The name’s Britain. Global Britain

The Government today published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Tiffany Burrows, Sabine Tyldesley and Nick Jessup take a look into what the ten-year strategy indicates for Global Britain. 

Today (16 March), the UK Government has published its Integrated Review, the culmination of a year-long deep dive into the UK’s future approach to defence, security, foreign and development policy. Setting out the government’s vision for what sort of global player the UK will be, the Integrated Review fires the strategic starting pistol that we’ve all been waiting for to launch the Global Britain project.

The UK Government’s three main priorities set out in this “guide to action” are sovereignty, security, and prosperity. The UK will be using its platforms as the President of the G7 and the host of COP26 to put these principles into practice.

Pivot to Asia and the importance of trade

The Review confirms the position of the UK’s international trade agenda as a central piece of Global Britain and, implicitly, foreign policy. The Review also makes the relationship between foreign policy and domestic policy more apparent – “our foreign policy rests on strong domestic foundations” – using trade to demonstrate this. For example, trade is referred to as a tool “to create economic growth that is distributed more equitably across the UK”.

Nothing should be read into the omission of trade as a dedicated section of the Review. Firstly, trade is mentioned frequently (a mere 133 times to be precise), and secondly, because the recent Board of Trade’s report outlined suggested priorities for the UK’s international trade policy (for more information, see here).

For those who have been paying attention to the UK’s approach to trade (and are avid followers of #TradeTuesday) it will come as no surprise that the Review highlights countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Japan, Australia and India, as nations where alliances will be strengthened. The Review refers to the region as “increasingly the geopolitical centre of the world”.

The British Foreign Policy Group has observed that this pivot to Asia is not all encompassing, as “it will not match the security presence of our Pacific allies”. Instead, this pivot to Asia centres around trade and the geostrategic importance of the region (for more information on this strategy, please our previous blog on this topic).

China

Balancing the UK’s economic reliance on China with its concerns around human rights and security threats has always been a tricky line to walk (see here for our global perspective of trading relationships with China). Heavily briefed in advance, the Review’s position on China will not be welcome news to those Conservative MPs who were looking to their Party to take a stronger position. The Review however confirms that the UK Government is firmly on the side of what former Conservative leader and Foreign Secretary William Hague describes as “China Realists”.

The Review describes China as a “systemic competitor” and asserts that the UK “will need to engage with China and remain open to Chinese trade and investment” whilst identifying the national security and economic threat posed by the country.

The recognition that China’s dominance is here to stay was a necessary step to informing the UK’s policy, particularly where China is needed to address global issues such as climate change, but it won’t be a popular one. That being said, it’s worth noting that the UK’s plans to join the CPTPP – and therefore a growing alliance in the Asia-Pacific – is a safeguard against the burgeoning power of China, and the UK’s approach is not too dissimilar from its international allies.

Security

The most central part of the Review was to outline the Government’s new approach to security. This is framed in the context of China which poses the “biggest state-based threat” to the UK’s economic security and presents a “systemic challenge” to British prosperity and values, according to the report. Given China’s military modernisation and growing international assertiveness in the Pacific region and beyond it will pose an “increasing risk to UK interests”, the Review puts “strengthening security and defence at home and overseas” as one of its four objectives.

It will seek to achieve this by working with allies and partners to “protect our people, in the physical world and online, against a range of growing threats” including state threats, radicalisation and terrorism, serious and organised crime, and weapons proliferation.

This affirms the trend we have seen the PM make on multiple occasions directly or via his Cabinet – specifically on trade – that there is a still a transatlantic special relationship with the United States. In his speech the PM said they “will be our greatest ally and a uniquely close partner in defence, intelligence and security”.

Another part of the puzzle will be to establish a Counter-Terrorism Operations Centre and Situation Centre to bring together CT police, the intelligence agencies and the criminal justice system to tackle threats of the future. This Situation Centre, based in the Cabinet Office, will build on lessons from the pandemic to improve use of data to anticipate and respond to future crises.

Defence

The UK’s independent nuclear deterrent is one of the key features of the Review, as well as one of the aspects more likely to generate controversy. The decision to increase the cap on the number of nuclear warheads from 180 to 260, a move which the Government says is a recognition of the “evolving security environment”, has been criticised as a move away from nuclear non-proliferation. The Review also commits to completing the renewal of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, which may present a political challenge for the Opposition too – with the instinct of the grassroots to oppose nuclear proliferation likely coming into conflict with the stance Labour leader Keir Starmer would prefer to take.

The Review also establishes a cast-iron link between the UK’s defensive and scientific capabilities, reiterating the 2020 Spending Review’s commitment to £6.6bn in R&D funding for the Ministry of Defence (as part of the £24bn total increase). The Review affirms the Government’s continuing commitment to exceed the NATO guideline of spending 2% of GDP on defence, with the modernisation programme it will fund embracing cyber and space as two key future elements.

The new frontier 

In addition to the Review detailing the UK’s defensive capabilities, the “unique soft power” of science also gets a significant mention. Bolstered by the success of the vaccine rollout, and particularly citing the Oxford University/AstraZeneca partnership, the Prime Minister has been making significant efforts in recent weeks to talk up the value of UK as a leader in science and technology. The Government’s stated ambition – the measurement of which is at present a little vague – is to secure the country’s status as a science and tech superpower by 2030.

The existing evidence certainly supports the Prime Minister’s optimism. The UK is ranked 4th in the Global Innovation Index, and is 3rd in the world for tech unicorns, with 77 technology companies valued at over $1bn. Additionally, the UK is home to a number of world-leading universities and research facilities and is well-recognised within the international community as being a leading light in research and development.

The Integrated Review reiterates the Government’s spending target of 2.4% of GDP to be spent on R&D by 2027, as well as the expectation that by 2023-24, the Government will be investing £1.4bn more per year in core funding for its “world-leading research base.” This comes alongside a significant policy shift – with the Government pledging to take a “more active approach to building and sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology (S&T)”. This suggests that the Government expects, alongside the additional funding it is allocating, to give itself a larger role in deciding which projects constitute supporting strategic advantage and directing resources appropriately. This may concern some in the scientific community, who are perhaps unaccustomed to significant government interventions.

The Integrated Review makes clear that primacy in science and technology is expected to play an important role as a key component of national security and as a tool of foreign policy. What this means in practical terms remains to be seen.

What about international development?

The Prime Minister didn’t mention development in his statement to the House, but it does feature in the Review, albeit not as prominently as the other sections. As pre-briefed, the government commits to return to 0.7% of gross national incomes spending on international development when the fiscal situation allows. It identifies the areas of policy continuity as upholding human rights, commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, and championing girls’ education (the UK is co-President with Kenya of the Global Partnership for Education summit this year). There was an element of ‘wait and see’ on development as the Review commits to setting out a new approach on international development strategy.

Since Brexit, the UK has struggled to find its feet in the global arena, with its focus arguably split. Would the UK maintain close ties with security partners? Would the UK move closer to the United States and realign its historic ‘special relationship’? How would the UK tackle cross-border terror threats? Would the UK prove that Brexit wasn’t about shunning it’s continental partners? Would the UK leverage its connections with the Commonwealth? What about the D10? Would the UK have a pivot to Asia? All of these questions were the plates that the UK Government was constantly spinning and the Integrated Review has provided a much needed steady hand.