Saturday 01 April 2017

When considering potential threats, today’s strategic leaders should always consider one of the “less than obvious” aspects of international power: the Indirect Approach.  Strategy is about power and power is directly related to each nation’s ability to focus and project its resources to achieve desired effects over time, but many nations act indirectly, deliberately obscuring their real goals and actions or even acting in ways meant to deceive others. Effective security in our globalized age requires an ability to analyze and critically assess the mindset of one’s national opponents. The UAE has done this well in the past but must continue to hone its skills in this area to succeed in an even more uncertain world. 

Sun Tzu is often considered as the father of Eastern military strategy and the Indirect Approach; even today his ideas dominate Chinese, Japanese and Korean tactics.  The ideas attributed to him in the book The Art of War have become increasingly popular and have clearly affected the ways states act on the world scene. His book continues to influence many people around the world including in culture, politics, and business, as well as in warfare. As a general rule, Eastern military strategies often focus more on asymmetric actions and deception than do Western strategies.

Most people think of indirect approaches in a tactical sense. Tactics are those actions designed to achieve short term physical objectives as part of an overall strategy, especially how people, equipment and weapons systems are employed and directed against opponents. Strategy refers to the employment of all of a nation’s capabilities coordinated through national leaders over the longer term, including planning and developing capabilities to enhance national power. They differ in time frame and scope but both can benefit greatly from artful indirect approaches. Sun Tzu cautioned against concentrating power anywhere other than the decisive place and time. He also argued for allocating minimum power to secondary efforts and maximizing maneuver, to place the opponent in a disadvantageous position, and surprise, acting only at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which the opponent is unprepared.

In our current context both Russia and Iran have demonstrated real skill in the use of Indirect Approaches. Russia’s actions in the Ukraine and more recent efforts in South Ossetia and Libya demonstrate artful use of Sun Tzu’s ideas, as does Russian expansion of its naval base in Tartous, Syria, to make it capable of accommodating more ships. Iranian proxy war support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and certain factions in Iraq also shows a successful pattern of indirect action and deception in achieving its national agenda. China is a master of the indirect and its influence in our region will only grow in the future.

Executing a strategy is always challenging, but the actions of other states acting indirectly can make it even more difficult; managing strategies against multiple potential threats will test even the best strategic leaders. Given the recent actions by Russia, Iran and other powers, the UAE must always look beyond the obvious to sense the real national intent of other states. There can be no doubt that the evolving world order will continue to test the UAE, but its ability to evaluate and assess potential threats will continue to serve it well if its leaders remain warry of Indirect Approaches. The keys will continue to be managing risk in a very uncertain world, determining the true national interests of other nations and developing the best possible understanding of how other states can leverage their power and influence, even when using an Indirect Approach.