UK's Vision is Confident, But Success is a Long Way Off

British soldiers conduct a patrol outside Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. Photo by JOHN D MCHUGH/AFP via Getty Images.
British soldiers conduct a patrol outside Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. Photo by JOHN D MCHUGH/AFP via Getty Images.

Intended to provide a comprehensive answer as to the substance of what ‘Global Britain’ – a description in use by the UK government since 2016 – truly means, the long-awaited Integrated Review sends the signal that departing the European Union (EU) does not make for an introspective Britain with a diminished international role.

As an important landmark in the UK’s government’s definition of a post-Brexit international role for the country, it sets out a roadmap for exactly what will be the focus of Britain’s foreign, development, security, and defence policies for the next decade. But in terms of more immediate consequences, the Review is also an important piece of public diplomacy and shows the ‘government machinery’ of the civil service how resources should be allocated for these policies.

Much anticipated by the UK’s allies and diplomatic partners, its publication does give a clearer sense of the UK’s ambitions and priorities. Its message of a renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region, driven by a concern to contribute to meeting diplomatic and security challenges presented by an assertive China, will be welcome to the US, other Five Eyes allies – where the UK already has defence commitments such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements – and especially Japan.

But the UK’s European neighbours are likely to be less clear on the impact for them in the messages contained in the Review. Although the UK’s continuing commitment to Europe’s security and defence is predominant in the document, broader ambitions for the UK in Europe and especially its longer-term ambitions for relations with the EU are notably thin.

Challenges of a coherent approach

The timing of the Review could not have been more challenging. Coinciding with the pandemic, it was conducted during a period in which both the government and civil service were distracted by the pandemic’s massive disruption. The UK’s policymaking community was also wrestling with the dynamics of finalizing Brexit and distracted by a turbulent UK political scene with three changes of government and two general elections in recent years.

But the fact of Brexit clearly called for a broader articulation of the international role of the UK – something missing from more recent reviews which focused predominantly on security and defence.

The creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in advance of the Review signalled a desire to see development aid more aligned to diplomatic influence. Now, with the planned reduction of the foreign aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI as part of post-COVID-19 cost-saving measures, the immediate challenge is to craft a coherent approach for the UK’s development policy that is indeed aligned with the Review’s broader policy goals and is not just about reducing commitments.

The government’s announcement in November 2020 of £16.5 bn increase in defence spending for the next four years was also a statement of intent. It is unsurprising, therefore, that defence is the most financially and posture-changing element in the Review, with a focus on enhancing and transforming the technological basis of the UK’s security and defence through increased military research and development. The consequences for the UK’s future defence policy due to be detailed in a White Paper.

Still, the significance of the Review depends on whether its analysis and prescriptions are shared by future governments as it provides a vision for the UK to 2030. Setting the precedent of five-yearly cycles of Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSRs) means each review’s ambitions and commitments have a much shorter policy lifecycle now.

It is fortuitous, therefore, that the Integrated Review comes against the backdrop of the highest profile for the UK’s diplomacy in decades. The country has begun its presidency of the UN Security Council in February, and is to host both the G7 and UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) this year. Each of these provides opportunities for the Johnson government to push forward its security, economic and climate change priorities.

But it still leaves many questions about how the ambitious agenda the Review details can be realised, not least because the scale and scope of the diplomatic agenda it sets out requires a significantly scaled-up diplomatic capacity which needs to be facilitated by a major financial uplift. The real test will be beyond 2021 and whether, having relinquished a key platform for diplomacy in Europe, the UK is able to convert its self-confident vision of future international relevance into new and deeper partnerships which genuinely deliver on its ambition.

Professor Richard G Whitman, Associate Fellow, Europe Programme.

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