The U.K. Integrated Review: Defining What ‘Global Britain’ Actually Means

World Politics Review, 29.03.2021
Lawrence Freedman, profesor de Estudios de la Guerra (King’s College London)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to Joint Helicopter Command Station Aldergrove, Northern Ireland. (AP/Peter Morrison)

In mid-March, the British government released its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, titled, “Global Britain in a Competitive Age.” This was followed a week later by a more focused defense review. The two documents represent the end products of an exercise conducted by the government every five years, a combination of stocktaking, horizon-scanning and threat assessment, with some new policy announcements thrown in. This one began in 2020, but its completion was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The headlines surrounding the latest review have focused on the announcements that the U.K. would increase the size of its nuclear stockpile and decrease the size of its army. The real interest, however, lies in the review’s broader attempt to reconceptualize what it means to be a middle power in the modern world.

The challenge for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government was to explain how the U.K. intended to develop its international role now that it has departed the European Union. Last year was spent in a transitional period while the two sides negotiated the terms of their long-term post-Brexit relationship. That deal was reached at the end of the year, indeed at the very last minute. This spared maximum chaos, but still resulted in a lot of friction, as new regulations and complicated paperwork requirements caused major disruption in British trade with the EU. It also complicated the position of Northern Ireland, particularly with regard to its land border with Ireland, which under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is supposed to be open. The Northern Ireland Protocol, which ostensibly resolved this dilemma by instead locating the new customs frontier between Britain and Northern Ireland, has led to contentious trading arrangements.

Despite widespread perceptions and characterizations of Brexit as a sign of insularity and nationalism, the British government insisted that it was nothing of the sort. Instead it promised that, having left the EU, the U.K. would focus its gaze not inward, but even more outward to the rest of the world, where it could now negotiate its own trade agreements under the banner of “Global Britain.” This was preferable to a “Britain First” variation on Donald Trump’s famous theme, but it was still widely derided as a vacuous slogan.

One reason in particular that the outlines of Global Britain needed to be filled out was the arrival in Washington of the Biden administration, which is one of the main intended audiences for the current review. It was believed that President Joe Biden and his administration had entered office wary of Johnson because of the British prime minister’s efforts to develop a close relationship with Trump, but also because of Biden’s personal commitment to the Good Friday Agreement. Last summer, having concluded that Biden could well win the U.S. presidential election, Johnson’s team worked to underline how much they had diverged from Trump over issues such as Iran and climate change, while pointing to the similarity of London’s takes on Russia and China to those of Biden’s team.

With the U.K.’s ties to the EU now weakened, it was inevitable that London was going to put even more emphasis on its “special relationship” with the United States. The need to demonstrate a less Eurocentric vision also unavoidably pointed the strategic review in the direction of a “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific region, although on the defense side, the review still identifies NATO as the main focus of the U.K.’s security efforts.

The biggest and thorniest question is what to do about China. London shares its partners’ concerns about the stifling of Hong Kong’s democracy, human rights abuses and China’s readiness to interfere in the internal affairs of Western democracies. At the same time, China’s economic clout and importance on issues such as climate change means that it cannot be ignored or shunned. The stance sketched out in the review is therefore nuanced and pragmatic, but with a warier tone than before. In this, it is not that different to the approach and policies of the U.S. and EU. Foreign policy is unavoidably a world of compromises, because it requires accommodation with countries that have their own distinctive systems and interests.

Another example of this is India, identified in the review as a crucial partner because of the size of its economy; its long, if historically charged, ties to the U.K.; its distrust of China; and its status as a democracy. India’s human rights credentials are also being questioned at the moment, but any concerns over these issues will be outweighed by the U.K.’s geopolitical and trading instincts.

One major gap in the review has to do with the EU. The document stresses at every opportunity the importance of partnerships and allies to the U.K.’s ambitions. Yet it has very little to say about what will be done to repair fraught relations with the EU, which still comprises the U.K.’s closest neighbors and trading partners. The review has nothing disobliging to say about the EU and even makes some friendly mentions of individual countries—the defense relationship with France in particular remains a priority. But it does not make much positive mention of Brussels either.

In terms of defense and security policies, the big idea behind the review is to encourage a “permanent and persistent global engagement” with individual countries around the world, which can in turn be backed by expeditionary forces at times of emergency. While big-ticket military capabilities must be maintained for conventional wars, the essential assumption is that the challenges most likely to be faced will take place in the so-called gray zone between war and peace, where rivals compete for advantage and influence while avoiding lurches into all-out war.

As a result, the review encourages the wide distribution of small packets of capabilities, rather than preparations for a cataclysmic conflict requiring massed assets. This in fact marks a return to a more traditional posture for the U.K., with an emphasis on maritime capabilities and a smaller standing army, and a promise of quality if not quantity. With regard to the army, there will be a single war-fighting division capable of holding its own in high-intensity war and a new Ranger Regiment tasked with training and operating alongside partner countries, while the Royal Marines will largely take over the functions of special forces. In keeping with the promise of moving to cutting-edge technologies, there is to be a greater focus on cyber, space, drones and artificial intelligence.

The review’s more upfront discussion of nuclear weapons suggests a greater emphasis on their deterrence function. The review took note of the U.K.’s already planned introduction of new submarine-launched nuclear weapons in the 2030s, while it made news—and raised eyebrows—with its announcement that the U.K. would increase its nuclear arsenal from a planned low of 180 weapons, which had never actually been reached, to 256.

How well the posture envisioned by the review works out depends in part on finance. The government committed extra funds to the Ministry of Defense last year to tide it over an imminent budgetary crunch—the ministry’s default position in recent years—so that it could develop long-term plans. While the review’s aspirations for the future are clear enough, precision is lacking on actual end goal numbers of ships and aircraft. Moreover, as is inevitable when old capabilities are eliminated to make room for the new, there is going to be a short-term capabilities gap. The review’s most vociferous critics argue that the country will be less prepared than ever before for a big war with Russia. The government argues that this exaggerates what the U.K. has been able to do by itself for some time, that the mass in a future war will have to come from allies, and that the new capabilities as they come into service will represent a major upgrade.

The other big concern, true of every review of this sort, is whether it will leave the country prepared for unanticipated events. This review, after all, was produced during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the U.K. has suffered a high death toll, with the government severely criticized for a number of missteps in its response. Yet by the time of the review’s publication, Johnson’s government was enjoying the benefit of a remarkably successful vaccination rollout. In comparison, the EU’s lackluster performance on vaccines, even as some countries experience a surge of new cases, made the U.K. look competent and strategic for the first time during the pandemic. That boosted the case for Brexit being a net benefit at a moment when the economic effects might have undermined it.

Above all, the pandemic reinforced the need for resilience in strategic planning. It also illustrated the sort of approach that the U.K. must adopt post-Brexit. To cope with challenges alone, it will need to be agile and make serious investments in both scientific and industrial capabilities. Past reviews have been criticized for the gap between ambitions and resources. This one claims to be different. We shall see.

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