WASHINGTON (May 26, 2012) -- West Point is even more important to the country today than when Gen. George Washington called it "the key to the continent," Vice President Joe Biden said during graduation exercises at the U.S. Military Academy today.

In 1777, West Point was a fortified area along the Hudson River that stopped the British from splitting the colonies. Today, the home of the military academy produces leaders who shape America and answer every call to duty the country makes, the vice president said.

Biden spoke to the 1,032 cadets who received their diplomas and were commissioned into service. He also spoke to their families and friends gathered under a hot sun at Michie Stadium.

The class represents the best of the 9/11 generation, the vice president said, adding that the cadets "are more than worthy of the proud legacy you inherit today."

The cadets, like all men and women who joined the military after 9/11, knew they would be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, Biden said.

"Hundreds of thousands of you have laced up those combat boots and walked across those barren deserts or snow-capped mountains, where 24 members of this graduating class have already served," he said.

The graduates will be commissioned officers, but they will also be much more, the vice president said. They will learn the intricacies of tribal politics, they will learn how to run a school system, put in irrigation, train indigenous forces and much more.

These young officers must learn counterinsurgency doctrine and apply it, but they must be ready for changes in the world, too, Biden said. The United States is working to strengthen NATO so it can continue being the most successful alliance in history, he said. And as the war in Iraq has ended and the war in Afghanistan ends, the military can spend time on other priorities including the Asia-Pacific region.

"The United States has long been and will remain a Pacific power, and a critical provider of peace, prosperity and security in this vital region," Biden told the cadets. "The most critical relationship to get right is that between the United States and China. Every day the affairs of our nations and the livelihoods of our citizens grow more connected. How we manage this relationship between the world's two largest economies will help shape the 21st century."

The United States also is working with other emerging powers like India, Brazil, Turkey and South Africa.

"All these efforts are helping advance America's interests at home and around the world," he said.

The new strategic defense strategy will affect these new officers. The strategy provides "a more agile, flexible force prepared for future challenges, better able to confront the aggressors and project power with strong partners to share the burden and smart investments in cutting edge capabilities," he said.

America's unique position in the world requires the finest fighting force, Biden said. "And that's exactly what this strategy does," he said.

The U.S. Military Academy has prepared the new officers to face new challenges and lead. They have "the minds to adapt to tomorrow's horizons, from cyberspace to outer space," he said.

"West Point is in the business of producing great leaders," Biden said. "Class of 2012, this is your destiny -- to lead your country."