The United States faces its greatest threat since the end of the Cold War one-third of a century ago. The Soviet Union’s collapse appeared to inaugurate a period of political unipolarity. Overwhelming American power, it seemed, could support world order. But our thirty years’ peace has now ended. Rivals rise, hoping to displace the US’ global position, destroy the American-led order, and reshape the world by the lights of a familiar authoritarian scheme. The US and its allies provide an alternative. Imperfect as any polity may be, America stands for an international order in which free peoples can determine their own form of government, and flourish as they see fit. In turn, common agreement exists about the virtues of representative government throughout the world, even in the rhetoric of the authoritarian regimes most disposed against them.
“Defending American ideals requires wielding American power, with particular emphasis on seapower… [but] the sea services lack a coherent strategy for deterring and defeating America’s enemies, and the American public lacks clear understanding of the role maritime power plays in their way of life.
“Yorktown Institute is founded with the objective of rectifying this situation.”
In today’s inter-war period, the US’ central task is ensuring its geopolitical position. Defending American ideals requires wielding American power, with particular emphasis on seapower. This involves maintaining alliances, preserving economic strength, defending domestic institutions, and reorienting all elements of naval and military power for the current contest for Eurasian dominance. Where it had once been chiefly European, our current competition is Eurasian. It is a struggle for supremacy over the world’s supercontinent, hegemony over which would create a springboard to global control. It is a contest from the Black and Baltic Seas to the South China Sea.
Crucial as ideological concerns are, it is military and naval power that will determine Eurasia’s fate. As in all historical confrontations, when leaders and peoples demand recognition, warfare remains the final arbiter of nations.
Maritime power is key to military power in this new era of Eurasian competition. It undergirds all other elements of national power. Projecting land and air power, ensuring economic access, and safeguarding free trade all require control of the seas. Moreover, given the geography of Eurasian competition – that is, Chinese maritime interests, Iranian ambitions toward the Middle East’s maritime littorals, and Russian power-projection in the Arctic, Baltic, Mediterranean, and Black Sea – naval combat will be the determinate medium of kinetic conflict.
Determinate – but not exclusively determinate. The 1781 Siege of Yorktown serves as a microcosm of strategic interaction. A Franco-American coalition used maritime and land forces to surround Cornwallis’ army, forcing it to capitulate. This mixture of diplomacy, land power, and naval power defines the American style of strategic thought at its best. It is this unique American style that Yorktown Institute will carry forward, securing American interests, defending American allies and partners, and safeguarding the freedoms that only an independent polity can provide.
Throughout the World Wars and Cold War, American and Allied naval supremacy was crucial to victory. However, since 1991 US maritime power has been eroded in every capacity. The combat fleet has shrunk, thereby questioning the US’ ability to control Eurasia’s chokepoints. Its remaining capital ships have range and strike capacity gaps and are vulnerable to enemy attack. Its culture, morale, and training have declined as operational tempo hollows out the force. Its industrial base has shrunk, precluding rapid force expansion and combat repair. All the while, the Chinese Communist Party grows in assertiveness, the People’s Liberation Army gains new capabilities, and the state-supported Chinese defense industrial base out-builds its American counterpart.
Most critically for long-term competition and conflict, the sea services lack a coherent strategy for deterring and defeating America’s enemies, and the American public lacks clear understanding of the role maritime power plays in their way of life.
Yorktown Institute is founded with the objective of rectifying this situation. Six issues are central to our vision:
- Allied Force Structure and Strategy: The US’ allies and partners are its greatest strength. They provide basing access and invaluable force support. Their geographic position, democratic institutions, and self-governance constrain adversaries. However, few comprehensive assessments exist that link foreign capabilities and strategy to American interests and force structure. Yorktown will assess US allied force structure in the Black Sea region, Baltic, Eastern Mediterranean, and Western Pacific.
- American Grand and Maritime Strategy: The Navy has not articulated a coherent maritime strategy since the end of the Cold War. This has impacted its ability to articulate its needs, shape budget distribution and grand strategy, and garner political support from elected officials. By applying positive public pressure to, and support for, the appropriate military services and offering multiple strategic options, we seek to help the Navy articulate its role in American defense.
- The Defense Industrial Base and Merchant Marine: The US’ defense industrial base is of the highest importance in great-power competition and conflict. Although policymakers and naval insiders recognize this fact, elected officials and the American public do not. Yorktown seeks to remedy the distance between all major stakeholders and identify solutions to reinvigorate American production. In any conflict America’s merchant marine would play a critical role in sustaining American security and providing US and allied forces with strategic materiel. The importance of the US’s merchant marine has been forgotten since World War II and deserves special attention today as great power competition emerges throughout the coastal regions of the Eurasian landmass.
- The Public’s Understanding of the Sea Services’ Role: As the portion of society that engages in military service shrinks, civil-military relations have declined, not simply in a political sense, but also in a social sense. The US public does not understand the Navy’s purpose – hence it cannot be expected to grasp the need for the industrial and strategic investments needed to secure American interests and values. We aim to bridge this gap between the Sea Services and the nation, linking officers with defense intellectuals and the public. A greatly increased understanding of US seapower is indispensable to bridge the gap.
- War Warnings: Since 2020, crises have increased in pace and intensity. Such crises are likely to increase in number and gravity. Given the Eurasian nature of political rivalry, and the clear links between US adversaries, an assessment of key conflict indicators that connects different regions and crises is necessary.
- Strategic History: Intellectually, the American strategic tradition trends away from serious geopolitics. This is a product of the US’ strategic history – its wars have chiefly been direct, total, and removed from American territory. To equip the country for the Eurasian competition it faces, we must prepare intellectually as well as materially. Yorktown Institute will draw on the American strategic tradition’s resources, conceptualizing the Eurasian problem and assessing American strategy through this lens. At the same time, Yorktown recognizes the importance of assessing allies,’ neutrals,’ and adversaries,’ strategic traditions in assuring US security
Yorktown Institute will publish papers, operate a blog, address large audiences through recognized media outlets, and conduct public as well as private conferences. The Institute will hold focused discussions of key issues for members of the policy community.