What the Integrated Review refresh means for British foreign policy

Last week, the Government published the long-awaited “refresh” to its national security and international policy, the Integrated Review (“IR23”). The Government also announced an additional £11 billion to the defence budget over the next 5 years, with £5 billion of that in the first 2 years.  

The Integrated Review, initially published in March 2021 (“IR21”), set out a framework for how the UK positions itself in the world as the post-Brexit “Global Britain”. 

The Refresh was commissioned, and additional budget provided, so that the UK could keep pace with the “evolving threat posed by hostile nations”. While the Refresh is not a radical departure from the pre-2023 direction of travel, it strikes a more pragmatic and balanced tone to foreign policy.  

An evolutionary, not revolutionary, approach to foreign policy 

The Refresh is best seen as an evolution, not a revolution of the UK’s foreign policy. It is notable that the ambitious “Global Britain” tagline has been dropped and replaced with a pragmatic policy grounded in the increasingly unstable geopolitical and security landscape.  

Unsurprisingly, Russia is still identified as “the most pressing national security and foreign policy priority”. The Government also reiterated its unwavering support for Ukraine until it “prevails”. This is a significant statement of intent and will guide the update of the Defence Command Paper, which will shortly set out a blueprint for the armed forces and determine the allocation of the defence budget. 

The Refresh also demonstrates a more ‘self-aware’ UK. The Government sets out the importance of cooperation with the EU, following the successful Windsor Framework agreement, and the rest of Europe. It details hopes for a more constructive, even “revitalised”, relationship with Europe, particularly through the European Political Community. Europe was largely absent from the original document.  

The relationship with the US still sits at the heart of the IR and of UK foreign policy. The decision to publish the Refresh when Sunak was in San Diego progressing the AUKUS programme with President Biden is symbolic of – what the government views as – the paramount transatlantic relationship.  

Arguably, this more pragmatic approach – which contrasts with the confrontational approach of the previous governments – has already led to some results for the Sunak government: the Franco-British summit led to a significant agreement to tackle illegal immigration in the Channel, and the Government secured some concessions from the EU on the negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

Confirmation of the Indo-Pacific tilt as China remains the strategic priority 

The Indo-Pacific tilt has become further entrenched in UK foreign and defence policy, as evidenced by the Government’s investment in the AUKUS alliance with the US and Australia and the UK’s partnership with Japan and Italy to deliver a next-generation combat aircraft. The Government has backed up its stance on the Indo-Pacific by allocating approximately £3 billion of the initial £5 billion announced increase in defence spending on the nuclear submarine programme, which will support the AUKUS alliance. 

On China, the IR23 does not take a fundamentally different approach to the IR21. But it devotes more space to how the UK should position itself with respect to China, identifying it under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as an “epoch-defining challenge” and setting out a three-pronged strategy identifying areas for alignment, engagement, and protecting the UK’s interests. The Review states that the actions of the CCP in some areas “pose a threat” to the UK, which is slightly stronger than the language in the IR21. The Refresh’s clearer approach may facilitate a more aligned cross-government approach to China. The increased scrutiny of Chinese inward investments will remain. 

The Government’s ambitions are still constrained 

Despite increased pragmatism, there are questions about how the Government will achieve all of its ambitions in the Refresh. While the £11 billion uplift in defence spending is welcome, as it allocates funds immediately to the AUKUS nuclear submarine programme and will support the replenishment of military stockpiles depleted by the war in Ukraine, it primarily restores the MoD’s real spending power to 2021-levels. This brings into question how far this money will go in growing the UK’s capabilities beyond filling the holes in current defence programmes. 

Furthermore, despite the promise of a clearer approach on China, the government remains under pressure from within its own party to adopt a tougher line on China and define it as a threat. The Conservative’s China hawks will be further galvanised following the ban of TikTok on UK government phones due to data sharing concerns.   

Ultimately, the UK’s influence on the international agenda is also constrained by its existence as a “middle power” requiring strong alliances to achieve impact. The cautious framework chosen by the UK for its post-Brexit relationship with the EU also limits the ways in which the UK can cooperate with the EU. 

Despite the prospect of a new government, continuity will likely prevail 

As the world looks increasingly unstable, international events will continue to influence the Government’s domestic policy priorities. If Labour wins power in 2024, it will be under the same constraints of a fragmented geopolitical landscape, and the general direction of travel set out in the Refresh is likely to endure. However, there could be some subtle differences. Labour would adopt a more positive approach to the EU, but change towards closer relations would be incremental. Labour is also likely to put more emphasis on climate change and human rights. We would expect this to be set out in a further review, which the Labour party has promised to undertake.   

This blog was written by Megan Welby, a consultant based in London, who has a background in the defence industry, and Francois-Joseph Schichan, a director based in London and a former French diplomat. 

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