It’s the grand prize in a globalized world — owning the shortest trade route between Asia, Europe and North America.
In 1845, Sir John Franklin set out to grab that prize. Determined to map the Northwest Passage, he organized the best outfitted expedition in the history of polar exploration.
Hulls were reinforced with iron planks for icebreaking. Each ship had specially-designed screws, steam engines and even heated cabins. The stores included 8,000 tons of food — enough to feed his 134-man crew for five years.
Not one of them came back alive.
But interest in the Arctic is higher today than ever — and for good reason. Covering one-sixth of the world’s land mass and vast expanses of sea, it contains a wealth of untapped resources from minerals like rare earths and uranium to gushers of oil and natural resources.
And geography hasn’t changed since Franklin’s era. The polar area still offers the shortest path for trans-continental travel by train, boat and plane.
Now, as then, the overwhelming bulk of the world's goods trade travel by sea. And most of the world's manufacturing capacity remains concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere. That translates into an insatiable demand for looking for cheaper and faster ways to move goods north of the equator.
But much has changed since Franklin’s expedition succumbed to disease, starvation, exposure and cannibalism. The area of the Arctic covered year-round in ice is substantially growing smaller. This will give humans more access to and through the region in the future.
While concerns about climate change, environmental protection and the rights of indigenous people still dominate Arctic discussions, it looks increasingly like economic development will drive the agenda in the future.
That’s because the demand for trans-arctic shipping, mining, and oil and gas exploration together will spark major investments in everything from ports to pipelines. All that economic activity is going to make doing business in the Arctic more attractive — putting development in overdrive.
The region will likely see a healthy balance of competition and cooperation. The Arctic only makes sense from an economic standpoint if it functions as an integrated market where goods and services can flow through and around the eight Arctic nations — the U.S., Canada, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
Further, there will be a lot more military in the Arctic — not to fight over territory and resources, but to support all the people running around up there.
There will be demands for armed forces to help with search and rescue, fisheries protection and environmental and disaster response, as well as to safeguard national sovereignty of air, land and sea.
Of all the Arctic powers, the U.S. may be the least prepared to capitalize on its opportunities. The administration has put in a few cursory diplomatic appearances in the region.
Hillary Clinton, while secretary of state, visited Tromsø, Norway -- an Arctic city. Her successor, John Kerry, made a stopover at the Arctic Council, the most important governing body for polar affairs.
The administration also published an official Arctic strategy. But polar PR aside, the state of Alaska seems to be the only American government taking the new Arctic seriously.
The U.S. Coast Guard, for example, is vital for operations in the Arctic. But the federal plan for building Coast Guard ships and infrastructure seems designed for a wake rather than an awakening.
In two years, the U.S. assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Between now and then, Washington needs to do some serious thinking about how best to encourage sensible innovation and investment in the polar region as well as safeguard American interests and sovereignty.JAMES JAY CARAFANO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.