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In Conversation with Inuuteq Holm Olsen

In 2009, the Greenland Self-Government Act came into force, granting the nation greater autonomy from the Kingdom of Denmark. Greenland is the world's largest island and is rich with natural resources. Erica Dingman, senior fellow and director of Arctic in Context at World Policy Institute, caught up with Inuuteq Holm Olsen, the first Greenlandic representative at the Embassy of Denmark to the United States, to discuss the path to his new position and the challenges of diplomacy. On Jan. 1, 2014, Inuuteq Holm Olsen became the first Minister Plenipotentiary and Head of Representation for Greenland at the Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C., with the addition of Canada in October 2015. Mr. Holm Olsen earned his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a M.A. in International Affairs from The George Washington University.

ERICA DINGMAN: You are the first Greenlandic representative at the Embassy of Denmark to the United States. On paper your position at the embassy is to help strengthen trade and economic relations between Greenland and the United States, with the recent addition of Canada. What does your job entail?

INUUTEQ HOLM OLSEN: In my position, I represent the whole country of Greenland. Therefore, my job is quite varied in terms of the subject matters that I cover, including politics, culture, trade, economy, research, tourism, and other matters. It certainly has its challenges as I have to be knowledgeable and able to answer all kind of questions and issues that might arise. While it can look daunting on paper, it also forces me to focus and prioritize as to what I engage in. As long as I am a one-man army, and until I get reinforcement in January 2017, my position has its limits as to the extent of work I am able to carry out. I would love to do much more, but that has to wait until I get additional staff. Geographically speaking, it is much more challenging because the United States and Canada are huge. Traveling from one end to the other takes around two days to get back and fourth.

I’ve been focused a lot on outreach and getting my name out there, and that will continue. I’ve also been focused on building relationships with different sectors and constituencies. I had to start from scratch since this is an entirely new position. But I think it is the right time to be present in the United States and Canada as the Arctic agenda is gaining prominence. There is also quite an interest in Greenland, and rightfully so, since it’s only logical to have close ties to your neighbors. For centuries, and this applies very much to today, we’ve been so oriented toward Denmark and Europe that we haven’t focused on looking west until now. On the positive side, there is only one way to go and that is to move ahead with the obvious obstacles in the way: lack of direct routes between us, “old habits die hard” mentality, language, etc.

ED: Tell me about the path that brought you to where you are today, both in terms of your career and your personal influences?

IHO: If we go way back to my college years, I actually spent seven years of my life here in the United States. I was lucky enough to be part of an “experiment” that the Greenland Government established in 1989 to send Greenlanders to the United States to be educated rather than the normal route of obtaining a university degree in Denmark. I was one of three students who were chosen from my high school, and I’ve been privileged to live in such diverse places as Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C. When I was done with my studies, I went back to Nuuk and started my career in the Greenlandic Foreign Service, which led me to posts in Copenhagen and Brussels. After Brussels, I went back to Nuuk and eventually moved up the hierarchy to become Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, for which I served eight years. After being in a challenging position as manager of a department, I wanted to move on. After a break of six months and a short stint at the foreign ministry in Copenhagen, I moved to Washington, D.C. to start my new job just over two years ago. Throughout my studies and working for the government, I’ve always been interested the political environment and being part of the decision making process. Personally, I’m drawn to that kind of work.

ED: What’s the most surprising thing that you found out from your time in North America?

IHO: I knew from when I was studying here 20-plus years ago that the knowledge level about Greenland was rather small, if not non-existent. But things have improved, especially with the whole discussion about climate change. When I meet people and tell them where I’m from, usually the first thing that comes to their mind is the issue of climate change. The increasing melting of the Greenland icecap poses a threat to the shores of the United States, and that is something that we are going to hear about a lot more in the coming years as scientists get a better understanding of the forces we are dealing with in Greenland.

But I do still get that question, “Where is Greenland?” There are times when I’m tempted to answer, “Pass the moon and head towards Mars!” just to see what kind of reaction I’ll get. But as a good diplomat, I’ll put on my serious poker face and explain to them where it is.

ED: What’s the most gratifying part of your position? And most challenging?

IHO: The most gratifying part is being the first one to have this position, enabling me to form the content of the job, building it up from scratch. But as much as I am my own boss, I still depend on forces outside of my control. For example, each day brings a new kind of request, as well as colleagues and partners at home who I depend on to facilitate different kind of contacts. I do feel privileged and obligated to bring about changes, and I am working to establish closer relations between Greenland and the United States, as well as with Canada.

The most challenging part of my position is first and foremost the lack of knowledge about Greenland. I have to do a lot of presentations and explaining. It takes time, and it will also take time to see the fruit of my labor. The other challenging aspect is the lack of direct routes and trade between North America and Greenland. It is difficult to establish closer relations when you still have to circumvent North America as a continent and go through other countries to actually get to Greenland. It is not something that will change tomorrow, but I just have to establish a base for that to happen in the future.

ED: What void are you trying to fill?

IHO: I don’t see myself as trying to fill a void as much as working to widen and expand Greenland’s relations with other countries. Greenland is a country slowly moving toward greater autonomy, and as part of that process, Greenland wants to engage directly with partners such as the United States and Canada. As the United States and Canada are both Arctic countries, we share a lot of the same challenges and issues. There is a basis for a lot more cooperation and interaction, particularly considering we are neighboring countries. Greenland’s focus on developing its minerals as well as its energy sector could be of significant interest to the United States and Canada, as another example.

ED: What would you like to see happen in the future?

IHO: I would love to see concrete results of closer relations between us, be it in the number of tourists visiting Greenland, in the investment in Greenland’s industries and infrastructure, in the number of companies investing in Greenland, in educational and research possibilities and cultural exchanges, or most important of all, in mutual respect. Mutual respect is one of the basic foundations to establishing closer relations.

ED: How would you describe Greenland to someone who knows nothing about the country?

IHO: Think of the United States or Canada in a microcosm. We are a country just like anywhere else, dealing with the same issues concerning the economy, education, health, etc. We have a rich culture and traditions as part of the Inuit in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. We are also influenced by the Nordic way of conducting politics, including the legal system and welfare. So it is also necessary to think outside of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, which heavily influences the United States and Canada, when you think of Greenland.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The World Policy Institute would like to acknowledge the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's role in support of knowledge mobilization from the One Arctic Symposium.

[Photo courtesy of The Gordon Foundation]

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