The Shores of Tripoli: Waging the First Barbary War

By Caitlyn Leong and Ens. Brandon Bridges, USN

The Shores of Tripoli (SoT) is a one-to-two-player card-driven wargame by designer Kevin Bertram and Fort Circle games. SoT presents players with the opportunity to make strategic choices on behalf of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps or the pirates of Tripoli during the First Barbary War. Our review focuses on the two-player game experience and we outline the game components, basic rules, and our thoughts on the value of the game as both a wargame and a means of learning history. While not heavily focused on the tactics or international politics of the First Barbary War, SoT accurately captures the high-level strategic decisions and asymmetries of the actual conflict, allowing players to develop insights that are relevant to history and to contemporary conflict dynamics. Overall, SoT is an excellent game for those who are interested in the First Barbary War, and both new and experienced wargamers. 

Game Components 

The Shores of Tripoli arrives as a boxed set, with high-quality wood components, card decks for the American and Tripolitan player, a full-color game map, and a bag of twenty-four six-sided dice. The box also contains a historical supplement with designer’s notes and a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 letter to Yusuf Qaramanli, the pasha of Tripoli. 

The Shores of Tripoli game components. (Photo by the authors.)

The large three-masted ships represent frigates. The blue frigates represent the U.S. Navy, the red frigates are Tripolitan, and the two yellow frigates represent the Swedish Navy, which had been engaged in conflict with Tripoli since the late 1790s. The smaller single-masted vessels represent American gunboats (blue) and pirate corsairs (red and orange). The orange corsairs represent the pirate forces of the Tripolitan allies in Algiers, Tangier, and Tunis. Ground units are represented by wooden cubes, blue for U.S. Marine Corps, white for Arab infantry that fought alongside the U.S., and red for Tripolitan infantry. The twelve gold coins represent tribute and stolen treasure that the Tripolitan player can attempt to win throughout the game. 

The map has three different types of playable areas. The color-coded circles represent the nine harbors in the region. The colors indicate whether the harbor is friendly for the Americans or the Tripolitans, although they can peacefully coexist in Gibraltar. The lightly-shaded semicircles outside of five of the harbors represent patrol zones, which American frigates can patrol to try and prevent pirate corsairs from leaving the harbor. Everything outside of the harbors and patrol zones is the open sea, where the corsairs may engage in piracy against merchant ships that are not physically represented in the game.

The game map for The Shores of Tripoli. (Photo by the authors.)

At the bottom of the map, a turn tracker marks the year and the season. The game begins in the spring of 1801. The upper right corner of the map also features a designated supply area where extra American and Tripolitan pieces, along with their allies’ pieces may be stored for ease of access during gameplay. 

 Victory Conditions and Combat Adjudication

SoT offers multiple paths to victory for both the American and Tripolitan players. The asymmetries between these objectives make for very engaging gameplay. The American player wins by either forcing the Tripolitan player to sign the Treaty of Peace and Amity (1805 or later) if certain conditions are met, or by capturing Tripoli, which requires defeating both the Tripolitan pirate fleet and infantry. The Tripolitan player has three paths to victory. First, they can sink a total of four American frigates, forcing the Americans to acquiesce on the basis of having lost too much of their nascent fleet. Alternatively, Tripolitan corsairs and their allies in Tunis, Algiers, and Tangier can win by acquiring twelve gold coins, reflecting their ability to prey on Mediterranean trade successfully. Finally, if the Tripolitans can defeat and eliminate Hamet’s Army (the American ground force), they win. If neither player has achieved victory before 1806, the game ends in a draw. 

SoT features two types of combat: naval and ground. In both types of combat, the results are adjudicated by simple dice rolls, which, regardless of the apparent strength of the attacking force, can leave a lot to chance. The American player also has the option to conduct a naval bombardment of enemy infantry. Regardless of the type of combat, players roll dice based on their units’ strength and can modify these rolls for better results using cards. 

The Two-Player Game Experience 

In order to thoroughly test the game’s iterability and the likelihood of in-game events, we played the two-player version of SoT twelve times before writing this review. We noted on our first playthrough that SoT has a very low barrier to entry in terms of learning the rules and understanding the game’s dynamics. This is especially important if one is new to wargaming or wants to play with someone who is. 

Game set-up is fairly simple and outlined clearly in the rulebook. Each player gets event cards that allow them to take certain actions during the game and draws a hand of eight cards from their deck. At the start of each subsequent year, players will draw cards from the deck and discard excess cards from their hand, if necessary. One card must be played per season by each player. 

For the first game, we recommend being very slow in assessing your hand and your options and making sure to move the season tracker. When we tried to move too quickly in our first few games, we each lost track of the season and missed some critical moves made by our opponent. That said, we never had a game last longer than an hour, so SoT is a great game to play if you want minimal setup and quick play. 

Our games made it clear that players must balance competing strategic objectives based on the cards they draw and the current year and season. Some cards can only be played after a certain year or season has passed, particularly the American victory condition cards. Some cards can also be stacked with each other to make their effects stronger or modify combat but using certain cards may permanently remove them from the game. Consequently, successful players must choose their path to victory and identify the cards that they will need to achieve that victory relatively early in the game.

We found that as we gained more experience with the game, we became better at planning our hands and playing the right cards together to achieve certain effects or strategic objectives. This also made the game more challenging, since each of us was more familiar with the other player’s deck and strategic choices. However, we did not have a game that ended in a draw. In our testing of the game, we found that the Tripolitan player is most likely to win by amassing the requisite twelve gold coins, while the American is most likely to win by assaulting Tripoli. 

While much of the game’s progression towards victory depends on a player’s hand, much also depends on the roll of the dice. As previously mentioned, strategies that may work in other games, such as massing forces or stacking modifying cards in one final climactic battle may not be enough to win SoT. In one game the entirety of the American Navy and Hamet’s Army (supported by extra Arab infantry) assaulted Tripoli, but lost four frigates to the Tripolitans, resulting in a last-minute Tripolitan victory. 

Assault on Tripoli: The ill-fated American attack on Tripoli resulted in a Tripolitan victory. (Photo by the authors.)

We also had several games where the Tripolitans reached twelve gold coins just before the American player could play the Treaty of Peace and Amity in 1805. While this can be incredibly frustrating if it happens routinely, (we did play the game twelve times in fairly short order), we felt that this contributed to the opportunity to explore counterfactuals through SoT

The History of the First Barbary War and the Historic Counterfactuals in Shores of Tripoli

Learning about conflict dynamics and history through wargames can reveal new insights and inform understandings of contemporary conflict dynamics. To that end, SoT offers players an opportunity to understand the challenges of strategic decision-making, particularly during a protracted and asymmetric conflict like the First Barbary War. The First Barbary War lasted from 1801 to 1805. The war began in 1801 when Tripoli formally declared war after years of tensions over the tributes required to ensure merchant ships’ safe passage in the Mediterranean. At the time of the war, the US had just started building the first six frigates of the U.S. Navy and had barely been acknowledged as a nation by the European powers.

By contrast, Tripoli and its allies, Tunis, Algiers, and Tangier, were semi-autonomous states belonging to the Ottoman Empire, whose pirate corsairs extorted merchant ships and effectively controlled trade throughout the Mediterranean. England and France had much greater ability to pay the requisite tribute to Tripoli to ensure their trade routes would remain safe, and the steady stream of payment allowed Tripoli to drive up the tribute prices to exorbitant sums that the Americans could ill afford. As a result, American merchant ships were frequently captured, and their crews were held for ransom or sold into slavery. The U.S. Navy was simply not large enough at the time to provide escorts for their merchant vessels, of which the Tripolitans took full advantage. 

As in history, some of the Tripolitan victory conditions in SoT involve making the cost of the war too high for the US in terms of their military assets or the ongoing costs associated with the loss of their merchant ships and ransoming their crews. Similarly, the American player can win by establishing the actual conditions that lead to the Treaty of Peace and Amity in 1805 or by eliminating the Tripolitan fleet and ground forces in that same year or later. 

The cards in SoT highlight key events and elements of the conflict that affected the progression of the First Barbary War. In the game, these events may not occur exactly when they occurred in history, which adds a strong element of the historical counterfactual to gameplay in ways that may be fun for wargamers and casual players, but less so for hardline historians and naval tacticians.

What makes SoT interesting and fun to play over and over is the opportunity to test the counterfactual. For example, what if Tripoli and its allies were much more successful at sinking American frigates than they were during the war? Or what if Thomas Jefferson actually provided the necessary naval reinforcements for the intended 1805 assault on Tripoli? These counterfactual events lead to very different victory conditions than what occurred in history (the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity in 1805), and present an opportunity for players to consider what elements of the conflict mattered at the strategic level and during what year or season they are most significant. 

Through our numerous playthroughs, we found that certain types of victory are more likely to occur for both the American and Tripolitan player, in ways that occasionally deviate from history. We found that a successful American assault on Tripoli was the most common ending in our twelve games. We debated whether this is a good thing and have concluded that if you are looking to learn more about the strategic dynamics of the First Barbary War and understand that SoT abstracts the majority of tactics, international relations, and logistical challenges that occurred during the war, you will likely get a lot of value out of SoT

Gamers looking for precisely-modeled combat and naval tactics may find that SoT is not the right game for them. However, SoT is a strong entry-level wargame that highlights the key historical events and figures of the war without being bogged down by the minutiae of history.  

Caitlyn Leong is a M.A. candidate and CyberCorps Scholarship for Service Fellow at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. She currently serves as the President of the Georgetown University Wargaming Society and previously served as Director of Simulations for The George Washington University’s Strategic Crisis Simulations. She specializes in wargaming, emerging technologies, and cybersecurity policy.

ENS Brandon Bridges is a prospective Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy. His views are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense. 

Featured Image: A painting of the burning of the captured USS Philadelphia by Stephen Decatur. Decatur led a small team aboard Philadelphia, which had been captured by the Tripolitans, and burned the ship rather than let it be used as a corsair vessel. (Painting by Niccolo Calyo from the collection of the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Va.)

Sea Control 228 – To Provide & Maintain a Navy with Dr. Jerry Hendrix

By Jared Samuelson

Dr. Jerry Hendrix, fresh off publication of his new book, To Provide and Maintain a Navy, joins me to discuss the differences between a seapower and sea power, the free sea, and his recommendations for the Navy’s future.

Sea Control 228 – To Provide & Maintain a Navy with Dr. Jerry Hendrix


1. To Provide & Maintain a Navy, by Dr. Henry Hendrix, Focsle, 2020.
2. “Buy Fords Not Ferraris,” by Commander Jerry Hendrix, Proceedings, April 2009.
3. Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires, and the Conflict that Made the Modern World, by Prof. Andrew Lambert, Yale University Press, 2018.
4. “At What Cost a Carrier,” by Jerry Hendrix, Center for a New American Security, March 11, 2013.
5. “Retreat From Range – The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation,” by Jerry Hendrix, Center for a New American Security, October 19, 2015.
6. “Aircraft Carriers & Maritime History,” Jerry Hendrix and Bryan McGrath, C-SPAN3, January 9, 2015.

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

Cold War and Strategic Competition with China

By LCDR Robert “Jake” Bebber, USN, and Dr. John Hemmings

The most significant foreign policy debate in Washington at the moment is how to frame the emerging strategic competition with People’s Republic China (PRC), with foreign policy elites arguing whether we are in a “cold war” with China or something entirely different. The stakes of the debate are considerable because it will decide how the United States develops policies for competing with the PRC and how it frames that competition with allies and partners.      

On the “against” side (those who disagree with framing the competition as a “cold war”), there are two basic approaches. The first is to argue that the United States should not engage in a cold war with the PRC – a prescriptive argument – based on the argument that the U.S. and PRC are too deeply intertwined to have a cold war and must cooperate across a range of international issues, including climate change, non-proliferation, North Korea, and COVID-19. 

The second argument is that although the U.S. and PRC are engaged in a strategic competition, it should not be framed as a “cold war.” This is a “historical fallacy” argument based on differences between the current state of competition and that which existed between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Most recently, Richard Fontaine and Ely Ratner made this argument in the Washington Post, writing that the essential features that made the Cold War what it was – two coherent blocs arrayed against each other, with little or no economic integration – are missing. 

While the positions laid out above have merit and although the current competition between Washington and Beijing has marked differences from the Cold War, we believe we can still learn from historic frameworks like the Cold War and that it provides a number of benefits for the U.S. in doing so. 

Four Arguments in favor of a Cold War Framework

In this essay, we make four arguments for calling the U.S.-China competition a “cold war”:

  1. The Cold War template provides Western political elites with a compelling narrative on why Western publics must bear the burdens imposed by a competition that may occur over many decades. It also shapes a “common approach” towards our adversaries within society at large.
  2. There is a structural similarity between the Cold War and the current competition, as a potential hegemonic transition takes place between two nuclear powers, thus diffusing competition horizontally, below the threshold of war into other areas of competition.
  3. The United States and the PRC have different political and economic ideologies with different approaches toward state power. Under China’s president, Xi Jinping, these have become more pronounced rather than less, causing friction between the two powers. What’s more, Chinese leaders view themselves to be in a competition with the West. A Cold War analogy acknowledges Chinese claims about the ideological competition.
  4. The Cold War template provides Western policymakers with both a toolset and point of comparison for constructing policies that will allow the West to weather long-term competition across multiple sectors, socialize allies, counter all-pervasive political warfare, and develop the military-industrial strategies for long-term competition.

We argue that the debate over whether the Cold War framework should apply to the U.S.-China competition is missing key components, and that once applied, they support the utility of the framework. 

Policy makers must engage the American population to once again take up the burden of leading its friends, allies, and partners in a global, ideological struggle for an indeterminate amount of time. Instead, policy elites remain fixated on whether to label this emerging competition as a “cold war” or not. But in that debate, neither side seems to consider that it is not the elites, but the taxpayers who will be crucial in supporting this competition. To that end, elites must meet taxpayers where they are.

Meeting Them Where They Are

As Michael J. Green discusses at the outset of By More than Providence (2017), there is even a debate whether democracies like the U.S. can ‘do’ grand strategy.1 This argument has been leveled against U.S. foreign and defense policy2 a number of times and has much to do with the pluralistic style of governance, required consensus-building, and weak power of the executive over the economy and other tools of statecraft. However, for democratic states to compete well, they need to frame their competitions well with their constituencies. The strategic competition with the PRC will require a reorganization – at the very least – of a great many of the tools of U.S. statecraft, in the bureaucracy, in society, in education, and in the media. 

While the previous Administration restricted U.S. technology companies and businesses in their dealings with the PRC, the need for a compelling and overarching national narrative is increasing. Much of the national debate around supply chain security, leading to “decoupling” or “partial disengagement” from the PRC has suffered because it is not clear to what extent the state requires those who seek the nation’s fortune to make way to those who seek its security. Critics of decoupling or of restrictions on PRC tech companies continue to make counter-arguments based on costs, revealing a stark lack of understanding of the extent of the forthcoming competition. If the United States is going to expect its finance, tech, and innovation sectors to restrict their dealings with the PRC, they must do more than simply pass regulatory measures and legislation. 

There is also the issue of paying for the strategic competition and the growing alarm among many on both sides of the political spectrum over the structural fiscal challenges America faces. At the same time that these challenges must be addressed, policy makers must justify to taxpayers why in a time of recovery from the pandemic, several hundred billion dollars, or perhaps more, must be devoted toward defense, the intelligence community, public diplomacy, strategic communication, research and development, and other efforts critical to national security.

The U.S. policy community must explain to U.S. taxpayers why they are expected to pay a larger proportion of their taxes toward defense. U.S. defense spending between 1949 and 1990 (between five and ten percent of GDP) was at historically high levels for nearly five decades. Today, even though defense spending barely constitutes three percent of GDP, it would be absurd to expect the public to be willing to shoulder this type of burden for anything less than a war, “cold” though it might be. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the U.S.-Soviet Cold War is replete with examples of bureaucratic, education-funding, and departmental organization that helped the United States compete. 

Preparing the American people for a long-term competition and potential conflict will come against the backdrop of formidable social, economic, and domestic obstacles not easily overcome. They include income disparity and labor issues in an economy that has been offshoring its “middle” skill manufacturing jobs for decades. In addition, the United States is undergoing an opioid crisis that creates pressure on already-wide social disparities in health coverage and access to public resources. Finally, social and political divisions between the conservative and liberal wings of U.S. society, media, and political elites have begun to widen, creating tension points across a range of issues including immigration, policing and society, race-based politics, and religion. These are the daily realities of the general population. In a crisis, these social and domestic tensions will only be exacerbated.

These social, economic, and health conditions are the backdrop to a well-documented fiscal challenge that Congress faces. Recent policy decisions on taxation and emergency spending as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic have added to the problem. This is not to say that they are insurmountable. The U.S. still has the world’s largest economy, and with more than $20 trillion in gross domestic product annually, the resources are available, even if the political will remains elusive. The fiscal burden of creating and sustaining American power is likely to grow. This burden will come at a time when it will be incumbent on decision makers to address the entire scope of national taxation and spending. Hard trade-offs will be required.

Yet fiscal constraints are only one piece of the puzzle. Even if the resources were readily available, it is not entirely clear that the population of 2020 is particularly interested in competing. The first Cold War was born out of the Second World War, and early system shocks caused a public reappraisal of U.S. efforts to rebuild the world order while being confronted with a global Communist movement that had other designs. That context is missing for today’s generations.

Part of this is due to the nature of how the Cold War ended and the brief, “unipolar moment” the United States and its Allies enjoyed. During the unipolar moment, little effort was given to recapitalizing the institutions necessary to meet a new, peer challenger. Even anti-communist stalwarts argued that it was time for America to become a “normal nation,” and shed the burden of global leadership. The lack of an existential threat made such calls more appealing.

Recent polling suggests that a smaller portion of younger generations consider America an “exceptional” nation. Significant gaps exist between generations on perceived threats to America, with Millennials pointing to “climate change” (62%) as a bigger threat than “the development of China as a world power” (35%), “North Korea’s nuclear program,” (55%) or the “rise of authoritarianism around the world” (42%). Now as one ages and experiences the world, the perception of threats changes. Generations are not monolithic and views do not remain etched in stone. Evidence suggests that the public is growing far more wary of China as a threat, and the recent global COVID-19 pandemic and the Chinese leadership’s complicity in covering up the danger may further incur the American public’s anger. Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans still believe that a future with U.S. leadership is far better than a world led by Beijing.

An Ideological and Existential Fight

Like the original Cold War, the ongoing competition between China and the United States is openly ideological in nature, and there will be a winner and a loser. Nadège Rolland notes that the implications of this struggle for “discourse power” and the significant resources that Beijing is pouring into expanding its media footprint and activities overseas, indicating “a yearning for a partial hegemony, loosely exercised over positions of the ‘Global South’ – a space that would be free from Western influence and purged of liberal ideals.”3 While it has been a long-cited trope that the PRC is “communist in name only,” there are abundant signs that Xi Jinping has sought to reassert the primacy of Marxist-Leninism, reinvigorate the centrality of the Chinese Communist Party, and hold up Socialism with Chinese characteristics and China’s unique development model as exports to the world.4 In addition to a string of campaign slogans, speeches, and policies meant to reinforce the importance of the Party’s Marxist heritage, it is clear from Xi’s internal speeches that he holds deep ideological convictions and began promoting them from the earliest days of his leadership. 

In one early speech, given to CCP cadres in 2012, he argued that Chinese socialism was not only in competition with western liberalism and capitalism, but was destined for eventual dominance: “We firmly believe that as socialism with Chinese characteristics develops further, our system will inevitably mature; it is likewise inevitable that the superiority of our system will be increasingly apparent; inevitably, our country’s road of development will have increasingly greater influence on the world.” He continued, “But the road is tortuous. The eventual demise of capitalism and the ultimate victory of socialism will require a long historical process to reach completion.”

That Xi and other senior leaders see themselves in an ideological struggle vis-à-vis the West is also evident in the infamous Party memorandum, known in the West as “Document 9,” circulated by the General Office in April 2013 around the time that a general crackdown of human rights lawyers, academics, and media outlets was taking place. The memorandum asserted that “the current situation [is] a complicated intense struggle”, naming seven “perils,” including Western constitutionalism, civil society, “nihilistic” views of history, universal values, and the promotion of “the West’s view of media.”

In recent years, PRC leadership has begun to talk about exporting China’s “unique development model,” with Xi stating in 2017, “[China] offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” As Elizabeth Economy and others have written, this takes place primarily in the supply of training of foreign officials on its development model and distinctly authoritarian techniques, such as guiding public opinion, at new leadership academies, such as the Baise Cadre Academy, based in Guangxi. Most recently, Beijing responded to the COVID-19 crisis by framing it as a battle of systems, between its own handling of the crisis, and the handling by democratic states. 

The Tools and Rules Still Apply

Historically, great powers competed for regional or global hegemony through conventional wars,5 such as the Napoleonic Wars, or the First and Second World Wars.6 In all three instances, rising powers sought to challenge the status quo power or order, and establish their own hegemonic orders, suited to their individual national preferences. The United States and USSR were not fated to have a cold war, but driven to it by the impossibility of using war as a matter of statecraft in resolving their hegemonic competition. The mutual possession of nuclear weapons caused a stalemate and as a result, the confrontation became ‘colder’, waged through what Rogers calls “a plethora of proxy conflicts and with an array of instruments, deliberately designed to get underneath the escalatory ladder.” Hegemonic competitions between nuclear powers or nuclear blocs cannot be resolved in the historic manner. As a result, competition is diffused horizontally in sectors like technology, political warfare, sports, intelligence, media & discourse, and of course in indirect proxy wars, such as the Vietnam War and the Soviet War in Afghanistan.

The current competition between the United States and the PRC occurs across multiple sectors. It takes place in the military sphere, albeit at the gray zone level, or in planning and tactics – such anti-access/area denial. Competition also occurs at the level of international governance as the PRC begins to amass more influence among United Nations agencies (it leads four agencies, more than any other nation), leading to criticism from the United States that Beijing uses such agencies for its own national or geostrategic objectives.

Conflict also occurs in the media sector as Xi Jinping consolidated editorial control over most of China’s media outlets through changes made between 2013 and 2019.7 A massive outward push to those same media outlets to “tell China stories well” (jianghao zhongguo gushi) overseas, in conjunction with Beijing’s greater strategic goals has resulted in a growing bifurcation between Chinese and Western media.8 In response to the PRC’s drive to create positive external propaganda (waixuam), the U.S. ordered Chinese state propaganda organs inside the United States to register as foreign agents. In response, three major U.S. news outlets were banned from China.9

There is also a growing competition in the sectors that constitute civil society, cultural exchange, and education. The most recent evidence of this has been the American decision to restrict Chinese graduate students who have proven links to military institutions in the wake of a revival of China’s Thousand Talents program. It has also impacted the media, as policies under Xi Jinping began to promote a discourse powerin a battle between Western media and Chinese state media.     

The “character” of a cold war may have changed, but its “nature” has not. 

As Mahnken has argued, many of the tools used by the United States during the Cold War still apply today as they are enduring sources of national statecraft and power. Alliance management, defense policy, arms control and competition, economic relations, political warfare, and internal security remain central concerns. He notes that the range of instruments of power the U.S. used was broad, and that today’s debate over competition seems to lack the scope of the Cold War. He writes “there has been much less debate over the role that arms control, industrial policy, industrial mobilization and internal security may play” compared to the Cold War.     

Blanchette further articulates that a central feature of the Cold War was the protection and promotion of our American values and living up to the standards upon which the Republic was founded. He notes that early architects of America’s Cold War strategy, George Kennan and Paul Nitze, pointed to building “a successfully functioning political and economic system,” one that gives America the “courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society.”     

In this respect, the usefulness of the Cold War framing becomes more apparent. Half of the American population was alive for some or all of the Cold War, though that memory is growing distant. Yet there remains a residual notion among them of the gravity of the competition, its existential nature, and its costs.

Conclusion: The Cold War Frame Works, But You Have to Make the Case

In laying out our argument on why we believe the cold war framework is not only useful but necessary for the future of U.S. policy toward China, we have made certain key assumptions. The first of those is that the two powers will remain on a par for some decades to come. This is because Chinese advantages – excellent infrastructure, many more graduates in engineering, computing, and centralized planning – are balanced out by their disadvantages of an ageing and shrinking workforce, a growing tendency towards political control of the economy, and a costly internal security system. By that measure, U.S. social and political disarray at home is balanced out by the American advantages of a much-better educated and international workforce, access to two seas, and continental resources. For this reason, both states are likely to remain peer competitors for some time, with their ideological and geopolitical differences promoting a decades-long state of competition.

With these basic assumptions, it follows that it would be the most profound failure of policy for the United States to execute a grand strategy designed to compete with the People’s Republic China without popular consensus and support. Indeed, it would be disastrous. This is more important for younger generations as it is they who will largely face most of the sacrifice. The underlying assumption behind competing with China is that the American people are invested in the cause. If that assumption is misplaced, then the strategy will not be resourced adequately.

This will require not only public debate, but also public accountability, and the willingness to craft policy and strategy around the constraints of public opinion. While public opinion can be moved, the case must be made. This must be central to American strategy to compete and win this new cold war. The current complacency regarding the public’s declining trust in institutions and America’s role in the world is dangerous. Foreign powers are actively engaged in strategies to undermine political legitimacy and resiliency, but they need only accentuate the trends that were already present. 

Jonathan Ward explains how the leaders of the People’s Republic of China have used economic engagement with the United States to bring it to the brink of the end of American power. Victory in their eyes is “the building of a superpower, and the restoration, as China’s leaders see it, of China’s position of supremacy among all nations.10 Like the first Cold War, this one is also a conflict in which there will be a winner and a loser. It will be existential in nature, as the PRC challenges fundamental liberalism, respect for free markets, and democratic ideals within China and in the international system. The decade of the 2020s – much like the early years of the first Cold War – will shape the contours of this new Cold War. The window of opportunity is fast closing on America’s ability to organize its society to prepare to defend its interests and the cause of freedom. This is worth fighting for. But it cannot be defended without the support of the American people and the support of its allies abroad. It is a political case that must be made at all levels of government and society. It will require a renewed effort toward public education, and frank, honest debate about the sacrifice required. To best make the case, policy makers have to meet the American public where they are, using terms that convey the gravity of the situation and the stakes involved.

LCDR Bebber is a Cryptologic Warfare officer currently assigned to Information Warfare Training Command Corry Station, located in Pensacola Florida. He welcomes your comments at

Professor John Hemmings is an associate professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies. He writes in his own personal capacity. 


1. Green, Michael J., By More than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific since 1783, (New York, Columbia University Press, 2017), pp.2-5.

2. For examples, see: Betts, Richard K. “Is Strategy an Illusion?” International Security, 25, no.2 (Autumn 2000), p.40., Friedberg, Aaron, “Strengthening US Strategic Planning,” in Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy, ed. Daniel W. Drezner (Washington DC, Brookings Institutional Press, 2010).

3. Rolland, “China’s Vision for a New World Order”, NBR Special Report 83, 27 January, 2020.

4. Economy, “Yes Virginia, China is exporting its model”, Council of Foreign Affairs Blog, 11 December, 2019.

5. For examples, see: Modelski, George, Long Cycles in World Politics, (Basingstoke, Hampshire, Macmillan Press, 1987); Wittkoph, Eugene R. World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 12th Edition (Belmont, Ca., Wadsworth Publishing, 2008).

6. For examples, see: Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, (New York, Vintage Books, 1989); Mead, Walter Russell, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

7. Brady, Anne-Marie, “Plus la Change?: Media Control Under Xi Jinping”, Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 64, Issue 3-4, 2017, pp.128-140.

8. Huang, Zhao Alexander, Wang Rui, “Building a Network to “Tell China Stories Well”: Chinese Diplomatic Strategies on Twitter”, International Journal of Communication, Vol. 13 (2019).

9. “China to restrict journalists from three major newspapers” BBC, 18 March, 2020.

10. Jonathan D. T. Ward, China’s Vision of Victory (Atlas Publishing and Media Company, 2019).

Featured Image: People’s Republic of China, People’s Liberation Army (Navy) frigate PLA(N) Yueyang (FF 575) steams in formation with 42 other ships and submarines representing 15 international partner nations during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe/Released)

The Training Mandate

This article originally published on the Marine Corps Gazette and is republished with permission.

By Captain William Bradley, USMC

“If a unit is not well trained, its men know it. This fact adversely affects their confidence, especially if they anticipate there is a possibility of using that training in a critical situation. Every soldier likes to feel that he is playing on a winning team—he knows he can’t win if he isn’t well trained.” —Gen. Bruce C. Clarke, U.S. Army

It is through training—through constant realistic and repetitious training of individuals and units—that military organizations acquire the skills they need to succeed on the battlefield. Nothing peacetime leaders do is more important.

Gen. Clarke had a very clear picture of the crucial role individual and unit training played in determining the outcome of an armed conflict. The hallmark of the Marine is his superior preparedness for battle, and the proud heritage of our Corps rests on this very foundation of superior training and discipline. As the din of battle becomes more unknown to a “peacetime” generation of Marine officers, it becomes even more crucial that leaders produce realistic training evolutions that will ensure success on the battlefield and the survival of the young Marines in their charge.

Every Marine officer is by now familiar with FMFM 1, Warfighting and the move to dispel the “zero-defect” mentality from our training and daily operations. But in an increasingly competitive promotion environment, glowing after-action reports often become the ultimate objective of our training evolutions, and our tolerance for risky experimentation is dictated largely by our concern for our own career patterns. Is this an exaggerated description of our current philosophy toward unit training? Perhaps. But who among us can honestly say that our major training evolutions are not heavily influenced to ensure a “successful” outcome? If the Marine Corps is to continue to win on the modern battlefield, we must reexamine our definition of “successful” training and determine to what degree we are really preparing for war as opposed to only ensuring our next promotion. FMFM 1 has this to say about training:

“Exercises should approximate the conditions of battle as much as possible; that is, they should introduce friction in the form of uncertainty, stress, disorder and opposing wills…Dictated or canned scenarios eliminate the element of independent, opposing wills that is the essence of combat.”

While we would wholeheartedly agree with this basic tenet of preparation for war, again, who among us can say he has participated in major exercises where “success” was not artificially preordained?

On a larger scale, our major operations serve more as political vehicles than realistic simulations of conflicts we are likely to face. Year after year, we assault the same riverbed in the same locale during Exercise TEAM SPIRIT, with the ground combat element (GCE) headquarters already established ashore and dignitaries lining the beach. The Marine air-ground task force commander enjoys perfect command and control, for his communication battalion arrives 60 days beforehand to ensure it. Exercise GALLANT EAGLE kicks off in a similar manner, with I Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters comfortably nestled into Bear Mountain well before the start of “hostilities.”

On the infantry battalion level, how many times do we “lose” a Combined Arms Exercise? How many times has an infantry battalion been decisively engaged with electronic warfare assets during the crucial phases of our perennial assaults up the Delta Corridor?

While recent conflicts have proven the willingness of Third World nations (and the Soviets) to conduct chemical warfare, for how long has any Marine unit trained realistically in a simulated chemical environment? It can be argued that certain artificialities must be maintained on a large scale to provide training for subordinate leaders. Will tomorrow’s adversary, however, be so accommodating as to allow us to comfortably establish our major headquarters and perfect our command and control systems before the advent of hostilities? Will Third World nations shelve their electronic warfare assets because we have not trained in an electronic warfare environment?

Can we be sure that our real enemies in the world will not employ nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons against us, particularly when we know they have used these weapons extensively within the past decade?

While on the surface these questions may seem only rhetorical, we as leaders have failed in many ways to train and test ourselves and our Marines against some of the very obstacles we are almost certain to face. Regardless of our military occupational specialty (MOS), we can all reflect upon instances where we enjoyed artificial handicaps that ensured the right outcome for our exercises. George Allen, one of the most successful coaches in National Football League history, did not attain this distinction by constraining his defensive line during practice to ensure the success of his quarterback. Known for his grueling team training, Allen confronted his team with challenges during practice; this paid obvious dividends on the playing field. Is our training of Marines as rigorous and realistic as it could be, or do our exercises smack of “zero-defect” artificiality in the name of overall “success”? This is an important thought to consider, as our success on tomorrow’s battlefield will be measured not on a scoreboard but with the number of casualties we suffer.

Realistic training is just as vital on an individual scale as it is to the grandest of armies. The training of our Marines in individual combat skills is far superior to that received in most armies of the world, yet we must remember that the title “Marine” must be earned every day through continual training for combat. Two significant factors come into play here. First, the individual Marine must have the mental and physical toughness necessary to withstand the horrors of war. Second, the Marine must be so skilled in his MOS that his job will be second nature when it counts. FMFM 1 states that:

“any view of the nature of war would hardly be accurate or complete without consideration of the effects of danger, fear, exhaustion and privation on the men who must do the fighting…”

Although we must provide a safe training environment for our Marines, to what extent do we simulate environments of “danger, fear, exhaustion, and privation” to train in? Recent initiatives by the Commandant, such as Basic Warrior Training and the reinstitution of the School of Infantry for all new recruits, have done much to improve the training of Marines. But all too often we as leaders accept platitudes such as “You don’t have to practice being miserable” to rationalize making our training as painless as possible. But misery is guaranteed in combat, and the more a combatant is accustomed to it, the less it will affect him when his life is on the line.

Of course, training should not be sadistic, but dealing with cold, exhaustion, and adverse elements are skills just as valuable as marksmanship and MOS proficiency. While our defeat in Vietnam was largely due to political constraints, let us not forget the formidability of an enemy whose idea of rest and relaxation was a bowl of rice. Mental toughness cannot be developed in an environment of complacency, where those responsible for training are able to rationalize easing requirements. It is our mandate as leaders to give our young Marines the best chance to come home alive from combat. Coddling them with overly comfortable surroundings in training will not prepare them for the mental and physical challenges they must face.

In his classic Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi says, “It is a strength of [the warrior] to be able to fight on as usual because of day in, day out practice.” MOS proficiency, like any other learned skill, is a product of continual repetition. Yet how many times have we encountered Marines who were unable to perform rudimentary functions within their area of expertise? Is this their fault or have we failed as leaders?

It is incumbent on us to drill our Marines repeatedly; to have them perform the rudiments of their MOS again and again until all facets of their jobs become second nature. This is a lofty goal, yet one we must strive for. Going back to George Allen, his success rested on the superior training of the individual members of his team. We must all train our team of Marines with that same demand for constant drill and repetition; we pay a much heavier toll for defeat than does a football team.

To subject a unit to repetitious training under difficult conditions would do little to enhance our popularity within our own unit and would probably generate discontent within the ranks of the less disciplined. If world tensions lessen and the prospect of major conflict dims, it will become even more crucial that we as leaders prepare our Marines to fight and win under all kinds of adverse conditions.

Many nations throughout history have suffered terrible defeat because of the poor state of readiness they possessed on both the unit and individual combatant level. It may be difficult to equate the readiness of small units with the fate of a nation, but history has shown us time and again the cost of complacency. Let us not waste the lives of our Marines needlessly because of the political difficulties associated with training them for the realities they are almost certain to encounter in combat.

This article is not intended as an indictment of Marine Corps training as a whole, for our proud heritage continues whenever we are called upon. Nevertheless, we must always ask ourselves if we are really preparing Marines for the challenges they will face. Or do we become complacent, finding it easy to allow ourselves training artificialities that will make us “look good” in the eyes of our seniors? Who among us is willing to risk “failure” in a training environment full of the obstacles we are sure to face in real combat? Those of us who are willing to take that risk may not fare as well at promotion time, but we are more likely to bring our Marines home alive from the next war. 

This article originally published in 1990, and won the 1990 CG MCCDC Leadership Writing Award under the title “To Keep Our Powder Dry.”

Captain Bradley recently completed the Command and Control Systems Course, MCCDC and is currently stationed with 2d MAW Cherry Point.

Featured Image: Students of Martial Arts Instructor Course 2-14 grapple against each other during their final exercise on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., April 17, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ali Azimi/Released)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.