Small Wars Journal

It’s All Games: U.S. Foreign and Security Policies

Sat, 10/28/2017 - 4:07pm

It’s All Games: U.S. Foreign and Security Policies

Alyssa Blair


“Like other emblems of the American way of life, U.S. sport – embodying values such as courage, honesty, and democracy – became part of a moral crusade to spread ‘Americanism’ throughout the world.”

-- Keys, 2013

American championships in the Olympics and professional sporting events such as: basketball, baseball, football, and many others are just as inspiring to the world as unifying streams to bring the world together.

While sports, as part of the American culture, make the American mission colorful, they also find their expressions in the way Americans conduct their foreign and security affairs. Playing games against other nations is commonplace in U.S. diplomacy and military operations. This cultural manifestation has over time given rise to the American way of diplomacy and war.

In most areas of international conflict, the United States has successfully demonstrated dominance in areas of strategy and force; however, this level of ‘sportsmanship’ does have its limitations.

With this information, there is a call for a better understanding of cultural influence on policies produced in the United States. How can this cultural influence impact the effect sports can have on the development of foreign and security policymaking?

Culture and Strategic Culture

There are varying definitions of ‘culture’ that have circulated throughout the years. For the purpose of this research, culture is defined as being a “way of life” and can be linked to social behavior, beliefs, and agencies, which have the ability to define a community or population. However, an intriguing aspect of culture is its ability to take on different forms. For example, when it comes to conflict, culture can determine how people fight, which in return, effects not only desired outcomes and strategies, but also methods, weapons, technology, and tactics.1 In order to understand the role of culture in American society, its appearance in sports and the military is crucial in linking sport, not only to military strategy and tactics, but also to diplomacy and foreign policy.

Sports and U.S. Culture

The United States sport culture has grown exponentially since the creation of the nation and its influence on American lives is astounding. In the beginning, sport was viewed as a way for physical education or recreation to produce “moral, economically productive, and militarily useful citizens.2 Although, in some aspects this view is still held, sports have taken on a new ideological structure where sports and athletes have transformed from a ‘recreational hobby’ to a billion dollar enterprise with strict policies, rules, and strategies that are played out on the global stage, similar to war and political posturing. Sports and more specifically, athletes have become idealized as the strong, tough, moral American – the best of the best. Thousands of people gather in stadiums and arenas, just to see their favorite athlete participate in a sanctioned game, in the hopes of a victory. Many people schedule their daily routines around these games and are incredibly loyal to their teams. For example, if you look at different college sports there is a huge polarized view when it comes to whom you can cheer for, especially in relation to where you are living. So, if you are living in the state of North Carolina and when pertaining to college basketball, most know the importance of being either a Carolina Tarheel or a Duke Blue Devil supporter; there is no in between. But how can this translate into the political realm?

During the rise of sport in the United States, the government saw the potential for an increase in military strength.3 As mentioned above, participating in physical recreation activities (sports) produced morally equipped men, who were physically fit and able and their skills were transformed for use on the battlefield. This can be seen in the case of football, following World War II, when commanders recognized the crucial combat conditioning football provided and its ability to keep some out of trouble.4 Not only did leaderships begin recognizing the conditioning benefits, political leaders began noticing its political advantages. In Barbara Keys book, Globalizing Sport: National Rivalry and International Community in the 1930’s, she provides a brief summation of how, in the late twentieth century, participating in international sports competitions (Olympic Games) became a necessary marker of nationhood, which became a way of representing national identity to both domestic and foreign agencies.6 So, not only did participating in sports allow for optimal combat conditioning, but it also allowed for the development of a national identity, which promoted another forum for international diplomacy, and showcased a new era of sport and social interaction.

Sports and Military Culture

Although sport culture, in the United States, is influential, another key aspect of culture is military culture. In an article written by Colonel Phillip Meilinger (Ret. USAF), he discusses the influence culture can have on military art.7 He described the art of American military strategy being based on how the battle should be set up and how it should be fought. In a sense, Meilinger’s definition on the art of American military strategy and culture can also be described as strategic culture (the full concept of strategic culture will be discussed later, a brief summation is provided now). The concept of strategic culture and the American “way of war”7 is highly contested, however crucial to the explanation of military strategic thinking and its translation into the sport world. Strategic culture, although broadly defined in the past, can be described as how a community or populations ‘culture’ can impact the way people approach conflict. As mentioned earlier, the culture of a particular population can determine the strategies and tactics used during war, as well as, the technology and weapons used. For the sake of argument, Meilinger’s definition on the art of American military culture, the “Way of War” produced by Russell Weigley, and the definition provided all lead to the congruent note of the U.S. having a strategic culture and more specifically, a strategic military culture. With this information, a crucial concept to consider is the role sports can play on the ‘American Way of War.’

American Football: The American Way of War

For those familiar with The American Way of War, written by Russell Weigley, relating this controversial idea of how Americans approach war may come as a bit of a shock.  However, the idea is to show how Americans approach war more tactically than strategically and how this concept is applicable in the sport world (American Football).  Weigley constructed the controversial topic on the American way of war in the early 1970’s and based a lot of his arguments off of the definitions produced by Clausewitz, who gave definitions pertaining to strategy and tactics.8 With these two definitions, two kinds of military strategy (annihilation and attrition) were developed. Weigley states, “In the history of American strategy, the direction taken by the American conception of war made most American strategists, through the time span of the American history, strategist of annihilation.”9

The strategy of annihilation is put into place when the main objective is to overthrow the enemy’s military power. Weigley discusses how a strategy like this is no easy task and has no modest aim and he quotes Clausewitz, who states, “To aim at the overthrow of the enemy is to ‘presuppose a great physical or moral superiority, or a great spirit of enterprise, an innate propensity to extreme hazards.’”10 A crucial concept coinciding with the strategy of annihilation is the ideal of American strategic culture. As mentioned earlier, strategic culture, defined as how a community or populations ‘culture’ can impact the way a population reacts to conflict (fighting), plays an important role in the influence of conduct both with sports teams and with the military. Some scholars would argue that this is an accurate representation.

Strategic culture or American strategic culture has taken on an approach that seemingly aims to identify the core structures providing individuals or varying agencies the tools to approach conflict. Some scholars have described it as being variables including: geography, climate, natural resources, traditions, as well as, behavioral habits, attitudes, and customs, which all contribute to strategic thinking during conflict or when trying to prevent a conflict.11 However, others see strategic culture as being an elusive fiction because of its lack of definition and also because it seems to possess a contradictory tone between continuity and change.12 One of the original works producing the concept of strategic culture was introduced by Jack Snyder in 1977.13 In his work, Snyder discussed how  Soviet and American strategic thinking “’had developed in different organizational, historical, and political contexts and in response to different situational and technological constraints.’” But, a counterargument brought against Snyder’s view, from Antulio Echevarria II, of the Army War College, discussed how Synder’s claims were not clear and showcased a “subjectively constructed” phenomenon.

Although Echevarria’s arguments are valid, especially in relation to the vagueness of strategic culture and its applicability in American and military culture14, a core concept brought forth by Snyder, essential to understanding how culture influences sport and conflict, is this idea of an American strategic culture and how this plays out in policy making.

An example of this comes when comparing the United States and China. When doing this it becomes quite clear both governments have different traditional values when it comes to running both the country and their military’s. The Chinese have a strategic thought, which seemingly resembles the Chinese game of Wei qi or Go.15 In an article, produced by David Lai, he discusses the similarities between the game of Go and the Chinese way of diplomacy and war. He states, “Its concepts and tactics are living reflections of Chinese philosophy, strategic thinking, stratagems, and tactical interactions. This game, in return, influences the way Chinese think and act.”16 The game of Go is intriguing because not only is it one of the worlds’ oldest board games, but also it still holds popularity among Chinese leaders. The object of Go “is to place stones on the open board, balancing the need to expand with the need to build protected clusters.” Instead of focusing on one direct battle, there are multiple battles happening on the board and the ultimate goal is to emphasize strategic long – term planning, rather than quick tactical advantages.17

Compared to the Chinese game of Go, American Football has often been attributed to American strategic culture. Football in the United States has risen to the ranks of being a national pastime. Whether its college football or professional games, most residents (including military and political leaders) succumb to its overwhelming force of entertainment. In an interview with former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, she attributes football to war in two ways: the goal of taking territory and the use of strategy.18 In an article describing the use of football like tactics and strategy by the military, it’s stated American football conceptualizes the military idea of “centralized control and centralized execution.”19. Football resembles military tactics in that the idea is to maneuver and concentrate forces in centralized areas, in order to cut off enemy communication and penetrate their forces. Even the coaching staff resembles those of political and military leaders with their communications equipment and their ability to share, with modern [football coaching equipment] technology, carefully thought out plays.20

Sport Diplomacy

Knowing the U.S. has a strategic culture is beneficial when analyzing how sport and military seem to interconnect and begin influencing the other, as well as American society. Since the events on September 11, 2001 the U.S. has seen a shift in the relationship between sports, sporting events, and patriotic views. For example, after completing their cancer awareness campaign, the NFL focused their efforts on a more militaristic and patriotic project.21 In an excerpt written by Samantha King, she discusses the shift as simulating “an intensified depth in mutuality to the sport – war nexus in the present moment…indication of the militarization of everyday life…the ‘sportification’ of political life – in the contemporary United States.”22

The terminology used by our political and military leaders is a great representation of how much sport and war have influenced our cultural interests. With varying language use and examples, one can try to imply that war is a sport and vice versa. This is not to make light of actual war, because in no way can the two be measured as similar when it comes to the circumstances; however, the interchangeable terminology is a precursor to how the U.S. and other world powers develop policies.

During the 2012 Presidential election campaign, the British Broadcasting Corporation published an article detailing the intense sport rhetoric that seemingly takes up much of the campaign. Examples given discuss the importance of President Barak Obama needing to ‘hit it out of the park’ or ‘hit a home run’ during his speeches or, it was surmised he needed to bring about a ‘Hail Mary’ or some type of ‘game – changer’ in order to rise in the polls. Commentator Mark Shields described it as; “He can’t get by with a ground rule double tonight…He has got to hit a home run. I mean they…have set a bar that is that high.”23 In response to the sport metaphors, journalism in the U.S. tends to take on a ‘horse – race journalistic’ stance. This type of journalism can also be described as ‘play – by – play’ and it is interesting to see how although the ultimate goal for these candidates is to become national leaders, they are seen as potential players and the score board is always running.24

While analyzing sports influence on terminology (metaphors) used by politicians, one tends to wonder how this translates to military leaders or if certain sports have a tendency to use war terminology. Although not commonly seen anymore, cases where football players have used war terminology has been well documented in the past. For example, Bernie Parrish, who played cornerback for the Cleveland Browns in the 1960’s, stated, “We wanted to kill each other. It was mortal combat. We were warriors.”25 However, with the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars’ many began to fill this type of rhetoric was inappropriate. This was seen in 2003 when a University of Miami football player, Kellen Winslow, was recorded saying, “I am a soldier,” when discussing his demeanor towards an opponent. As mentioned, many now, including the NFL, feel this type of rhetoric has since become inappropriate and do not foresee its return to the league.26

With this in mind, how can sports, with the help of interchangeable terminology, aid in the development of different foreign policies? In order to fully describe the context of sport diplomacy the cases of the 1970 table tennis phenomenon and the failed attempt of baseball diplomacy in Cuba are described. These cases are used not only because they represent the epitome of sport diplomacy and its impact on foreign security policies, but it also shows just how different each event can impact a nation. The U.S. – China attempt was deemed successful where the U.S. – Cuba attempt was ultimately deemed unsuccessful. Even though this case failed, policies were still influenced during this time, with the hope of using baseball as a determining factor. Since these two cases were set during the 1970’s, it is essential to showcase how sport diplomacy is still being attempted to this day. This case encompasses U.S. – North Korean relations using basketball diplomacy. Although new and highly controversial, its creator has taken on the weight for opening new channels between two nations.

‘Ping – Pong Diplomacy’

In 1949, diplomatic relations between the West and Mainland China had been severed when Mao Zedong (leader of the Red Army – Chinese Communist Party) secured victory against the Nationalist government. This major upset led to the assumption, by the United States, that this represented a spread of Soviet influence, which proved their (Soviet) ultimate goal was to develop a “communist global hegemony.”27 However, around the 1960’s the seemingly “stable” USSR and China relationship began to shift dramatically. Along with many other anti – Soviet rhetoric, Mao described the USSR as a forerunner for ‘social imperialism,’ which he believed needed to be resisted just as much as American imperialism.

As China and the USSR relations began to dissolve, the United States saw this as an opportunity to exploit the situation for their advantage (situation between the USSR and China had the potential to lead to a nuclear fallout28) and detailed their response, which would open official and nonofficial channels, in the aims of preventing an escalation of the conflict, to use the situation to further drive a wedge between the USSR and China and to also aid in additional United States plans.29

However, in order for the United States to begin using its newfound advantage, the United States and China both needed to find a way to “explore possibilities for closer political, economic, and military relations.” However lucky the circumstances were, this opportunity arose during the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships, which were held in Nagoya, Japan. After the chance occurrence of a U.S. Table Tennis player, Glenn Cowan, catching a ride on the Chinese team bus, a new form of relations seemed to develop.30

With this chance encounter taking place, many saw this as an opportunity to open up relations with China, as a result, on April 14th, the U.S. Table Tennis team went into mainland China for a friendly match with the Chinese Table Tennis team.31 Although this circumstance seemed very brief and in some cases forgettable, this encounter allowed for a shift in relations and has since prompted a new age of Sino – American relations.

With this ‘ping – pong diplomacy,’ the United States was not the only one who benefitted from the successful outcome. The Chinese had their own agenda for successful relations with the United States, especially when it came to military protection and advancement.32 Other reasons included advancing the Chinese economy and helping to contain Japan from regaining expansionist views.

Although the formulation of relations between the United States and China cannot solely be contributed to the successful platform of ‘ping – pong diplomacy,’ it is important to acknowledge it’s influence along with the many other external factors taking place during that time.

‘Baseball Diplomacy’

Although the table tennis initiative between the United States and China helped with the normalization of relations, a similar attempt was conducted between the United States and Cuba, which ultimately failed. Political relations between the United States and Cuba have never been as steady as they are currently. Albeit rifts are always present, but after Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1898 and up to their Revolution in 1959, the relations between the two nations were rocky at best. Overtime, the role of baseball became seen as way to resist American domination and with Castro being described as a communist, soon after relations between the two were cut.33 Carter and Sugden described the unsteady relationship, stating, “The American economic embargo and Cuba’s ban on professional sport were part of a tit – for – tat exchange that completely ruptured the historic sporting ties between the two countries.” So how did the idea of ‘baseball diplomacy’ begin?

The idea of ‘baseball diplomacy,’ which was kept completely separate from any diplomatic relations, was first introduced by the [then] Commissioner of Major League Baseball (MLB), Bowie Kuhn. Although the motivations behind the MLB’s involvement and assertiveness to the matter are vague, there were many others who were behind the thought of using baseball as a way to reopen relations with Cuba. Most notably was Assistant Secretary William Rogers who, albeit with a misguided and underestimated view, disagreed with the rejection of Kuhn’s proposal.34 In an outline describing his views, Rogers proclaims to see a “symbolic gesture that could counteract Cuban propaganda…while clarifying American administration policies towards cuba.”35 Rogers outlines several defining reasons for the importance of renewed relations with Cuba, stating, sending a MLB team would be a public relations move, resulting in a new outlook on the current Cuban policy. He also saw the sport as a way to redefine relations between the two nations. An interesting notion to keep in mind is that while the American government was hesitant to open new diplomatic channels with the Cuban government, Fidel Castro had invited an American MLB team to visit Cuba.  This was made apparent, in 1975, when Castro, after a statement from William Rogers stating the Cubans did not seem to be interested in forming relations with the U.S. government, invited an MLB team to Cuba. As a result, in 1977 a commission of athletes and coaches, from the Houston Astros, visited Cuba in order to host a coaching clinic in the hopes of an ‘informational exchange.’ No games were permitted between the Astros and Cuban teams, by the U.S. government because of the possibility of “political ramifications.”36 Despite this encounter, there were too many external factors deterring the process for diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. With the Cold War lingering and the attacks on Castro’s regime, the responses by both nations left the idea of sport diplomacy on the sidelines.

‘Basketball Diplomacy’

A fairly new and controversial aspect of sport diplomacy comes from the meetings between former NBA star, Dennis Rodman, and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jung Un. Although highly contested as to the motivations surrounding both parties, Rodman insists he is hoping to bring sport to North Korea and to bridge the gap between the two nations.

In several reports, Rodman has referred to Kim Jung Un as a good guy, not looking for war. Rodman has even brought several former NBA stars to North Korea  to help train North Korea’s national basketball team.37 Although there has not been much to show for Rodman’s attempt at ‘basketball diplomacy,’ it remains a fact that there is a channel open between the United States and North Korea, albeit not the most stable.

Just like relations between Cuba, the United States and North Korea have a rocky diplomatic stance, if you would even call it that. Attempts to smooth diplomatic relations between the two countries have been on and off since the Korean War and it seemed as if the Six-Party talks (2003-2009) would be the miracle all parties were seeking. However, as of late the relationship has been strained yet again. With the release of Otto Warmbier, before his untimely death, the recent firing of test missiles from the North Koreans, and a call for the end of ‘strategic patience’ by Rex Tillerson, one wonders where the current situation is heading? Despite these events, Dennis Rodman has remained adamant on his quest to bring sport to North Korea.

American Way of Foreign and Security Policy: Tactics vs. Strategy

A key concept to take away from American strategic culture resembling that of American football is to recognize the importance of moving away from a tactically based operating system to a more strategic based system. Although the current United States strategy has been inherently successful in the past, a crucial concern now is whether or not the strategic process in place is actually beneficial to national foreign and security policies. The past and current strategic value of the United States has rested on the concept of overwhelming military power. However, this tactic is not successful when comes to confronting guerilla insurgencies, terrorist organizations and other challenges.38 If the United States uses a football approach to conducting its military operations, how does this play out for national security? Should there be a change in policies developed when using sport like tactics to conduct military and political operations?

There are many opinions when it comes to U.S. military strategy. Some scholars and military leaders believe the current strategy is at the forefront of American success, whereas others do not believe this is the case. David Lai and Joel Cassman, who represent both the Air War College and the Army War College, have suggested the United States move from American Football tactics to Soccer strategies. Not only has this been proposed, but bringing in the Chinese game of Go has also been suggested because of its huge focus on strategic thinking. If the current strategy used by the United States is centered on using force and advanced capability, then adding in the concept of Go, which is centered on strategy, may improve the United States political and military will, which could lead to an advancement in overall national foreign and security policies.

If the United States were to incorporate a soccer stratagem, this could also work to improve policies because of its resemblance to Sun Tzu’s war strategy.39 The idea for soccer is that the ultimate goal is to confuse your opponent [enemy] and create uncertainties instead of annihilating the other. In Lai and Cassman’s article, they attribute soccer to being “suited to guerilla and terrorist warfare because it requires improvisation among the players rather than detailed advanced planning.”40 Instead of only relying on sheer force and territorial touchdowns, a soccer stratagem would prove beneficial in surprising and confusing opponents and would ultimately benefit the United States.


The concept of sports embodying the capability of structuring foreign and security policies can seem improbable and although sports can only be given so much credit to the influence of foreign and security policies, it is important to examine how much of the United States political and military decisions made are based off of the highly regarded sports philosophies and strategies. The influence on terminology, both military and sport, as well as, policy formations and the debate of normalizing relations, and the appearance of conduct have all had an impact from sports and has proven to be of great use to the United States. However, is it time for the United States to move from a football strategy to a more strategic based strategy? Only time will tell.

End Notes

  1. See, Meilinger, P. American Military Culture and Strategy, 2007. Discusses the general definition of culture detailing the importance of beliefs and behavior patterns. He states the importance of cultural influence when analyzing military art.
  2. Keys, B., 2013, p. 18.
  3. Keys, B., p. 25
  4. Jones, W., 2009, p. 13 With military leaders seeing conditioning skills in football, began recruiting in the fall of 1942 from colleges.
  5. Keys, B., p.17
  6. See, Meilinger, P.
  7. Weigley, R., 1973, The American Way of War discusses the controversial detailing examples from past conflicts. Author also incorporates Clausewitz ideology and relates the information to the history of military strategy in the United States.
  8. Weigley, R., p. xvii national vs. military strategy
  9. Weigley, R., p. xxii
  10. See footnote 9
  11. Echevarria, A., 2014., p. 34
  12. Echevarria, A., p. 32
  13. See footnote 12
  14. Echevarria, A., pp. 33-34
  15. Lai, D., Learning From the Stones
  16. See footnote 15
  17. Johnson, K., What Kind of Game is China Playing
  18. Cassman, J. & Lai 2003, D., Football vs. soccer p. 49
  19.  See footnote 18
  20. King, S., 2008, p. 528
  21. See footnote 20
  22. Bryant, N., 2012, BBC Article discusses how politicians tend to be judged as players rather than potential leaders in the United States.
  23. See footnote 22
  24. Carpenter, L., 2009
  25. See footnote 24
  26. Carter & Sugden, 2011 p. 102 Discusses the ‘success’ of Ping-Pong diplomacy in the 1970s, while also detailing the unsuccessful nature of baseball diplomacy with Cuba. Purpose was to identify…
  27. Carter, T. & Sugden, J. 2011. p. 103
  28. Carter & Sugden pp. 103-104
  29. Carter & Sugden p. 104
  30. See footnote 29
  31. Carter & Sugden p. 105
  32. See footnote 31
  33. Carter & Sugden p. 110
  34. See footnote 33
  35. Carter & Sugden pp. 113-114
  36.  Carter & Sugden, p. 115
  37.  Sang-Hun, C. 2013
  38.  Cassman, J. & Lai, D. 2003. p. 50
  39.  Cassman, J. & Lai, D. p. 51
  40.  See footnote 39


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Carter, T. & Sugden, J. (2011). The USA and Sporting Diplomacy: Comparing and
       Contrasting the Cases of Table Tennis With China and Baseball With Cuba In The
       1970s. International Relations, 26(1), 101-121.
       doi: 10.1177/0047117811411741

Cassman, J. & Lai, D. (2003). Football vs. Soccer: American Warfare In An Era of
       Unconvential Threats. Armed Forces Journal, 49-54.

Cha, V. & Kim, E. (2013). US-Korea Relations: Crisis Du Jour. Comparative
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Gems, G. (1999). Sports, War, and Ideological Imperialism. Peace Review, 11(4),

Johnson, K. (2011, June 11). What Kind Of Game Is China Playing. The Wall Street
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       The College Game And Helped Win World War II. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &  
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       The 1930’s. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

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       doi: 10.1177/1532708608321575

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       Strategic Concept, SHI. Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. 
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      46(3), 76-82.

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      The New York Times. Retrieved from 

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      79(4), p. 14.

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About the Author(s)

Alyssa Blair is a dual degree master’s student at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and the University of Konstanz, Germany. Her main areas of focus center on International Administrations and Conflict Management, as well as, International Development, Law, and Politics and Public Administration. After concluding her internship under Dr. David Lai at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Blair has made several strides in breaking out into the foreign policy realm and seeks to pursue this passion even further.



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