Military and Strategic Journal
Issued by the Directorate of Morale Guidance at the General Command of the Armed Forces
United Arab Emirates
Founded in August 1971

2018-05-02

Implementing Strategy:Essential Freedom of Action

By: Dr. John R.Ballard
Former Dean of the National Defense College
 
Making strategy work effectively is the essential challenge of international affairs. Having identified some key principles making strategists more effective, it is incumbent on us to become proficient using those capabilities. In today’s world they apply to most strategic national efforts, so they should become familiar terms among both national government and business leaders. The key, and some would say most overarching, of those concepts is Freedom of Action.
 
Freedom of Action is the capacity to act as desired to achieve national interests despite the efforts of other states. Without Freedom of Action no state or business can fully develop any of the other essential capacities (such as Initiative or Flexibility) because they will be restrained or constrained by the actions of others. In our rapidly evolving world, states are threatened by international organisations, global business conglomerates, non-state actors of significance and even alliance structures, in addition to aggressor states. To retain true independence, states must ensure their Freedom of Action, without undo restraints or constraints, against all such threats. 
 
Restraints on action are generally things that states are prohibited from doing; constraints on action are things states must do. In general terms, only universally accepted international agreements (such as the UN Charter) and international law (the Geneva Conventions for example) should be accepted willingly. If states voluntarily enter into other limiting agreements, such as alliances, treaties or trade associations (the Gulf Cooperation Council, or the North American Free Trade Agreement) they are accepting restraints or constraints on their Freedom of Action in exchange for other benefits.
 
The reason why universally accepted international agreements and international law should not be viewed as restraints or constraints on Freedom of Action is because agreements such as the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions are so influential among states that acting contrary to their intent would realistically harm national reputations, and therefore limit national power. Recent examples of this include the use of banned chemical weapons by the Assad regime and the missile attacks of the Houthis from Yemen – such actions are universally condemned and always counterproductive.
 
Freedom of Action is also closely related to two other principles of strategy: Cooperation and Flexibility. Cooperation among states can limit Freedom of Action, but if the decision to cooperate is taken in a way to ensure combined Freedom of Action then both principles are reinforced. Although Flexibility requires Freedom of Action to work best, and seems similar to Freedom of Action, Flexibility is more tactical in nature: having the means to alter approaches once a strategy is in execution.
 
As our regional security environment grows ever more complex with the ongoing changes in the global power structure, strategic leaders must ensure Freedom of Action to do what their citizens require to maintain their culture and national prosperity. No two international actions are exactly alike, so Freedom of Action may require different approaches in different circumstances, but if used wisely, it is always prerequisite for ensuring long term success, particularly for a nation as engaged in world affairs as the UAE.
 

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