to be used with caution, since the response rates and number of responses do not allow any broad conclusions. We look instead at results as indicating trends or patterns. Our qualitative data collected also contributes to such an approach.

The scores in figure 3 below show that in peripheral communities and the bigger ones people believe more that the small and peripheral have less influence on decisions.










Figure 3. “Small and peripheral neighbourhoods in the municipality have less influence”. Greenland. (N=31).




One respondent in a very small sub-municipal unit wrote a comment to support of the statement in the question:

Before the great amalgamation we had a common meeting in the ”bygde­­be­­styrelse” (sub-municipal board) together with the mayor (kommun­a­l­­­dir­ektøren) once a year, where we got information on what had been done or changed for the better in the services to the citizens. All this has now totally disappeared after the amalgamation in 2009. Since then the ”bygde­be­styrelse” no longer has any tasks or responsibilities. Other sub-units (bygder) that need more support for development than we do are now prioritized.

This supports our quantitative results – there seems to be some truth in the results provided. The small and peripheral communities in Greenland seem to have been undermined, while this can hardly be said in the Faroese case and not at all in the Icelandic case. This is according to information from local leaders.

Variations show up in Iceland, but support for the statement is clearly weaker than in the Faroes; only 3.10 in general compared with 4.01. However, leaders in peripheries in Iceland (as in the Faroes) demonstrate the strongest support (4.17) much more than their colleagues in the centres (3.32). Variations by municipal size are very small, with the exception that leaders in the 9 largest units strongly disagree with the statement (2.36) while others show scores just above 3. This loss of influence in the smaller and peripheral municipalities does not seem to be emerging in Iceland, presently after a decade since most of the amalgamations in the country already had taken place. Even here we find Centre – Periphery differences but when looking at size it has only to do with the 8 very biggest ones versus all the others. That tells us that there are differences here between tiny and small.










Figure 4. “Small and peripheral neighbourhoods in the municipality have less influence”. Iceland.  (N=225).



4.3.        Accessibility to administration and ties to politicians

Good accessibility to the municipal administration is a part of good local democracy. In an earlier mentioned evaluation study by Eythórsson and Jóhannesson (2002), where seven amalgamations in Iceland in the 1990s were evaluated, clear signs were found, both among the general population and elected officials in the smaller and peripheral parts of the new municipalities, of experiencing increased distance from the administration – in other words reduced accessibility.

In this case the results are built on answers from local politicians and administrators and not from citizens. Whether this makes any difference for the results or not is not easy to say, but our results imply that this is hardly the case, at least not in the Faroe Islands and Iceland. One of the statements in the survey was: “People have good accessibility to the administration”.

In Faroe Islands this seems to be a general opinion among the local leaders. The mean scores are high in all categories (5.30 – 5.97 on our 1 – 7 scale) except in the capital (the only municipality with more than 5000) where the result is “neither or” (4,00). In this sense size seems to matter. A central-peripheral dimension also seems to be absent.










Figure 5. “People have good accessibility to the administration”. Faroe Islands. (N=100).




Not so surprisingly, the results from Greenland are different. The statement on good accessibility enjoys much less support- despite some variations between groups. The leaders in smaller units grade the accessibility much lower – the difference between centre and periphery is considerable. How to evaluate these results, with the few answers, low response rate and, last but not least the huge confidence gap, is however difficult to determine. However, a trend seems to be evident.










 Figure 6.  “People have good accessibility to the administration”. Greenland. (N=30).




Open answers from the survey and letters from respondents help our understanding of the results. A letter from a sub-municipal bureaucrat, expressed severe criticism with regard to access to administration after the amalgamations in 2009:

The administration of the big municipality in X has now taken over all administrative tasks. The services to the citizens have been significantly reduced, with a long time waiting for an answer and in some cases the administration has not even answered. Services and those responsible for them have become invisible or have disappeared. All administration and tasks of the sub-municipal council have been transferred to the town. At the same time they have reduced personnel in the sub units and the result is less quality in the administration. Many people from different sub-units have complained about this situation but this has neither been responded to nor led to any changes. It is as if the person responsible has become the enemy of the village.

Another respondent who mailed to us wrote:

The amalgamation of municipality X, leading to very spread neighbourhoods and villages has not been good for the people compared with the situation before. The head administrative office has difficulties in understanding the issues brought up and has problems adapting to this new situation.


The survey results show varying attitudes towards accessibility to administration. The letter we received from the small sub municipal unit is however critical. We can at least presume that the views on this are mixed among the Greenland local leaders and negative as a whole.

In the case of Iceland, satisfaction with the accessibility among local leaders is even stronger than in the Faroes (figure 5). The scores are almost all around 6 on the 1-7 scale, which is high.










Figure 7. “People have good accessibility to the administration”. Iceland. (N=245).




A second of our questions on perceptions of local democracy deals with closeness between citizens and politicians – the contact on a more personal level. Traditional theories on size and democracy tell us that these two are connected and we should expect closer ties in smaller units (Dahl and Tufte 1973). The evaluation study by Eythórsson and Jóhannesson in Iceland in 2002 found that citizens in smaller and more peripheral municipalities, after recent amalgamations, felt that the distance between them and their representatives had increased. In the survey, we brought up the statement “There are tight and close ties between the people and the local politicians”.

The results from the Faroe Islands show a correlation between perceived closeness between citizens and politicians on one hand and size of municipality on the other hand. Figure 8 below shows certain differences: Closeness decreases with increasing size, that is when it exceeds 5000. It also seems to be a little less in the periphery than in the centres. However, despite some differences, in general there seem to be rather close ties in the Faroes – according to the politicians and bureaucrats.










 Figure 8. “There are tight and close ties between the people and the local politicians”. Faroes.  (N=100).




The survey results from Greenland do not show as strong perception of closeness between citizens and politicians – as before Greenland differs from the other two countries. What we can single out here is what appears to be a difference between the smallest (1,000 and less) and the larger ones – the ties seem to be closer in the smaller context. The centre – periphery difference is even significant with looser ties in the peripheral municipalities.










Figure 9. “There are tight and close ties between the people and the local politicians”. Greenland. (N=29).




If we look at the results from the Icelandic case, we see evidence of closeness between the elected and the electorate. We only see a slight tendency for less ties with municipal size. Very little differences show up between centre and periphery as is the case in the Faroes.










Figure 10. “There are tight and close ties between the people and the local politicians”. Iceland. (N=242).




These three figures above do more or less support theories about the connection between closeness, accessibility and municipal population size (Dahl and Tufte 1973). In smaller units the ties are closer – however the differences are not great in Faroe Islands and especially not in Iceland. In these two countries, some signs of differences between centre and periphery appear. But let’s keep in mind that this is what politicians and administrators believe. We did not ask the citizens in this study. Greenland deviates significantly on all measured points, both on differences by size and between centre and periphery. The overall scores for Greenland are also lower than in the other two countries which indicates much lower content with these aspects of local democracy.


5.              Concluding discussion and summary

We cannot overlook the fact that small local government units have some considerable drawbacks while large ones have some advantages. In this article, I have studied these differences in democracy in three small and sparsely populated countries in the North Atlantic. Two of them have high share of small municipalities on an international scale.

It has appeared that territorial democratic deficits measured through the question on if smaller and peripheral neighbourhoods have less influence, are evident in all three countries. The differences by size are not as big as when between centre and peripheral parts. In all three countries the centre – periphery dimension is apparent and especially in Greenland. The size dimension is not as strong in the context – not at all in the Faroe Islands and weak in Iceland. In the case of Greenland it is very clear.

Looking at the other two dimensions, ‘Access to administration’ and ‘Ties between politicians and citizens’ there are not so clear patterns except that the difference between centre and periphery in Greenland seems to be existing. Differences by municipal size are not very evident in any of the countries, ranging from none to slight differences. To sum this up differences between centre and periphery are significant in all three countries when looking at the perceptions of territorial democratic deficits. This is less so if we look at municipal size, however with the differences strong in Greenland. Table 3 below shows a summary of this.











Table  3. Summary of the local leaders perceptions of three aspects of local democracy in the West Nordic countries.

Note: YES = Differences are significantly strong; yes = Differences exist; no = slight differences; NO = no differences at all.


With the overview from table 3 we see that territorial democratic deficits are existing in all cases except size differences in the Faroe Islands. Greenland stands out – local democracy seems to be of far more concern in Greenland than in the other two countries. Icelandic local leaders seem to be more or less content with the situation of access to administration and ties to politicians, while there seems to be more of a question about influence by territory or territorial democratic deficits. The same is for Faroe Islands.

The difference between Greenland on one hand and Iceland and Faroe Islands on the other is apparent and raises questions. Can the widespread discontent in Greenland have to do with how recently their amalgamation reform took place? There were only 5-6 years between the implementation of the reform and our survey. Would things have had to settle down and wounds to cure after this big in scale reform? Or was the reform too big in scale? A study on the consequences conducted for the government of Greenland “Kommunalt demokrati i Grønland” done by the Danish political scientist Ulrik Kjær showed that the discontent with the local democracy among citizens was high and that was even more evident in the peripheral municipalities (Kjær 2015). The pattern we found in Greenland in our West Nordic survey among local leaders is confirmed by the results in the study among the citizens.


6.             References

Aalbu, H., Böhme, K. & Uhlin, Å. (2008): Administrative Reform – Arguments and Values. Stockholm. Nordregio.

Baldersheim, H. (1987): Regionalpolitikk i et samfunn med økende desentralisering – Problemstillinger og arbeidsprogramm. In: NordRefo 1987:2-3. (Regional policy in a society with increasing decentralisation)

Binderkrantz, A. & Jakobsen, M.L.F. (2007): Kommunreform i Nordatlanten. In: Administrativ Debat, nr. 2, 2007. (Municipal reform in the North-Atlantic)

Blom-Hansen, J., Elklit, J. and Serritzlew, S. (eds.) (2006): Kommunreformens konsekvenser. Århus. Academica. (The consequences of the municipal reform).

Brantgärde, L. (1974): Kommunerna och kommunblocksbildningen. Göteborg Studies in Politics 4. Göteborg. (The municipalities and the amalgamation reform).

Bærenholdt, J. O. (2007). Coping with distances. Producing Nordic Atlantic Societies. Berghahn Books.

Dahl, J. (1986): Arktisk selvstyre – historien bag og rammene for det grønlandske hjemmestyre. Copenhagen. Akademisk Forlag. (Arctic self-government – the history behind and the framework for Greenland homerule)

Dahl, R. A. and Tufte, E. R. (1973): Size and Democracy. Stanford. Stanford University Press.

Erlingsson, G. Ó. (2005): Modelling Secessions from Municipalities. In Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 28 – No. 2, 2005 (p. 141-159).

Eythórsson, G. T. (1998): Kommunindelningspolitik i Island. Staten, kommunerna och folket om kommunsammanslagningar. Göteborg. CEFOS. (The politics of amalgamations in Iceland)

Eythórsson, G. T. (2003). Af smáum sveitahreppum og stöndugum kaupstöðum. Um þróun sveitarstjórnarstigsins á Íslandi. In Afmæliskveðja til Háskóla Íslands. Akureyri: Hólar. (On the development of the municipal level in Iceland).

Eythórsson, G. T. (2009): Municipal amalgamations in Iceland. Past, present and future. In: Baldacchino, Greenwood & Felt (eds.): Remote Control. Governance Lessons for and from Small, Insular, and Remote Regions. St. John´s. Iser Books.

Eythórsson, G. T.  (2011): Kommunsammanslagningar på Island. In: Ivarsson, Andreas (ed.): Nordisk kommunforskning. En forskningsöversikt med 113 projekt. Göteborg. Förvaltningshögskolan. (p. 139-150). (Municipal amalgamations in Iceland).

Eythórsson, G. T. (2012). Efling íslenska sveitarstjórnarstigsins. Áherslur, hugmyndir og aðgerðir. (Reinforcing the municipal level in Iceland: Ideas, policies and implementations). Stjórnmál og stjórnsýsla, 8(2), 431-450) http://www.irpa.is/article/view/1187

Eythórsson G. T. & Arnarsson S. (2012): Íslensk sveitarstjórnarmál í brennidepli. (Icelandic local politics in the spotlight). Akureyri. Háskólinn á Akureyri.

Eythórsson, G. T., Gløersen, E. & Karlsson, V. (2014): West Nordic municipal structure. Challenges to local democracy, efficient service provision and adaptive capacity.  Akureyri. University of Akureyri Research Centre. http://ssv.is/Files/Skra_0068629.pdf

Eythórsson, G. T., Gløersen, E. & Karlsson, V. (2015): Municipalities in the Arctic in Challenging times. West Nordic local politicians and administrators on municipal structure, local democracy, service provision and adaptive capacity in their municipalities. Akureyri. University of Akureyri.

Eythórsson, G. T. & Jóhannesson, H. (2002): Sameining sveitarfélaga. Áhrif og afleiðingar. Rannsókn á sjö sveitarfélögum. Akureyri. RHA. (Municipal amalgamations. Impact and consequences).

Grønlands Statistik – website of the Greenland statistical bureau (www.stat.gl)

Hagstova Føroya – website of the Faroe Islands statistical bureau (www.hagstova.fo)

Hagstofa Íslands – website of the Icelandic statistical bureau (www.hagstofa.is)

Hovgaard G., Eythórsson G. T. & Fellman K. (2004): Future challenges to small municipalities. The cases of Iceland, Faroe Islands and Åland Islands. Nordregio 2004:5

Juul-Madsen, L. and Skou, M. H. (2006): Kan man lægge kommuner sammen uden omkostninger for lokaldemokratiet? In: Blom-Hansen, Jens, Elklit, Jørgen and Serritzlew, Søren (eds.) (2006): Kommunareformens konsekvenser. Århus. Academica. (Is it possible to merge municipalities without costs for the local democracy?)

KANUKOKA. Årsberetning 2011. Retrieved from http://www.kanukoka.gl/dadk/media/3435/%C3%85rsberetning%202011.pdf

Kjær, U. (2005): Bilag 1: Kommunesammenlægninger i Grønland set i et lokaldemokratisk lys. In: Betænkning vedrørende en strukturreform af den offentlige sektor. Strukturudvalget, Grønland. (Municipal amalgamations in Greenland seen in the light of local democracy).

Kjær, U. (2015): Kommunalt demokrati i Grønland. Syddansk Universitet. (Local democracy in Greenland).

Lassen, David and Serritzlev, Søren (2011): Jurisdiction Size and Local Democracy: Evidence on Internal Political Efficacy from Large-scale Municipal Reform. In American Political Science Review. Vol. 105, No. 2 May 2011 (p. 238-258).

Nørgaard-Petersen, J. and Christensen, M. H. (2006): Repræsenteres vælgerne i de nye kommuner? In: Blom-Hansen, Jens, Elklit, Jørgen and Serritzlew, Søren (eds.) (2006): Kommunareformens konsekvenser. Århus. Academica. (Are the voters represented in the new municipalities?).

Referat fra Delegeretmøde i KANUKOKA 2013. Ordinært delegeretmøde i KANUKOKA, De grønlandske kommuners landsforening, den 13.-14. juni 2013. (http://www.kanukoka.gl/da-dk/media/3832/referat%202013.pdf).

Steiner, R., Kaiser, C., & Eythórsson, G. T. (2016). A Comparative Analysis of Amalgamation Reforms in Selected European Countries. In S. Kuhlmann & G. Bouckaert (Eds.), Local Public Sector Reforms in Times of Crisis. National trajectories and international comparisons. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

7.             Endnotes

[1] In Greenland sub-municipal units (Bygdebestyrelser) were even included.

[2] The authors of this chapter use three indicators for municipal size: population, area and urbanization degree. The discussion of size here is restricted to population numbers.

[3] Hovgaard et.al. 2004, pp. 18-20

[4] See the following document:

http://dk.nanoq.gl/Emner/Landsstyre/Departementer/Dep_for_indenrigsanliggender_Natur_og_Miljoe/Indenrigskontor/Til_kommunerne/Strukturreformen/Strukturudvalget.aspx. (Downloaded on 25th April 2013). Aalbu (et.al.) (2008).

[5] Statistics Greenland:


[6] Based on Eythórsson (1998).

[7] Aalbu et. al. 2008 p. 34.

[8] Referat. Delegeretmøde i KANUKOKA 2013.

[9] The response rate was similar in Iceland and the Faroes. In a survey among elected local politicians in Iceland in the autumn 2011 the response rate was 56.6% (Eythórsson and Arnarson 2012) and in a survey sent to mayors and administrative leaders in Iceland, the Faroes and Åland in 2004 the response rate was 61.2% in Iceland and 44.8% in the Faroe Islands (Hovgaard, Eythórsson and Fellman 2004).

Ole Høiris, Ole Marquard and Gitte Adler Reimer (eds.), Grønlændernes syn på Danmark. Historiske, kulturelle og sproglige perspektiver (Aarhus: Aarhus Universitets foreleg, 2019)

This book is about the experience of the people from Greenland of their relation to Denmark, Europe and the world. Based on an earlier book about Greenlandic identity and the integration of Greenland into the world of globalization and cosmopolitanism, this anthology changes the perspective and investigates how the people in Greenland perceived their participation in the Danish commonwealth and the relation to other European countries. In the European perspective, the Greenlander was constructed the radical other,  the different human being, the natural man and woman who lived a totally other life, the romantic life in close relation to nature that the Danish and European people once lived, but no longer had any relation to.

In the same way, the Greenlander conceived the ideal of Danish identity, of the Nation state as the basis for construction of the National identity of Greenland and they were nearly adopting and internalizing the Danish view of themselves as the natural people of Greenland. In this sense, the people from Greenland adopted the identity of the nation state and they wanted to construct a common identity based on their historical and cultural identity. In this context of formation of personal and national identity, the book is an interesting contribution to the understanding of the construction of identity through the relation to the other, where one mutually adopts they view of the other as basis for personal identity. It can be argued that the identity of the Greenlanders was constructed through their relation to the people in Denmark and that it was in this conflictual interaction of adoption and rejection of the views of the other that they constructed their personal and cultural identity.

The anthology has a historical and cultural perspective. It traces the relation between the Danish people and the Greenlanders since the 17th Century. The first meetings between the Scandinavians and Greenlandic Inuit took place in southwestern Greenland around the year 1300. However, these accounts was written by Europeans and therefore the book argues that there are only sources from later encounters between Europeans, Danish people and the Inuit from Greenland, so this creates difficulties from the perspective of the historical investigation of the experience of the Danish and Europeans from the point of view of the Greenlanders. In fact, this creates a methodological problem for the book since no primary written sources exist from that time where the Greenlandic people describe their encounter with the Danish people and the Europeans.

Accordingly, the book starts with the time from 1721 when the lasting connection was established between Greenland and Denmark. At that time, the priest Hans Egede arrived as the King Frederik IV’s envoy with the aim of making the Greenlanders Christian, just as trading stations on primarily the west coast were established during the period. Thus, the colonial intention of making the people in Greenland Christian was combined with the business and trade in order to get products from the far North. From that time, the book traces different aspects of the cultural encounter between Danish people, Europeans and the people from Greenland.

As the book is an anthology, it combines papers by researchers from Greenland and Denmark who study a number of the sources that give access to the Greenlanders’ somewhat mixed opinion about Danish missionaries, merchants and officials in Greenland. The book also accounts for the experiences and impressions that Greenlanders received when they were travelling abroad to Denmark and Europe.  The books mixes studies of written sources, myths and works of art in the description of the Greenlanders perception of the Danish and European people. It is striking that the Greenlandic people are very loyal to the Danish Queen and that they feel attached to the kingdom of Denmark at the same time as they have very complex and mixed feelings with regard to the Danish people.

Thus, the books contains the following articles. After the introduction by Ole Høiris and Ole Marquardt, the book covers as different topics as the Greenlandic origin of the the Qallunaat (Europeans) (Birgit Sonne); The Danish-Greenland Cultural Meeting from the Middle Ages to Hans Egede (Flemming A.J. Nielsen); Colonialism seen from the side of a former colonizer (Robert Petersen); The greenlandic writer Peter Gundel’s voice (Søren Rud); Guilt, shame and atonement. About an important work of Grenlandic literature (Kirsten Thisted); ‘The Ultra Radical’ – Augo Lynges and his like-minded view the Danish people (Jens Lei Wendel-Hansen);  The Greenlanders and the Danish royal house – power, ceremonies and emotions (Søren Thuesen); Danes and Greenlanders in the colonial trade- commercial everyday situations with contact potential in the period 1774 to 1900 (Ole Marquardt); Inuit’s accounts of appearances in Denmark, Europe and the United States (Ole Høiris); The almost always present Danishness(Bo Wagner Sørensen and Søren Forchhammer); The inviolable ease of existence- a study of differences in worldview among Greenlanders and Danes (Pelle Tejsner); Kikkut Qallunaajuppat? – Who are the Danes? About gaze directions between Denmark and Greenland and the movie Kikkut Qallunaajuppat? (Louise Hollerup); Greenlanders’ globalization through Danish fashion- the Greenlandic diaspora in Denmark (Rosannguaq Rossen); Greenlandic identity and development- Danish threats and opportunities: The language debate under home and autonomy (Ulrik Pram Gad); The participation of Greenlanders in social research in Greenland (Steven Arnfjord).

With all these interesting and scholarly well-argued contributions, this book is an important contribution to the understanding of the complex post-colonial relation between Denmark, Europe and Greenland. With the combined methods of historical analysis, ethnography, literature studies, cultural analysis and contemporary social analysis, the anthology is able to provide a good foundation for the study of creation of identity through the cultural encounter. The idea of colonialism seen from the point of view of the colonized as the view of the other on the otherness of the other is important for understanding the problems of colonialism and overcome post-colonial traumas and problems in times of globalization and cosmopolitanism. The importance of the voices of the local cultural, historical and literary traditions cannot be emphasized enough. In order to deal with identity it is important to understand the role of the gaze of the other for the creation of the identity of the self. The radical other is significant for the creation of the identity of the self. At the same time, it is interesting how the people of Greenland have appropriated the Danish royal house and how this has contributed to the creation of a national identity of Greenland as a part of the commonwealth with Denmark. Nevertheless, this is still some that happens from the point of view of the otherness of the other to the Danish royal house. In our present times of cosmopolitan globalization with the global interest in the arctic and in Greenland this book is an important contribution for understanding the historical, cultural and social roots of our contemporary challenges.

Jarich Oosten & Barbara Helen Miller (eds.), Traditions, Traps and Trends. Transfer of Knowledge in Arctic Regions (Alberta: The University of Alberta Press, 2018)

Indigenous knowledge – or traditional knowledge – has recently gained more and more attention, especially within the Arctic context. Large and complex bodies of knowledge(s) are thus acknowledged, which are mostly acquired in non-verbal ways: a learning by doing, or better, a learning by living (it), ensuring survival in the harshest environments of the globe for millennia.  Such a knowledge includes skills and “attitude that encourages perceptual rather than judgmental forms of knowing”, leading to a life oriented toward service to community. It is a knowledge that still today struggles with the Western concept of “science”, still deeply anchored to classic dichotomies, as “our way of thinking” vs ”their way of thinking”, or the Cartesian paradigm whereby mind and body are essentially separate entities.

The scope of this book, outlined by the editors Jarich Oosten and Barbara Helen Miller in the introduction, is to overcome the classic definition of “Western science” and “mak[e] a place in scientific discourse for contributions from Indigenous authorities”.  This cognitive place is therefore created by eight interdisciplinary case-studies, written by different authors, that explore knowledge transfer and knowledge practices of the Inuit in Canada, East and West Greenland, and the Northern Sámi of Norway. There is no given methodological explanation regarding the selection of Arctic regions treated in the book, but probably it is the result of the geographical areas of expertise of the authors, all members of the Research Group Circumpolar Cultures.

After a dense introduction, aimed at clearing out both the theoretical background and the histories of the peoples involved, the book is divided conceptually into two parts: the first one comprises five chapters on the Inuit of Greenland and North America; the second one three chapters on the Northern Sámi of Norway.

The first part considers the Inuit concept of IQ, “knowledge that has proven to be useful in the past and is still useful today”, in different contexts, historical times and geographical areas. Although following separate patterns, all the authors come to highlight, on the one hand, the disruptive effects that the introduction of Western education, with missionaries first and national school systems later, has had on individual, social and family relations. On the other hand, the dynamic and flexible nature of this IQ makes it still today a valuable body of knowledge(s) (inclusive of its spiritual component) for the younger generations’ well-being, both mental and physical. A correct transfer of this knowledge (or IQ), however, faces today several challenges, as for example the impossibility of extracting this knowledge from its material support, that is to say, the environment, and teach it in a classroom; obliging educators and researchers to experiment and find more suitable solutions (some of them are addressed in the book).

The second part takes the reader to a completely different location, Northern Norway, and into a different culture, the Sámi. This second part focuses on a variety of topics, yet connected with the main area outlined in the introduction, i.e. transfer of knowledge and knowledge practices.

Presented as a book for “students and scholars in anthropology and ethnology and for everyone interested in the Circumpolar North”, this collection of essays offers indeed different reading levels. However, probably due to a general lack of coordination among the authors of the first part, where the five essays share the same main topic, IQ, and different yet similar background (Inuit), make the reading often repetitive and redundant, hampering a fluid reading. The second part, while being definitely more diverse, sometimes struggles in showing clearly its connections with the overall scope of the book, leaving the reader a little lost.

Some peculiar design choices – such as the font and its size, slightly smaller than usual, and the left-side alignment – make the reading not easy, as they give the feeling of an endless footnote. On the bright side, this book includes also some interesting historical figures and drawings, such as those (pp. 166-167) illustrating stories related to “tupilat” (i.e. “evil spirits” in the form of small sculptures carved out of bone, ivory, wood or stone, depicting monstrous figures and believed to have destructive and sometimes lethal effects on rivals).

A question, however, remains unanswered.

Why is no essay in this book openly written by an indigenous scholar or an “indigenous authority” of the actual Arctic communities that are discussed therein, a child of their lived experiences and living cultures?  The feeling is that one very important classic dichotomy was not addressed at all, that is to say, indigenous cultures and indigenous peoples as proactive “subjects” of research rather than “objects”. If this dichotomy persists, can then the authors’ competent scientific approach really achieve the declared aim of the book’s editors, namely to “mak[e] a place in scientific discourse for contributions from Indigenous authorities”?

Ethical Challenges Facing Greenland in the Present Era of Globalization: Towards Global Responsibility



Introduction: Ethics and the Arctic

Recently, the developments of ethics and politics in the Arctic region have again become an issue for international discussion. One main issue is the problem of climate change and sustainability of the Arctic region. This problem is linked to the issue of exploitation of natural resources in the Arctic region, not at least in Greenland. Indeed, the general issue is how we should define ethics of the environment and sustainability as a general principle for the Arctic region. It is important to discuss what is at stake and how we define the problem in relation to the different participating stakeholders.

  Continue reading Ethical Challenges Facing Greenland in the Present Era of Globalization: Towards Global Responsibility