Public Affairs & Government Relations

FTI Consulting Public Affairs Snapshot – The Integrated Review: A new role for Britain?

Yesterday, the Government launched its long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Foreign Policy and Development (IR). Billed as the most comprehensive appraisal of the UK’s international posture since the end of the Cold War, the IR seeks to fill the gaps in the Government’s ‘Global Britain’ agenda. While foreign policy may once have been a secondary consideration for the commercial sector, that is no longer the case. Brexit, the rise of China, and the increased emphasis on international trade means that it cannot be ignored. Whilst we may have to wait for specifics in some areas, the IR sets out the strategic objectives that will guide British decision-making over the course of the next decade and beyond.

Overview

The IR is guided by an effort to balance and bring together ‘values’ and ‘realism’. It recognises the changing and fragmented international order and that consequently “a defence of the status quo is no longer sufficient for the decade ahead”. What is unsaid is that this is the UK’s blueprint for establishing its post-Brexit purpose, a vision in which no one is more invested than the Prime Minister.

 

Objectives

  1. Sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology

  2. Shaping the open international order of the future

  3. Strengthening security and defence at home and overseas

  4. Building resilience at home and overseas

Alongside the state-based “active threat” from Russia and “systematic challenge” from China, the IR re-emphasises the continuing threat of terrorism and evolving means of delivery. Soberingly, the IR warns that “it is likely that a terrorist group will launch a successful chemical, biological or nuclear attack by 2030”.

However, the IR is not merely concerned with ‘traditional’ threats and responses. It highlights the Government’s mission to tackle climate change as the UK’s “number one international priority”. This shift has been rapid and cannot be explained away as a gesture to the UK’s impending duties as host of the 2021 COP26 UN Climate Change Conference. This is an agenda now firmly embedded at the heart of UK politics and, given the need for international cooperation, as much a diplomatic issue as an environmental one.

Unsurprisingly, global health security is given increased prominence as a strategic pillar of the IR. A five-point plan to bolster pandemic preparedness and increased funding for the World Health Organisation will be the headlines. However, it is the new emphasis on resilience that might be the most significant for businesses, with one of the key lessons from the pandemic being the need to ensure that commercial and industrial dependencies can be met domestically.

“Our international ambitions must start at home” – Boris Johnson

This links neatly with the Government’s broader domestic agenda. Levelling up the UK’s regions, combined with efforts to improve the UK’s science and technological prowess, will now speak as much to the security and resilience agenda as they do to an economic one.

Speaking to the values side of British foreign policy the document emphasises the country’s role as an originator, champion and defender of human rights. There are new commitments on using the UK’s independent sanctions policy to target human rights violators and assurances on defending press freedom, promoting freedom of religion, supporting democracy and advancing girls’ education.

Defence

Although detail about the UK armed forces’ defence footprint will have to wait until next week’s command paper, the IR contained some noteworthy announcements. Perhaps the most eye-catching was that the UK will increase its nuclear arsenal from 180 to 260 warheads, a reversal in policy after generations of declining stockpiles. The move has been painted as necessary to counter countries that are diversifying their own nuclear arsenals. This will make little tangible difference to the UK’s nuclear deterrent posture – it will still only deploy a single submarine, with a finite number of weapons, at any one time. What it does do is add ‘resilience’, a key concept permeating throughout the document.

Something of particular interest to the UK’s defence industry is the commitment to move away from ‘competition by default’ in MOD procurement to prioritise UK industrial capability. This speaks to those same wider governmental priorities; resilience, science and technology, and levelling up. More details will be set out in the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy next week; however, a sceptical industry may wait for evidence of delivery before celebrating.

Although details on force numbers will have to wait, the IR promises to send “more of our armed forces” overseas “more often and for longer periods of time”. Despite an increased defence budget, the upcoming Defence Command Paper is expected to outline cuts to traditional forces across the three services. This is part of a shift towards emergent technology which will see a new £9.3 million ‘situation centre’ established inside the Cabinet Office.

Tech & Cyber

This increased focus on emergent technology will see enhanced efforts in cyber and space with science and technology now treated as a matter for national security with an ambition to become a ‘Science and Tech Superpower’. In an effort to link this with the levelling up agenda, there will be a new cyber corridor across the North West of England that will provide high-skilled jobs. The IR also sets out an ambition to make the UK a “meaningful actor in space” with the establishment of a new Space Command in 2021 (to be accompanied by a national space strategy) and the capability to launch satellites from the UK by 2022. Grand visions indeed.

Allies – Indo-Pacific Tilt

In a sense, today’s commitment to be “the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific” is as much about the UK’s relationship with the USA (described as the UK’s “most important strategic ally and partner”) as the region itself. Whilst the language on China is – in general – more nuanced and less hostile than some expected, the commitment to a multilateral approach chimes with the Biden administration’s efforts to counter China through the rejuvenation of alliances amongst democracies.

This effort to broaden and deepen alliances is reflected in the UK’s invitation to South Korea, Australia and India to join the upcoming G7 Summit. This has been billed as the first step towards an establishment of a ‘D10’, bringing together the world’s most important democracies. There is a prominent economic component to this ‘tilt’, with Asian economies expected to provide the majority of growth this century, that is reflected in the pre-existing ambition to accede to CPTPP and a newly declared ambition to become an ASEAN Dialogue Partner.

Whilst the most notable aspects of the review represent change, the Prime Minister was at pains to point to the UK’s ongoing “commitment to the security of our European home”, highlighting military deployments in the Baltics and the “deep and longstanding” partnership with France. However, direct references to the institution of the EU itself were largely absent. Nevertheless, the UK will need a relationship with the EU and there is enough here not to slam the door on future cooperation. However, nothing will change the emphasis on NATO as the UK’s security framework of choice, with much made of Britain’s continuing status as Europe’s preeminent military power as the foundation on which to rebuild relationships with Europe’s individual nation states.

Adversaries – China & Russia

Unsurprisingly, given the hostility since the 2018 Salisbury chemical weapons attack, Russia is identified as “the most acute direct threat to the UK” that will be “more active around the wider European neighbourhood”. There is a commitment to “actively deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats emanating from Russia”. However, much more measured language was necessary to quantify the more nuanced relationship with China. Described as a “systematic challenge” that poses an “increasing risk to UK interests”, the IR nevertheless recognises China’s undeniable economic importance. The IR states that the UK will need to develop “deeper trade links and more Chinese investment”. These efforts will necessarily be accompanied by increased safeguards around critical infrastructure.

This approach is guided by fairly straightforward realpolitik whilst marking a departure from the UK’s Cameron-era Sinophilia. The Government is opting for a twin-track approach with an increased focus on security and technological sovereignty accompanied by efforts to pursue trade and promote growth. This effort to ‘have its cake and eat it’ is likely to cause anxiety on the Conservative backbenches however Johnson will hope that the more robust tone will provide the political space to cooperate with China wherever possible. Much of course will depend on the actions of China itself.

Trade

The IR re-emphasises the UK’s ambitions as an “independent trading nation” and commitment to open, competitive, liberal markets. The UK will aim to reinvigorate the WTO and reduce trade barriers whilst negotiating bilateral and regional free trade agreements. Nevertheless, there is a recognition that this may be challenging with a number of countries turning towards more regional and national approaches as a response to Covid-19 and that the “momentum for trade liberalisation may continue to slow and cases of protectionism increase”. As such, this is likely to be the most challenging component of the Global Britain agenda.

Development

The decision in November to reduce aid spending to 0.5% of GDP was controversial with figures from across the political spectrum criticising the decision as both unhumanitarian and counterproductive to UK interests. While the IR promises to return spending to 0.7% “when the fiscal situation allows” it also continues the trend of submerging development with trade and diplomacy as tools of foreign policy. This “more strategic” approach will include targeted support for infrastructure overseas in a move which could be seen as a counter to China’s recent efforts to use development as a soft-power influence in the developing world. Lessons it seems can still be learned from Beijing, despite the rhetoric elsewhere.

Concluding Points

Whilst the IR represents a significant departure for UK foreign policy it also seeks to return the UK to a prominent global role, but with an updated and modernised remit. If it can be properly funded and delivered, this is a framework that offers a revitalising context for British policy across defence, security, diplomacy, aid and trade for decades to come. There is also a conscious effort to link foreign and domestic policy more closely. As such, the IR has the potential to have a significant impact on the nature of the UK’s economy, but only if output matches its vision. The IR will need to be fully delivered if it is to be seen as this Government’s most lasting contribution to world politics.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

©2021 FTI Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved. www.fticonsulting.com

 

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