The Tragic Comedy in “Buying Greenland” from Denmark

President Donald Trump’s recent proposition to buy Greenland generated curious headlines and reactions around the world. Many have focused their attention on the comical reaction to his offer: not for sale, absurd. Trump’s disregard for Greenland’s self-governing-autonomy and his unsophisticated approach to negotiation and problem-solving are on full display.

The public, as Trump’s employer, should be truly alarmed by this behavior. It is not just his typical failed international relations approach, but it is bumbling predatory cruelty that alienates the vast majority of the world.

The facts are clear: Trump wanted to buy something that was not for sale, he wanted to buy it from someone in no position to sell it, and he was disappointed and angry about being declined. It was as absurd as your friend being upset that you will not sell your neighbor’s car to him. Trump clearly has missed the part where Greenland could join the U.S. if they wanted to.

Trump presents two temperaments for managing conflict, neither of which obtains in successful statecraft. He either competes with ham-handed ruthlessness, or gaslights and avoids. His calculations reflect his own interests, either he is willing to fight for something he wants or he gives up in a hissy fit. It is a strategy that may work well in some business transactions, like buying and selling when there is little or no expected future business relationship. The substantive component—the buy—can be served through hard negotiation and success is reflected in the price paid for a quality product. Anger and disappointment over a price, however, are unlikely to sweeten a deal, while they may sour one.

What Trump consistently misses are temperaments that recognize someone else’s interests. Compromise is strategy where you sacrifice some of what you want in order to get some of what you want; most grade-school-aged-kids have learned this lesson. The next level is learning how to identify what you don’t value so highly and what the other might value quite highly. Giving that to another makes them a winner and you can more easily ask for that which they may not value as much but which you hold in high regard.

Accommodation does not exist in Trump’s menu of options. We accommodate when we do for others and expect nothing in return. It is a friendly behavior, something which frequently has considerable rewards. It helps relationships grow, in everyday relationships or diplomatically, like in relationships between the U.S. and Denmark.

Trump’s view of Greenland’s potential 50 billion barrels of oil, and other untapped resources completely misses the worth and value of relationships. The hyper-focus on substantive considerations of material value completely ignores other details like emotional satisfaction; the Danish are happier and score higher in quality of life than Americans. Again, I think most adolescents learn: it is not what you say but how you say it.

Experts in peace studies and conflict resolution have found considerable evidence relating to best practices and predictions for problem-solving and negotiation. The most durable outcomes are achieved through collaborative processes. They are noted for being both more time and resource intensive, and also for being the only means for true win-win outcomes. Competitive, zero-sum, and coercive strategies can potentially deliver short term results, as can avoidance, but they miss important satisfactions. You want your opponent to think at the end of the day, “I came out better than if we never negotiated and I am open to good faith negotiations with this other in the future.”

Under such critical evaluation it is painfully clear that Trump’s efforts go beyond failure and into the realm of hurting U.S. interests. His predictably poor strategy delivered an expected outcome. He has done damage to a history of trust; he truly does not understand that trust and truth matter, and has further degraded American credibility.

Scholarly research shows collaborative solutions are the only real option for addressing complex human and humanitarian struggles we are now facing. Electing leaders bent on nationalistic, profiteering selfish interests will continue to produce problems. Win-win outcomes will be the only hope for the future. Sadly, the costs of delays in quality leadership are devastating. Species are going extinct while inept leaders push dishonest agendas and acres are burning while corruption protects profits. Machiavelli may have even revisited his declaration that it is better to be feared than loved if you can’t be both, if he was exposed to our planet currently charting a course to annihilation; adaptation and evolution are marks of true leadership.

Wim Laven has a PhD in International Conflict Management, he teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution, and is on the Executive Boards of the International Peace Research Association and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.