Will the UK’s Integrated Review of foreign policy really make a difference?

09 Apr, 2021

The Integrated Review was billed as a radical overhaul of British foreign and security policy after Brexit. There are some important innovations, but much of it is sensible repackaging or reprioritisation of current policy in response to the acceleration of existing trends.

Some hyperbole was inevitable; Britain is to be a “science superpower”, a “soft power superpower” and an “independent country free to tread our own path”. Fortunately, behind these fine words lies serious and interesting thought that deserves to influence our approach in many areas of international and domestic policy.

The geopolitical analysis is sober, depicting a tougher more competitive world in ideology, technology, economics and defence, where previous certainties no longer apply. This realism is welcome and reflects changes over the last five years and beyond, above all linked to China.

Yet in the prescription there is a striking degree of continuity. Brexit aside, the Review does not propose a radical rupture in strategy. For example, its advocacy of a British foreign policy with global reach, committed to the values of liberal democracy, trade, the rule of law and the expression of soft power, is wholly familiar.

So is the emphasis on the relationship with the United States. Some found this surprising, but it is the correct choice and, with the UK’s links to the EU and China in disrepair, what is the alternative? Despite concerns about their personal relationship, Biden’s win was a strategic godsend for Johnson. Britain should now work to buttress positive change in America. 

The priority given to European and Euro-Atlantic security, and the UK’s role in NATO, also represents continuity. As does the ongoing and indeed enhanced commitment to an independent British nuclear deterrent.

The “Indo-Pacific tilt” was briefed as a big strategic innovation, but careful reading reveals something less dramatic; more a Brexit-boosted upgrade of an existing plan than a radical departure. Reprioritisation of trade and diplomacy towards growing markets and powers in Asia has been established British policy for over a decade, though a heightened defence and security component has been added.

On China, while the new US administration does seem to be starting to mould a more coordinated Western policy, the Review treads carefully on the balance between a more adversarial posture and continuing engagement. “We will continue to pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with China while ensuring that our national security and values are protected” feels more European than American.   

What is new? The key word is “Integrated”. The Review marks an important advance in connecting both the domestic and international aspects of security, as well as traditional and innovative instruments of foreign policy. It is a serious attempt to bring together action across the baronies of Whitehall.

The emphasis on investment in science and technology as the foundation for economic competitiveness and security is convincing and authentic. The Review is interesting on cyber security, artificial intelligence, and the need to secure ownership of, collaboration on, and access to emerging technologies. This in turn links to the emphasis on national resilience in infrastructure, supply chains and better preparedness for future climate or health events.

Identifying climate change as the top policy priority is new, if hardly surprising. It exemplifies the wider thrust of the Review: the imperative of broad international cooperation combined with closer alignment of domestic and international goals. Sustainability, clean trade, international health and nature will be signature themes of the UK presidencies this year of the G7 and the COP26 conference.

The biggest flaw of the Review is that it ignores the EU. It confirms that this government sees Europe through the lenses of NATO and bilateral relationships and is averse to a structured foreign policy and security relationship with the EU collectively. Although officials did manage to insert a reference to “working with the EU where our interests coincide”, it does not address how, in a contested, competitive world dominated by the national interests of the US and China, the UK will influence crucial regulation of new technologies if it does not also align with the EU.

For business there is much to welcome and absorb. The Integrated Review is the start of a process; so far it is stronger on analysis and aspiration than on hard choices and plans for delivery. We should learn more from the promised follow up papers on AI, cyber strategy and national resilience. Resources will be tight in the post-Covid economy. If the aspiration is that ten years from now the UK will “sit at the heart of a network of like-minded countries and flexible groupings… with influence amplified by stronger alliances and wider partnerships” much hard work, but also new opportunities, lie ahead.

Sir Simon Fraser is a co-founder and Managing Partner of Flint. Simon is an influential public commentator on international affairs. From 2010 to 2015 Simon was Head of the UK Foreign Office and Diplomatic Service.

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