Alliance Management Requires All Hands

By Nicholas Romanow

In the Indo-Pacific and beyond, almost every speech, strategy document, and think tank report mentions “allies and partners” as a critical element of American national security. The military’s culture is organized around warfighting, a concept that may not immediately bring the criticality of allies and partners to mind. When officers in the sea services sit down to discuss big strategic issues, conversations more often center on the strengths and weaknesses of our adversaries, while any assessments of our allies come as an afterthought.

Service members are often told that their first and foremost obligation is to be “warfighters.” This mindset is certainly useful because it calls sailors to meet the highest standards of the Navy’s core values and fulfills the first objective clause of the mission of the Navy: “to win conflicts and wars.” Yet such a mentality neglects the other essential half of the mission statement: “while maintaining security and deterrence through sustained forward presence.” The Navy’s mission today—and over the near and long-term—cannot be achieved by solely focusing on fighting wars; the Navy is uniquely positioned to strengthen U.S. alliances and contribute to this essential pillar of American grand strategy.

Alliances at Sea from Mahan to NATO

The sea services’ reliance on allies is rooted in the Mahanian tradition of American strategic thought. Mahan originally argued that colonies were the most reliable resource for sustained sea power.1 Today, alliance sustained by the forward-presence of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard have been beneficial for many countries besides the United States, especially the export-driven economies of East Asia, by guaranteeing the freedom of navigation that enables global commerce. The economic success of America and its allies also proves Mahan’s broader thesis that maritime dominance enables national prosperity.

U.S. maritime alliances are grounded not only in strategic theory but also in geography and history. Seas were once understood as natural buffers that insulated states from threats. But once these seas became crowded with military and civilian vessels, these buffers became vulnerabilities that increased the number of potential flashpoints for conflict. NATO—one of the longest-lasting peacetime alliances in global military history—was sustained throughout the Cold War by a geopolitical reality in Europe that resembles today’s maritime domain. As demonstrated in the opening stages of World War II, a threat to the Netherlands or Austria quickly became a threat to Belgium, France, and Poland soon after. The maritime domain does not lend itself to being claimed and defended by individual nations like plots of land. Like Europe’s Cold War experience, it is impossible to contain conflict within the “bounds” of any one area in the seas. Moreover, because the high seas belong to no nation in particular, it is also a domain where strong states can readily coerce weaker ones, as highlighted by China’s actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

NATO was not only effective because it deterred military aggression; it also deterred political coercion and malign influence. As historian Timothy Sayle argues in his authoritative history of NATO, the alliance endured because it limited the Soviets’ ability to intimidate smaller European nations.2 With the horrors of WWII in recent memory, allies feared that weaker European states would rather capitulate to Soviet demands—as Finland did in the years after the war—rather than risk provoking another continental war. NATO was therefore a military organization that produced political effects and granted its members diplomatic resolve on top of collective security.

The Economic/Security Divergence and Other Challenges

Both of these functions performed by NATO in the Cold War are needed in today’s alliance architecture in the Indo-Pacific. The maritime nature of the Indo-Pacific theater facilitates the same potential for threat spillover as the central European plains did in the 20th Century. Additionally, China’s attempts to coerce other countries in the region necessitate a coalition that can resist both economic and military pressures. However, in today’s Indo-Pacific, a recognized need for alliances in the maritime domain does not necessarily translate into a perfectly unified front. Three recurring themes can be traced in the past and present of alliance management in the Indo-Pacific: (1) differences in priorities between the United States and its allies, (2) persistent concerns over free-riding, entrapment, and abandonment, and (3) historical, cultural, and geographic diversity as well as continuing animosity among U.S.-aligned actors.

A decisive factor in any conflict between the United States and China or Russia is whether U.S. allies will offer military support. Especially when considering a potential conflict involving China—an economic juggernaut and a key trading partner for many U.S. allies—analysts have traditionally been skeptical on whether Washington can rely on its allies.3 This is where the Navy has a key role in both deterring conflict and shaping the battlefield for potential conflict.

A persistent but closing gap exists in the threat perceptions of the United States and our allies. American policymakers and observers often see China through a security lens and view its behaviors domestically and internationally as a threat to American interests and the international liberal order. U.S. allies and partners, however, have long seen China through an economic lens as a market and business partner. As Secretary Blinked acknowledged in a 2021 speech, fear being forced “into a “us or them” choice with China,” which might jeopardize key commercial activity.4 This perspective, however, is increasingly becoming more perilous as China leverages the economic dependency of other nations to coerce and co-opt. For example, China heavily sanctioned Australia in response to the Australian parliament taking action to rid its political system of malign Chinese influence.5

The Australian case also hints at a graver future where unchecked Chinese sea power will ultimately erase the economic benefits of smooth relations with China. In a different world with a preponderant and emboldened People’s Liberation Army Navy, Beijing could have not only struck Sino-Australian trade but all Australian trade by controlling shipping lanes to and from Australia. For instance, Chinese naval personnel could theoretically board and seize merchant vessels bound to Australia in a similar fashion to how U.S. and allied navies enforce sanctions against North Korea.

While this economic-security priorities gap has been closing recently, most notably demonstrated by the landmark Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) submarine technology sharing agreement, not all Indo-Pacific nations are equally prepared to draw the ire of China. The economic-security disconnect only aggravates American fears of being abandoned by allies during a conflict and allied fears of being entrapped in a conflict between the United States and China. From the perspective of multiple American administrations, allies have been too content to free-ride off the U.S.-enforced security order. Such sentiments result in calls to reduce American commitments to its security umbrella, which further degrades relations with allies. Through time, allies oscillate between fearing the United States will start a war that implicates its allies and fearing that the United States will leave its partners to its own defenses. This makes reassuring allies an ongoing balancing act.

The consequences of failing to reconcile allies’ economic priorities with security realities are most apparent in the conflict unfolding in Ukraine. Western Europe’s longtime reliance on Russian energy bred a general reluctance to take meaningful steps to deter Russian aggression toward former Soviet states, especially Ukraine. Changing a border by force for the first time since WWII through the 2014 annexation of Ukraine did little to change Europeans’ military calculus; incorporating Ukraine into the NATO security umbrella was still well beyond the imaginable.

Allied sea power might seem peripheral to the land invasion of Ukraine. However, the Black Sea plays a determinative role in Ukraine’s security; as much as 70% of Ukrainian trade travels by sea.6 Since 2014, NATO allies have shifted the bulk of the burden of patrolling the Black Sea to the United States.7 The failure to deter aggression in Ukraine has already led to a worldwide petroleum shortage, and it might also lead to other supply chain frustrations, especially in food and grain. The tragedy in Ukraine unveils the folly of prioritizing short-term economic concerns over long-term strategic problems.

Lastly, despite significant recent progress in forging an Indo-Pacific consensus, U.S. allies and partners differ widely in their contributions to collective security. A security mechanism that requires unanimity like NATO would be especially difficult with members that vary from tiny, authoritarian Singapore to the world’s most populous democracy, India. No common language or shared historical memory binds the region together, and the only common denominator among many Asian countries is the experience of war and occupation. For example, misgivings between Japan and South Korea dating back to WWII continue to stymie meaningful security cooperation and just a few years ago nearly derailed the intelligence-sharing agreement among the United States, South Korea, and Japan.8 Over the decades, the United States has painstakingly toiled to maintain its Indo-Pacific allies’ focus on the primary strategic issue—in this case, Chinese aggression—and prevent bilateral issues from flaring up and inhibiting slow but steady progress in strengthening cooperation. India’s recent reluctance to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine is demonstrative of how difficult it is to keep a coalition on the same page despite the many other laudable accomplishments of the Quad.

Honor, Courage, and (Allied) Commitments

The leadership of the Navy and the other sea services recognize and are seizing the opportunity to contribute to U.S. alliances in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere. Because maritime security encompasses both the economic and military components of national power, the Navy is uniquely positioned to bridge the economic-security divergence between the United States and its allies. The sea services possess the institutional experience and policy tools to empower allies and partners and forge a tighter coalition to protect maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.

The AUKUS submarine deal is a prime example of one tool the sea services can leverage to enhance alliances: cutting-edge technology. AUKUS is only the most recent case of Naval technology being distributed to allies. The Navy’s hallmark weapons system, Aegis, is also utilized by Japan, Canada, Norway, South Korea, Spain, and Australia.[i] Such deals to utilize American technology facilitate long-term partnerships because these allies will need to cooperate with the United States in order to maintain, train, and upgrade these systems. They also improve the capabilities of a multi-national coalition. By operating with the same technology, an allied fleet can become much more interoperable, and therefore more lethal. The sea services should continue to share key technologies with partners, especially in areas where China is developing an asymmetric advantage, such as in cyber and space. The Quad’s recent initiative to provide a commercial satellite-based maritime domain awareness program to Indo-Pacific nations is one example of delivering technology to allies and partners.[ii]

Lastly, flexible operational models demonstrate the utility of combining capabilities of multiple allied navies. One model is the U.K.-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), which comprises ships from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Because this force is made up of 10 nations, compared to the 27 or 30 that make up the European Union or NATO respectively, it can deploy to a crisis much faster than these larger organizations. And the 10-nation JEF can still operate within NATO or EU auspices if requested.11 Moreover, navies in a multinational fleet that regularly conduct exercises and maritime security operations will become more familiar with their partners and have opportunities to work through cultural barriers and idiosyncrasies before scrambling in a large-scale crisis. Annual exercises such as the Pacific Vanguard (PACVAN, consisting of the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Australia)12 and Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC, consisting of dozens of navies from multiple regions, including Europe and South America)13 allow opportunities for Indo-Pacific navies—especially for mutually-suspicious nations such as Japan and South Korea—to develop operational familiarity with each other.

Warfighters? Diplomats? Both? 

My fellow recently-commissioned officers might recall the fresh experience of Officer Candidate School and its emphasis on “delivering warfighters to the fleet”14 and be surprised by the diplomatic endeavors of the Sea Services. Junior officers need not be assigned to an attaché billet at an embassy to contribute to American diplomacy. A singular focus on warfighting simplifies our daily lives as Naval professionals, but it also overlooks half of the mission we are mandated to execute. Moreover, a greater focus on “maintaining security and deterrence” need not come at the expense of warfighting capability. Rather, improving our interoperability with allies in service of forging closer partnerships will only make the United States more formidable if conflict cannot be deterred. If the Navy leaves the upkeep of alliances to the State Department, we would then have to spend precious time during the opening stages of a crisis getting on the same page as our allies. This would ultimately dull our readiness, and therefore our lethality.

And for those outside the Department of Defense, the Navy’s prominent role in diplomacy might seem to reach beyond the Navy’s core purpose and affirm criticisms that U.S. foreign policy is over-militarized. Therefore, close coordination with other agencies, especially among the sea services and with the State Department, is vital to efforts in Naval diplomacy. The Navy does not duplicate the activities of the diplomatic corps, rather adds value to American foreign relations. Seizing the initiative to strengthen maritime partnerships enables the Navy to practice what the State Department and political leadership are constantly preaching.

The terms “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society” are often used to describe the kind of efforts needed to overcome the China challenge. This should not only mean using a diverse set of our instruments of power to achieve our goals; it should mean using the tools at our disposal creatively and in ways that might not be obvious. Using American naval power to advance diplomatic objectives is one such way that the United States can strengthen its alliances and respond to the complex maritime threat posed by China. For a tricky task like building a broad, tight-knit maritime coalition, the United States needs all hands on deck.

Ensign Nicholas Romanow, U.S. Navy, is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently assigned to Fort Meade, Maryland, and working toward his qualification as a cryptologic warfare officer. He was previously an undergraduate fellow at the Clements Center for National Security. 

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other military or government agency.


1. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1660-1783), ( Publishing, 2013), 80.

2. Timothy Andrews Sayle, Enduring Alliance, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019), 11.

3. Nicholas R. Nappi, “But Will They Fight China?” Proceedings 144, no. 5 (May 2018),

4. Antony Blinken, “Reaffirming and Reimagining America’s Alliances,” U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, March 25, 2021,

5. Natasha Kassam, “Great expectations: The unraveling of the Australia-China relationship,” The Brookings Institution, July 20, 2020,

6. Brendan Murray, “Ukraine’s Ports Brace for More Economic Hardship in Russia Conflict,” Bloomberg, January 27, 2022,

7. Alison Bath, US Navy and NATO presence in the Black Sea has fallen since Russia took part of Ukraine, figures show,” Stars and Stripes, January 28, 2022,

8. Takua Matsuda and Jaehan Park, “Geopolitics Redux: Explaining The Japan-Korea Dispute And Its Implications For Great Power Competition,” War on the Rocks, November 7, 2019,

9. Lockeed Martin, Aegis Combat System, accessed November 30, 2021,

10. Zack Cooper and Gregory Polling, “The Quad Goes to Sea,” War on the Rocks, May 24, 2022,

11. Sean Monaghan, “The Joint Expeditionary Force: Toward a Stronger and More Capable European Defense?,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 12, 2021,

12. Petty Officer First Class Gregory Juday, “U.S., Allied Forces conduct Exercise Pacific Vanguard 2021 off Coast of Australia,” U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, July 9, 2021,

13. Commander, U.S. 3rd Fleet Public Affairs, “U.S. Navy Announces 28th RIMPAC Exercise,” U.S. Navy, May 31, 2022,

14. PO1 Luke J McCall, Delivering Warfighters to the Fleet, Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, September 29, 202,

Featured Image: Royal Australian Navy, Republic of Korea Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and United States Navy warships sail in formation during the Pacific Vanguard 2020 exercise. (Credit: Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force)

Sea Control 357 – Artificial Waterways in International Water Law with Dr. Tamar Meshel

By Jared Samuelson

Dr. Tamar Meshel joins us to discuss artificial waterways in international water law and their potential to cause tension and conflict. Dr. Meshel is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta.

Sea Control 357 – Artificial Waterways in International Water Law with Dr. Tamar Meshel


1. “Artificial Waterways in International Water Law: An American Perspective,” by Dr. Tamar Meshel, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, December 13, 2021
2. Sea Control 224 – Clashes at Sea with Dr. Sara Mitchell, by Jared Samuelson, CIMSEC, January 24, 2021. 

Jared Samuelson is Co-Host and Executive Producer of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at

This episode was edited and produced by Alexia Bouallagui.

Crafting Naval Strategy, Pt. 2

The following was originally published by the Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies of the Naval War College under the title Crafting Naval Strategy: Observations and Recommendations for the Development of Future Strategies. Read it in its original form here. It is republished here with permission and several excerpts will be featured.

Read Part One

By Bruce Stubbs

Observation 13

As previously noted, the term theory of victory can be somewhat confusing. There is no formal DoD definition for it, but broadly it is a hypothesis of how a nation intends to achieve strategic objectives during a conflict. It articulates how and why we think our actions will work. Ultimately, we use military force to change other nations’ will or wills. A theory of victory describes how we think our tactical- and operational-level actions will lead to achieving our strategic-political objectives.

The United States was supreme at the tactical and operational levels in Vietnam, but that dominance did not lead to a strategic or political victory. We had no successful theory of victory to link tactical- and operational-level successes to political victory.

A theory of victory is the conceptual means of establishing clear ends in the ends-ways-means equation. “Defining strategy in this manner gives us a tool for identifying a strategy, analyzing the conceptual clarity and logic of the strategy, and assessing the quality of the strategy. It provides a broad foundation from which all types of strategy can be defined, analyzed, and assessed, including corporate strategy, grand strategy, and military strategy.”21

Observation 14

Graphic source: Central Idea Agency. Used by permission.

In addition (or perhaps as an alternative) to beginning with a theory of victory, drafters of strategy should identify the central idea around which the document is to revolve. A very valuable treatise on strategy issued by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence states as follows:

• “The innovative and compelling ‘big idea’ is often the basis of a new strategy.”
• “A strategy which has no unifying idea is not a strategy.”
• The central idea must bind the ends, ways, and means—and inspire others to support it.
• “In practice, the intent of all good strategies can be summed up in a page if not even better—in a paragraph.”22

This is the most concise summary I have found concerning the need for a central idea in any drafting of strategy.

Hollywood movies provide outstanding examples of how an entire production can be built around a concisely stated central idea. The movie industry refers to a statement of the central idea as a log line, as in the example below.

This log line for the movie Jaws is one of the greatest of all time. It depicts the overarching storyline in an interesting, straightforward way, rather than focusing on details that might seem meaningless without the context of the bigger picture. It captures the entirety of the plot—and thus the essence of what the audience will experience—in a single sentence.

In communications, the human brain craves meaning before details. If the core message of a strategy can be captured in a single sentence, there is a higher probability the strategy will be effective. As noted in one of the endnotes to the introduction, the overarching American strategy during the Cold War can be summarized in one sentence: “to contain the expansion of the Soviet Union (and its influence) until the internal contradictions within communism bring about its own demise.” And that was what was achieved.

Observation 18

According to Samuel Huntington, the strategy—or, in Huntington’s words, the strategic concept—must explain the Navy’s role in implementing national security. It must describe how, when, and where the Navy expects to protect the nation. Without a strategy or a strategic concept of the Navy’s role, the public and political leaders will be (1) confused about the role of the Navy—uncertain whether its existence is necessary— and (2) apathetic to Navy requests for additional resources.

Note again Huntington’s use of the term strategic concept, not strategy. As Huntington uses it, strategic concept is similar to the term value proposition, and relates to what the introduction describes as the strategic vision. Again, this is much different from what the Joint Staff considers to be a concept.

What follows below is an expanded description of the Navy’s value proposition.

U.S. naval forces can be visible or invisible, large or small, provocative or peaceful, depending on what serves American interests best. The sight of a single U.S. warship in the harbor of a friend can serve as tangible evidence of close relations between the United States and that country or their commitment to each other. American naval forces can modulate their presence to exert the kind and degree of influence best suited to resolve the situation, whatever it is, in a manner compatible with U.S. interests. In a crisis in which force might be required to protect U.S. interests or evacuate U.S. nationals, but where visibility could provoke the outbreak of hostilities, American naval forces can remain out of sight, over the horizon, but ready to respond in a matter of minutes.

U.S. naval forces do not have to rely on prior international agreements before taking a position beyond a coastal state’s territorial sea in an area of potential crisis; U.S. naval forces do not have to request overflight authorization or diplomatic clearance. By remaining on station in international waters, for indefinite periods, naval forces communicate a capability for action that ground or air forces can duplicate only by landing or entering sovereign airspace. U.S. naval forces can be positioned near potential trouble spots without the political entanglement associated with the employment of land-based forces.

Although bases on foreign soil can be valuable, U.S. naval forces do not require them in the way that land-based ground and air forces do. Ships are integral units that carry with them much of their own support, and through mobile logistics support they can be maintained on forward stations for long durations. U.S. naval forces, moreover, are relatively immune to the politics of host-nation governments, whereas those governments can constrain operations by land-based forces significantly. As the U.S. military base structure overseas has diminished over recent decades, the ability of naval forces to arrive in an area fully prepared to conduct sustained combat operations has taken on added importance.

Observation 20

The essence of strategy is the making of hard choices. Unfortunately, most strategies, especially at the unclassified level, studiously avoid making hard choices; however, the reality of finite resources forces us to make these choices.

Listed below are several classic choices that strategists face that you should address early in your production process:

• State which objectives are not going to be pursued
• Describe how and where risk will be accepted
• Establish a pecking order for resources to achieve objectives

Observation 25

Image source: DoD Imagery Library.

Almost every book on strategy insists that the crafters need to meet with the top leadership/chief executive officer (CEO) to ensure that guidance is direct and clear. As discussed earlier, this often is difficult. Yet it is imperative that the strategists have some degree of direct access if their efforts are to yield an approved, effective result that the leadership is committed to executing. An initial meeting should be held at the beginning of the project. Frequent and unimpeded access is needed to accomplish the following:

• Implement CNO guidance—not guidance altered by the agendas of the OPNAV directorates
• Provide unfiltered advice to the CNO, especially alternative views
• Proceed quickly and with a minimum of interference from others
• Ensure linkage between the strategy and the program objective memorandum
(known as a POM), other elements of the resource-development, force-capabilities, and force-development processes, all of which the CNO directs (the strategists/crafters need to remind the CNO of this necessary linkage)
• Ensure that the CNO receives Navy strategy products that reflect a consistent and aligned set of principles, concepts, and tenets regarding the Navy’s fundamental role in implementing national policy.

In his guidance to the drafters of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, then-SECDEF James N. Mattis (2017–18) stated, “As a practical matter, strategy cannot be built by a large group process. [OSD and the JS will lead a small team reporting directly to me.] . . . I will be personally involved in this effort. . . . The team will provide interim products. . . . These products may be provocative, as any good strategy requires hard choices. I expect you to review these as a means to genuine debate.”30

Almost every defense official has expressed and expresses similar sentiments, but that does not mean they are translated into direct meetings with their strategists. Given the time constraints the senior leader (in this case, the CNO) faces, as previously discussed, the “front office” (which manages time and appointments) is unlikely to initiate an invitation. So the initiative to meet with the CNO must come from the crafters themselves (or their immediate boss), and they figuratively may have to “fight for it.” However, such fighting is necessary if the crafters are to do their work efficiently and avoid becoming overwhelmed by frustration and cynicism.

Observation 29

Graphic source: DreamsTime Free Images. Used by permission.

A strategy that cannot be communicated effectively is an ineffective strategy. The crafters of strategy not only bear a responsibility to make it understandable but must take the lead in building a strategic communications plan. You never can rely wholly on outside specialists (such as public affairs officers) to come up with a strategic communications plan. They simply do not know the strategy as intimately as the crafters do; thus they may not be able to capitalize on the nuances and internal messaging.

Build your strategic communications plan around the central idea. Have a clear core message. Your rollout plan must engage across multiple media venues. Have a scalable message suitable for any size venue. Understand that every action is a message—a strategic communication. Synchronize the message inside and coming from OPNAV and echelon components.

Observation 30

Image source: DoD Imagery Library.

Whether or not one agreed with President Ronald W. Reagan’s policies or decisions, no one can deny that he was a great communicator who made his goals for his presidency simple and clear. He incorporated this core message into almost all his speeches, relating specific decisions to his general goal. Through this approach, the core message became a guiding philosophy, generating corresponding lines of effort for problem solving.

The single-core-message approach makes for a tight, internally consistent strategy and a subsequent network of supporting plans. Notice, too, that President Reagan’s message confined itself to three points.

This approach deserves emulation in any crafting of strategy. Unfortunately, the recent Navy attempts at strategy have not emulated this approach, particularly in 2019.

With so many different lists of priorities, themes, core messages, and lines of effort (LOEs) in 2019, it was difficult for the Navy to communicate its strategic policy goals with a single voice, so it could stay on message and be understood. There never was a real agreement on the Navy’s mission and desired end state.

The mission:

• From the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV): “The Department of the Navy will recruit, train, equip, and organize to deliver combat-ready naval forces to win conflicts and wars while maintaining security and deterrence through sustained forward presence.”

• From the CNO: “The United States Navy will be ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea. Our Navy will protect America from attack, promote American prosperity, and preserve America’s strategic influence.” (Note that this is just the first two sentences of the four-sentence mission statement in the CNO’s Design 2.0 directive.)

The vision (or end state):

 • From the SECNAV: “A combat-credible Navy and Marine Corps Team focused on rebuilding military readiness, strengthening alliances, and reforming business practices in support of the National Defense Strategy.”

• From the CNO: “A Naval Force that produces leaders and teams, armed with the best equipment, who learn and adapt faster than our rivals to achieve maximum possible performance and is ready for decisive combat operations.”

Given that these lists, missions, and end states all reflect SECNAV and CNO direction, not much could have been done to align and simplify the Navy’s overall strategic message. There simply was too much divergence in language.

Observation 31

N. C. Wyeth, The Storybook, 1921. Source: Betty Krulik Fine Art, NY. Used by permission.

Authors Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking write the following about the importance of narrative in today’s world:

“Narratives are the building blocks that explain both how humans see the world and how they exist in large groups. They provide the lens through which we perceive ourselves, others, and the environment around us. They are the stories that bind the small to the large, connecting personal experience to some bigger notion of how the world works. The stronger a narrative is, the more likely it is to be retained and remembered.

The power of a narrative depends on a confluence of factors, but the most important is consistency—the way that one event links logically to the next. . . . As narratives generate attention and interest, they necessarily abandon some of their complexity. . . . 

By simplifying complex realities, good narratives can slot into other people’s preexisting comprehension. . . . The most effective narratives can thus be shared among entire communities, peoples, or nations, because they tap into our most elemental notions. . . .

These three traits—simplicity, resonance, and novelty—determine which narratives stick and which fall flat. It’s no coincidence that everyone from far-right political leaders to women’s rights activists to the Kardashian clan speaks constantly of “controlling the narrative.” To control the narrative is to dictate to an audience who the heroes and villains are; what is right and what is wrong; what’s real and what’s not. As jihadist Omar Hammami, a leader of the Somali-based terror group Al-Shabaab, put it, “The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm, and knives.”

The big losers in this narrative battle are those people or institutions that are too big, too slow, or too hesitant to weave such stories. These are not the kinds of battles that a plodding, uninventive bureaucracy can win. As a U.S. Army officer lamented to us about what happens when the military deploys to fight this generation’s web-enabled insurgents and terrorists, “Today we go in with the assumption that we’ll lose the battle of the narrative.”35

Since we do not want to “lose the battle of the narrative,” it is imperative that we apply a narrative approach to the crafting of naval strategy, as in the example below.

My own awareness of the power of the narrative approach started with an e-mail from Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a retired U.S. Army colonel, author, and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in February 2016. Krepinevich suggested that we not use the core attributes or characteristics of the Navy in isolation as the foundation of our message. Instead, he recommended that we attach a relevant, understandable purpose to each attribute by answering the question “To do what?” He gave an example from a conversation he had with a congressman, who stated, “I kinda get a 30-slide, high density, small font brief when it’s presented, but a week later, I can’t give you the logic train behind the brief.”

So Krepinevich suggested using the text shown here. The kernel of his suggested narrative is crystal clear and easy to remember: “China is building a big navy that is changing the strategic balance in the western Pacific.”36 In contrast, the bureaucratic staff approach simply does not grab the reader’s attention; it lacks specificity and real-world logic, and generally is too abstract—which is fairly representative of military staff writing.

Read Part Three.

Bruce B. Stubbs, SES, is Director of Navy Strategy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N7).

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 17, 2021) Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Gridley (DDG 101) transits the Pacific Ocean during a navigation exercise. Gridley is underway conducting routine operations in U.S. 3rd Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Colby A. Mothershead)

Sea Control 356 – Global Fish Transshipment Networks with Dr. Gohar Petrossian

By Jared Samuelson

Dr. Gohar Petrossian joins us to discuss global fish transshipment networks, how to identify central actors, and recommendations for enforcement organizations. Dr. Petrossian is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Director of the International Crime and Justice Master’s Program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Sea Control 356 – Global Fish Transshipment Networks with Dr. Gohar Petrossian


1. “Identifying Central Carriers and Detecting Key Communities Within the Global Fish Transshipment Networks,” by Gohar A. Petrossian, Bryce Barthuly, and Monique C. Sosnowski, Frontiers in Marine Science, March 31, 2022. 

Jared Samuelson is Co-Host and Executive Producer of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at

This episode was edited and produced by William McQuiston.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.