Old-school thinking sees America as a nation bounded by two great oceans. Yet the world has changed. The Arctic Ocean is no longer optional. In fact, it has become our nation's third great ocean border -- and the opportunity of a lifetime.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent visit to Greenland on May 12 confirmed that realization. She became the first U.S. secretary of state to attend the Arctic Council.
A neighborhood meeting of eight Arctic nations, the Arctic Council is also no longer optional. Mrs. Clinton's attendance underscores how, onshore and offshore, the Arctic is of strategic importance to national security, global commerce and climate, and in meeting the world's energy needs.
Cooperation in the neighborhood now can prevent conflicts later over sovereignty, shipping, the environment, energy and national security.
Scientists predict that within two decades, the Arctic Ocean will have open waters for a full month each year. With open waters, unresolved border issues can no longer be ignored.
For example, the U.S.-Canadian Arctic maritime border is not yet agreed to as the firm line you may see on a map.
The U.S.-Russia border through the Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea and Arctic Ocean remains unratified by Russia's Duma. Norway, Russia, Denmark and Canada are advancing their negotiations to resolve already-active border disputes.
The Arctic nations are preparing claims to take control of extended continental shelves that could carve up the Arctic Ocean floor -- almost to the North Pole.
Shipping is expanding exponentially. Russia's northern-route shipping volume is predicted to increase 500 percent this year over last, and Russia is granting permits for foreign vessels to transit its northern route.
Eager to show its interest, China is allocating more to polar research, even going so far as to send an icebreaker north of Alaska last summer and north of Iceland this summer to do reconnaissance on shipping routes. Other nations, such as South Korea, also are gearing up because the northern routes can save billions of dollars in time, fuel and piracy problems.
How will search-and-rescue operations be undertaken if there are no prior agreements? Does the United States have assets in place in Alaska to protect our 1,000 miles of Arctic coastline in the event a ship founders?
The first-ever Arctic Council binding instrument was signed May 12 -- a search-and-rescue pact that puts border issues aside and establishes areas of responsibility to make sure ships and people in trouble are rescued. It would help if the United States would follow up with a plan to replace its ailing Polar Class icebreakers that were commissioned during the Nixon administration.
In addition to sovereignty and shipping, energy is a looming global problem, and the Arctic provides solutions. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 23 percent of the world's undiscovered gas will be found in the Arctic.
Major offshore energy projects are in the works in northern Canada, Russia, Greenland, Norway and even Iceland. America lags in Arctic energy exploration as federal permits are endlessly delayed.
The world needs the energy the Arctic is beginning to produce. With eight nations bordering the Arctic Ocean and many others eyeing its potential, the leadership and cooperation of the United States is needed now.
Finally, there is the matter of our nation's own interconnected energy and national security. The oil and gas potential of Arctic Alaska can help us build a bridge to the future, when non-petroleum-based technologies become commercially viable over the next several decades.
We already have a pipeline from Prudhoe Bay; the infrastructure is in place, and the exploration companies are willing. With responsible development, Alaska's Arctic can guarantee decades more supply of both oil and gas to keep America strong.
As the Arctic Ocean becomes more accessible, our nation's 1,000-mile northern coast is suddenly strategic and our vital national interests have a new frontier.
Mrs. Clinton is bringing the United States to the table at the right time to protect our sovereignty, national energy and economic security and to add wisdom and diplomacy to policies being forged. We're watching history being made.
Gen. Joe Ralston is former supreme allied commander of NATO in Europe and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is vice chairman of the Cohen Group.
This commentary was first published by The Washington Times and is republished here with the author's permission.
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