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The Arctic Spring

Washington Is Sleeping Through Changes at the Top of the World

A fishing boat at D​isko Bay, Greenland, August 2008 Yadid Levy / Anzenberger / Redux

On August 15, The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. President Donald Trump had expressed interest in purchasing Greenland from Denmark. The subject dominated international headlines for several days. Copenhagen and Nuuk (the capital of Greenland) issued a lighthearted but clear “not for sale” message. Then the world moved on to more pressing issues, and Greenland quickly disappeared from the front pages.

For a brief moment, however, Trump’s foray into the realm of geopolitical real estate touched off a long-overdue discussion about Greenland and the Arctic more generally. The Arctic is vast, encompassing nearly all of Greenland, about one-third of Russia, and parts of several Scandinavian countries, Canada, and the U.S. state of Alaska. This makes the United States part of a small group of countries with direct economic, security, and environmental interests in the region. But since the end of the Cold War the Arctic has mostly figured as an afterthought in U.S. foreign policy. Today, that lack of attention borders on negligence. Climate change is rapidly opening up the once inaccessible region to increased human activity and economic exploitation. As the United States has stood by, rivals such as Russia and China have seized that opportunity both economically and militarily, and their intentions are not wholly benign. If Washington wants to ensure its continued access to the Arctic and safeguard its security in the region in the decades ahead, its best bet is to expand its own presence there while it still can.

Washington’s best bet is to expand its presence in the Arctic while it still can.

Climate change is affecting the Arctic at an astonishing speed. The region is currently warming at twice the average global rate. Retreating sea ice is opening new shipping routes and access to natural resources that were once beyond reach, including rare earths, fishing stocks, and—according to a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey—vast amounts of undiscovered oil and gas. For now, most of these assets lie squarely

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