Winning the Infinite Game: Defining Victory in Strategic Competition

Competition—specifically that between so-called great powers—is an inescapable concept in present-day Washington. Recent versions of the U.S. National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and National Military Strategy all declared the era of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency dead in favor of America’s new focus on defeating China and Russia in great power competition. The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy, for instance, asserted that “after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned.”[1] More recently, the Biden administration stated that the agenda presented in its March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance “will strengthen our enduring advantages, and allow us to prevail in strategic competition with China or any other nation.”[2] Foreign policy outlets followed suit in pronouncing the “return of great power competition.”[3]

Despite this recent fixation on great power competition, it is not a new phenomenon. Competition between the United States and its rivals never ceased; the idea of great power competition simply fell out of fashion as the Cold War era drew to a close, usurped first by the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, then upstaged by the global war on terror. Nonetheless, the renewed hype surrounding strategic competition is warranted given the increasingly adversarial contours of the current competition.

The focus on strategic competition has yielded a wealth of research and analysis on various aspects of it, including defining the parameters of the competition, examining the objectives of competitors, and endeavoring to craft a comprehensive U.S. government strategy for competition. While this work frequently provides recommendations on how to win the competition against U.S. adversaries such as China or Russia, few studies define what winning actually entails. This paper seeks to answer this often overlooked but crucial question: what does it mean for the United States to win in strategic competition? 

Setting the Stage: Arenas of Competition

Strategic competition—a broader term that encompasses great power competition—can generally be defined as “a situation in which states engage in activities designed to advance their interests relative to others believed to pose a challenge or threat, without escalating to armed conflict. More specifically, states might be seeking to advance a variety of objectives, including promoting their own security, shaping the global agenda, advancing their status relative to others, and influencing or dictating outcomes relating to a specific matter or region.”[4] Competition is best conceived of as a continuum that spans the space between cooperation and armed conflict. While elements of competition may extend into conflict scenarios, strategic competition primarily refers to activities that occur below the threshold of armed conflict, in what is often described as the gray zone, meaning “an operational space between peace and war, involving coercive actions to change the status quo below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response, often by blurring the line between military and nonmilitary actions and the attribution for events.”[5]  

Competition occurs in several areas, which, in keeping with the theme of competing and winning, I will call arenas of competition. These arenas can be divided into functional and geographic categories. Functionally, states compete in the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic arenas. In addition to describing where states compete, these categories can also describe the major tools of competition (how states compete), consistent with the U.S. military’s DIME (diplomatic, informational, military, economic) framework used to describe instruments of national power. For example, in the diplomatic arena, states might expand or enter into new alliances or avail of embassies and international forums to further their soft power, access, and influence around the world. In the informational arena, states could leverage strategic communications, public affairs, or even psychological operations to propagate their desired narrative or undermine a competitor. Cyber operations may also play a key role in the informational arena. 

The military and economic arenas are the most prominent realms of the current competition. Some examples of activities states undertake to gain a military edge over competitors include conducting exercises with allies and partners, military-to-military engagements, or port calls; ramping up or otherwise improving training, research and development, and modernization efforts; making changes to force structure or presence; and increasing defense budgets and spending. Militarily, competition occurs across the air, land, maritime, space, and cyber domains, with the latter domain also having implications beyond the military arena. On the economic front, states can employ a variety of tools to both constrain their competitors economically and improve their own economic standing. For instance, states could impose or lift sanctions or embargos, strategically grant or withhold financial aid, enter into new trade agreements or cancel existing ones, or increase investment in critical sectors such as energy and technology. 

Geographically, U.S. competition efforts are largely aligned with its most active geographic combatant commands: European Command (EUCOM), Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), Central Command (CENTCOM), and Africa Command (AFRICOM). The two remaining geographic combatant commands—Northern Command and Southern Command—are not prominent arenas of competition, though that could change in the future. While military efforts are only one component of competition, the United States does tend to approach strategic competition with these geographic areas of responsibility in mind given the differing access, capabilities, alliances, and authorities it has in place in each of these regions. Of course, some arenas of competition cut globally and transcend these combatant commands; as such, the United States has sought to adopt a comprehensive view of competition that leverages all of the tools at its disposal and applies them globally.

Know Thine Enemy: Who Is the United States Competing Against?

Competition can occur between any two states, regardless of their size or power on the international stage. However, competition implies a certain level of parity between the states competing. A tiny country with relatively few tools at its disposal (military, economic, and otherwise), would not make much headway competing against a superpower with a massive military, high Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and other tools of statecraft available. As such, policymakers tend to focus on great power competition, meaning competition between the most powerful states in the international system. 

U.S. strategic documents, along with a growing body of literature on the subject of competition, generally agree that today’s great powers are the United States, China, and Russia. While China and Russia would perhaps more accurately be referred to as “rival” rather than “great” powers, they are clearly the two states that currently pose the greatest challenges and potential threats for the United States as they are the only two powers that could ostensibly outpace the United States in several arenas of competition. Both powers have sought to disrupt the current international world order—China by amassing military and economic might with the aim of supplanting U.S. hegemony, and Russia by engaging in expansionist behavior and a variety of destabilizing gray zone tactics to undermine the U.S. position at the helm. Strategically, the United States has branded China its “pacing threat” in recognition of the magnitude of its geoeconomic threat and its increasingly formidable military power.[6] Nonetheless, Russia continues to be a significant challenge, particularly due to its nefarious gray zone activity. Looking across theaters, Russian behavior has been more overtly negative and aggressive in nature than Chinese activity, which beyond INDOPACOM has largely consisted of economic measures designed to garner influence in the long term. Russia’s aggressive behavior has included fomenting unrest to generate instability in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or other U.S. allies, conducting cyber attacks, meddling in foreign elections, assassinating those it deems to be enemies of the state (both in Russia and beyond), and even annexing territory.[7] China has been similarly aggressive toward the United States and U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific, seeking to militarily intimidate and economically coerce countries like the Philippines to abandon claims to contested territory, conducting cyber attacks and information operations (including the spread of propaganda), and harassing U.S. and allied vessels in the Indo-Pacific.

Meanwhile, powers that fall substantially short of “great” status have also been described as competitors but are typically relegated to rogue rather than peer status and more often characterized simply as adversaries. Of these non-great power competitors, Iran is the competitor that most clearly poses a strategic threat and merits further examination. U.S.-Iran competition is much smaller in scale than U.S.-Chinese or U.S.-Russian competition, and Iran is clearly in a different league than China and Russia. It is not a world power, nor a great power by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, while Iran is not on par with China and Russia militarily and poses less of a conventional threat to the United States, it is one of the main instigators and sponsors of conflicts in the Middle East and thus is a key actor for the United States to deter and constrain. Beyond its nuclear ambitions, Iran has also leveraged proxy forces throughout the Middle East to destabilize the region and attack U.S. forces. As a result, the United States has found itself competing with Iran on specific objectives in the Middle East and North Africa. 

In sum, Chinese, Russian, and Iranian behavior all pose varying degrees of threat to the United States in different regions of the globe, placing the United States in strategic competition with each of these countries. The following sections will examine what it means for the United States to win against China, Russia, and Iran. 

Eyes on the Prize: Identifying Objectives and Outcomes of Competition

Victory in competition is murkier than victory in war. No matter how messy their conduct, wars typically conclude neatly—whether by treaty, armistice, or a clear acknowledgement of defeat by one side. Competition, by contrast, is a long-term affair with no well-defined end. The U.S. government has illustrated its understanding of the continuous, cyclical nature of competition, with several U.S. military leaders referring to competition as the “infinite game.” In December 2020, for instance, Air Force Global Strike Command’s General Timothy M. Ray announced that the U.S. Air Force would be adopting author Simon Sinek’s “infinite game” concept as a framework to guide its competition efforts. Applying this concept to strategic competition, General Ray stated, “With an infinite game, unlike a finite game, there are known and unknown players. They come and go from this particular competition with different equities, different rules. There’s no defined end state.”[8] He further described what winning looks like in an infinite game, positing that “victory lies in surviving long enough to play another day.”[9] Army Chief of Staff James McConville and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Army General Mark Milley have each issued similar statements, emphasizing the perpetual nature of competition and the importance of remaining in a state of competition to avoid escalation into armed conflict (i.e. remaining in a Cold War state vs. escalating into the outbreak of World War III). The U.S. military’s concept of multidomain operations codifies these lines of thinking into doctrine, providing a framework for the Joint Force to “compete” and “re-compete” as needed.[10] Taken together, these statements and doctrinal documents suggest that strategic competition is a natural, cyclical state of affairs in the international system that never truly ends, and that the goal of the United States should be to ensure that it sustains the current competition with China, Russia, and other competitors such that it does not erupt into a large-scale conflict between the competitors. 

Since competition is continual, there are no true end states of competition, and it is unrealistic to think of winning competition in these terms. “Winning” should instead be thought of as successfully maintaining progress in competition. More specifically, winning entails preserving a consistent edge across all arenas of competition; protecting core U.S. interests around the globe; deterring escalation into armed conflict (while maintaining the ability to win such a conflict if it erupts); retaining the U.S. position at the helm of the international world order; and denying U.S. adversaries’ ambitions of remaking the world order in their image. Since victory in competition cannot be permanent given the perpetual nature of competition, victory, at its simplest, consists of never allowing competitors to get ahead. To give an analogy, strategic competition is like a race without a clearly defined finish line; the best outcome in this scenario is to always maintain a lead relative to the other competitors in the race. The race only ends if a fight breaks out among the competitors—at which point they are trying to win a fight rather than a race—or if one or more of the competitors collapses and can run no longer. Even in these circumstances, victory would be temporary; it would only last until the defeated competitor regains enough strength to chase after the victor, and a new race would begin. 

The specific set of objectives the United States seeks to accomplish in order to maintain a winning edge over its competitors is constantly evolving as geopolitical currents shift and new threats arise. Broadly speaking, there is a set of strategic objectives that apply universally across functional and geographic arenas as well as more specific objectives within each arena and against each competitor. These high-level objectives include: maintaining the current international world order and U.S. primacy within the system (across the DIME spectrum); promoting U.S. values, norms, and influence globally; deterring aggression by U.S. competitors, especially against U.S. allies and partners; denying competitors’ objectives where they infringe on U.S. interests; constraining competitor attempts to gain influence in areas where it would erode U.S. influence; and mitigating risks of escalation into armed conflict between competitors (e.g., a NATO-Russia full-scale war or a war with China over Taiwan).

Each major competitor examined in this article presents different challenges and entails different objectives. In particular, U.S. objectives and desired end states regarding Iran are far more parochial than those related to China and Russia since Iran is a largely regional actor that does not pose the same level of threat on the world stage. The following section seeks to combine the arenas of competition, competitors, and objectives into a competition “scorecard” against which the United States can track its status in strategic competition.

Settling the Score: Constructing a Competition Scorecard

Given the elusive nature of victory in strategic competition, the following sections provide examples of more specific objectives that serve as metrics against which the United States can measure its position and progress in the ongoing competition with Russia, China, and Iran. These checklists or “scorecards” do not provide an exhaustive list of U.S. objectives in each arena, but instead provide illustrative examples of key U.S. priorities within the various lines of effort in which the United States must maintain an edge. These scorecards should be conceived of as a framework that policymakers may use to plug in specific objectives and track progress in competition. 

Objectives are broken down by arena (both functional and geographic) and competitor. As illustrated in the below summary lists, the United States primarily competes with Russia in EUCOM, CENTCOM, and AFRICOM; with China in INDOPACOM, CENTCOM, EUCOM, and AFRICOM; and with Iran in CENTCOM. These countries do have some interests in other theaters, but thus far they have not infringed upon key U.S. interests to the point of becoming a priority. For Russia, I have elected to omit INDOPACOM as a focus since Russian activity in this theater has been minimal, in large part due to its inability to outperform Chinese influence in region and its desire to avoid infringing directly on China’s interests given their shared interest in eroding U.S. influence elsewhere.[11] China has similarly avoided concentrating resources or attention in areas of core Russian interest such as the Baltics, though it has conducted informational and economic activities in other parts of Europe where it assesses it can garner influence or other benefits while not directly clashing with Russia.

The following list summarizes key U.S. objectives in strategic competition with China across functional and geographic areas. At present, U.S.-Chinese competition is most acute in the economic and military realms, but China has also been ramping up its diplomatic overtures in regions of the world that the United States has neglected in recent years, such as Africa.

Summary of Key U.S. Objectives in Strategic Competition with China by Competition Arena[12]

Diplomatic Competition Arena


1. Mitigate Chinese attempts to garner influence through key leader engagement


1. Limit cultural diplomacy programs

Information Competition Arena


1. Deter Chinese influence operations (For INDOPACOM particularly in terms of exploitation of cultural, ethnic, and religious ties)

2. Mitigate and constrain messaging through state-sponsored media 

3. Prevent China from spreading propaganda and conducting information operations

Military Competition Arena


1. Limit defense industrial relations and arms sales to partner countries

INDOPACOM specifically: 

1. Prevent China from outpacing U.S. investments and procurements of emerging technologies

2. Deter China from attacking partners in region, including Taiwan 

3. Deter Chinese aggression against contested territories in theater

4. Prevent China from building military facilities within striking distance of INDOPACOM HQ

Economic Competition Arena


1. Deter Chinese economic coercion or interference 

2. Constrain Chinese infrastructure investments in U.S. partner countries, especially through the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)

3. Limit foreign direct investment in partner countries

AFRICOM specifically: 

1. Limit engagement through the Maritime Silk Road initiative

The below list summarizes key U.S. objectives across functional and geographic domains vis-à-vis Russia. U.S.-Russian competition is particularly evident in the military and informational arenas; while Russia does engage economically across the globe through arms sales and energy transactions, its relatively small GDP limits the extent to which it can rival the United States economically. 

Summary of Key U.S. Objectives in Strategic Competition with Russia by Competition Arena

Diplomatic Competition Arena

All commands (CENTCOM, EUCOM, AFRICOM): 

1. Deter Russian political interference in partner countries

EUCOM specifically: 

1. Prevent Russia from strategically issuing or withholding visas from select groups to deepen influence

Information Competition Arena

All commands (CENTCOM, EUCOM, AFRICOM): 

1. Prevent Russia from spreading propaganda and conducting information operations

2. Mitigate and constrain messaging through state-sponsored media

EUCOM specifically:

1. Deter Russian influence operations (particularly in terms of exploitation of cultural, ethnic, and religious ties)

Military Competition Arena

EUCOM specifically:

1. Deter Russian violations of the territorial integrity of NATO member states, especially through annexation of territory or large-scale military operation

2. Deter Russian incursions into the airspace of NATO states

3. Deter Russian maritime activity that infringes on NATO interests or assets

4. Deter Russian aggression against non-NATO countries

5. Deter Russian cyber operations

6. Deter Russian support for proxy groups or private military companies

7. Deter military intimidation or violent coercion

8. Limit Russian arms sales and exercises with partner countries (especially Turkey)

9. Prevent Russia from outpacing U.S. investments and procurements of emerging technologies


1. Limit Russian arms sales to partner countries

2. Deter Russian exercises with partner countries

CENTCOM specifically:

1. Deter Russian political interference in Syria

2. Deter Russian support for proxy groups or private military companies

3. Limit Russian arms sales and exercises with partner countries

Economic Competition Arena

All commands (CENTCOM, EUCOM, AFRICOM): 

1. Deter Russian economic coercion or interference (particularly in the energy sector)

AFRICOM specifically:

Limit Russian debt forgiveness and foreign direct investment in partner countries

The below list summarizes the main U.S. objectives in strategic competition with Iran. Unlike the competition with China and Russia, U.S.-Iranian competition is primarily constrained to CENTCOM; though it has slowly been turning its attention to other regions such as Europe and Latin America, it has not yet been able to seriously threaten U.S. interests there. This reflects Iran’s status as a regional rather than global power. Nonetheless, given the strategic importance of the Middle East, Iran’s influence in the region poses a clear challenge to the United States and places the two countries in a state of competition in the Middle East. Given Iran’s nuclear ambitions and heavy use of proxy forces, U.S.-Iranian competition emerges most strongly in the military domain. 

Summary of Key U.S. Objectives in Strategic Competition with Iran in CENTCOM by Competition Arena

Diplomatic Competition Arena

1. Prevent Iranian support of political parties and Shia groups in other countries

Information Competition Arena

1. Restrict and counter Iranian anti-U.S. and anti-West propaganda

2. Constrain Iranian attempts to increase influence in U.S. partner states

Military Competition Arena

1. Prevent Iran from developing nuclear capabilities

2. Deter Iran’s attempts to restrict access to key waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Bab El Mandeb, and the Red Sea

3. Deter Iranian ballistic missile, unmanned aircraft systems, and naval attacks on U.S. or partner forces and systems

4. Deter Iranian-backed proxy attacks on U.S. or partner forces and systems

5. Prevent further Iranian sponsorship of terrorist organization

6. Prevent Iran from further developing A2/AD capabilities that limit U.S. ability to flow forces to region

7. Deter Iranian-perpetrated cyber-attacks (by state or non-state Iranian actors)

Economic Competition Arena

1. Prevent Iranian manipulation or disruption of energy markets through restricting access to key oil supply routes

As these summaries illustrate, U.S. objectives are diverse and numerous, spanning both geographic and functional domains. These scorecards provide a framework policymakers can use to organize their thinking on competition and measure progress and success relative to U.S. competitors.

Looking Ahead: The Next Era of Competition

Competition will always be an enduring feature of the international system. For centuries, states have vied for dominance, fought wars to achieve their objectives when necessary, and returned to a state of competition in times of apparent peace. From an international relations standpoint, history has been a series of competitions punctuated by wars that erupted when the competition escalated into conflict. Each major conflict since World War I has resulted in a remaking of the world order—from multipolarity to bipolarity to the current U.S.-led unipolar order—that signified the culmination of one competition and the start of another. Even in times of supposed peace, the world slipped back into a state of competition, though the states involved did not always realize it at the time. In the clearest example, Germany spent the interwar period between the World Wars competing against its unwitting former rivals to gain a military edge over them. 

In theory, competitions could end without escalation into major conflict between the competing parties—as arguably occurred with the conclusion of the Cold War. In the context of the current competition, it is difficult to imagine the United States willingly ceding hegemony to a rival whose world view so stridently clashes with its own. Because the United States is still the reigning hegemon—albeit one that is declining in relative power—this would suggest that the current competition will only end if the United States is unseated and replaced by China or Russia as the hegemon or if the world order returns to multipolarity, where no one state dominates. At that point, the conclusion of the current competition will usher in a new era of strategic competition, beginning a new chapter in the infinite game.

Ashley Rhoades is a Defense Analyst focusing on strategic competition, security cooperation, deterrence, terrorism and counterterrorism, and European and Middle Eastern security issues. She was a fellow in the 2020-2021 Security and Strategy Seminar Iran track.


Image: Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Schachfiguren, König — 2021 — 9650 (bw)” / CC BY-SA 4.0. Retrieved from:,_K%C3%B6nig_–_2021_–_9650_(bw).jpg, used under Wikimedia Commons.

[1] President Donald J. Trump, “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” The White House, December 2017, 

[2] President Joseph R. Biden, “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” The White House, March 2021,

[3] See, for instance, Thomas Wright, “The return to great-power rivalry was inevitable,” The Atlantic, September 12, 2018,; Andrew Doran, “The ‘Great Game’ Is Back: Are Americans Ready for Great Power Competition?,” The National Interest, May 11, 2021,‘great-game’-back-are-americans-ready-great-power-competition-184920.

[4] Michael J. Mazarr et al., Understanding the Emerging Era of International Competition: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2018), 5. 

[5] Lyle J. Morris et al., Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone: Response Options for Coercive Aggression Below the Threshold of Major War (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019), 7.

[6] Michael O’Hanlon, “Russia, China, and the risks of war: My conversation with General Mark Milley,” Brookings, December 23, 2020,

[7] James Dobbins, Howard J. Shatz, Ali Wyne, Russia Is a Rogue, Not a Peer; China Is a Peer, Not a Rogue: Different Challenges, Different Responses, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019). 

[8] Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory, “Ray: Great Power Competition is an ‘Infinite Game’ with Russia, China,” Air Force Magazine, December 10, 2020,

[9] Oprihory, “Ray: Great Power Competition is an ‘Infinite Game’ with Russia, China.”

[10]United States Army, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, December 6, 2018, GL-7,

[11] See, for example, Eugene Rumer, “Russia in the Asia-Pacific: Less than Meets the Eye,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 3, 2020,

[12] Information in the summaries of key U.S. objectives by competition arena were derived from the author’s review of the literature cited in the references section as well as previous work by the author. See in particular: Elina Treyger, Ashley L. Rhoades, Nathan Vest, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Raphael S. Cohen, Asha Clark, Assessing the Prospects for Great Power Cooperation in Europe and the Middle East, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, forthcoming) and Ashley L. Rhoades, Elina Treyger, Nathan Vest, Christian Curriden, Irina Chindea, and Raphael S. Cohen, Great Power Competition and Conflict in the Middle East: Identifying Paths to Proxy Conflict in the Region and Implications for the U.S. Air Force, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, forthcoming) and Raphael S. Cohen, S., Eugeniu Han, and Ashley L. Rhoades, Geopolitical Trends and the Future of Warfare: The Changing Global Environment and Its Implications for the U.S. Air Force. (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020). 

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