Whether sceptical or expectant, those watching Britain from beyond its shores can draw many insights from the UK government’s dense and detailed 105-page Integrated Review of Defence, Diplomacy and Development. Most importantly, the Review reflects some of the realism that has started to infuse the government after the failures of its pandemic response during 2020. Putting Britain forward as a ‘problem-solving and burden-sharing nation’ sets a humbler tone than many had come to expect from this government.
The Review also recognizes the serious challenges the country faces at home, linking its foreign policy ambitions explicitly to Johnson’s commitment to level up poorer regions and to prevent disintegration of the Union. The most thorough sections of the Review talk about building the UK into a science and technology power to ensure Britain is globally competitive and prosperous in the future, and to be ready for the new threats Russia and China will pose to Britain and its allies – from cyber warfare to space. One of the more eye-catching details is the satellite launch programme which is due to be operational from Scotland by 2022.
But there is one conspicuous blind spot – plans for future relations with the European Union (EU) are notably lacking.
The Review’s missing link
Given the prime minister’s and his government’s ideological genesis championing Brexit, this blind spot is hardly surprising. Since leaving the EU a year ago and the Single Market and Customs Union in January 2021, the mistrust and mutual suspicion between the UK and the EU has grown – witness the current dispute over how to manage Britain’s trading relationship with Northern Ireland following Johnson’s decision to combine a UK-EU border down the Irish Sea with a thin UK-EU trade agreement.
But the current deterioration in UK-EU relations is not just a bilateral problem; it could affect Britain’s overall foreign policy. The UK will struggle to play the sort of convening and brokering role it foresees for Global Britain if it is in persistent diplomatic conflict with its principal neighbouring institution.
The Review’s positive words about future relations with Germany, France, and other EU member states are welcome. But they ignore the reality these countries will not negotiate bilaterally with the UK on global topics where shared EU positions give them the greatest diplomatic clout. This includes combatting climate change – highlighted by the Review as the UK’s ‘number one international priority’. And the EU will be equally essential as a partner to the UK on two of its other stated international priorities, reform of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Even the ‘E3’ – the arrangement through which Britain continues to engage alongside France and Germany with the EU on containing Iran’s nuclear programme – only gets a glancing mention.
The Review’s approach to the EU stands in contrast to its realism on the importance of Europe to Britain’s future security. For all the pre-publicity, the section on Britain’s ‘tilt to the Indo-Pacific’ is modest in its security commitments, with seven of the nine priority actions focusing on general cooperation or economic goals, such as joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). In contrast, the Review underscores throughout Britain’s central role and capabilities as ‘the leading European Ally in NATO’, with Euro-Atlantic security the ‘precondition’ for the country’s overall security.
This balance of geographic interests implies the Review’s main external audience is the Biden administration. Given the UK’s limited capacities to project military power to the vast Indo-Pacific region, the UK will be most useful if it can backfill the US in the Euro-Atlantic theatre, the Gulf, and western Indian Ocean, while the US continues to expand its presence in the Asia-Pacific to counterbalance a more assertive China.
In line with the current US posture, the Johnson government is contesting China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang and curtailing political freedoms in Hong Kong, all the while trying to keep doors open to constructive economic relations and plans to combat climate change.
But the ten or so lines dedicated to the EU in the Review ignores the fact the Biden administration will treat the EU, not NATO, as its main interlocutor on a range of transatlantic negotiations – from climate change to digital taxation and sanctions against the Russian government. A conflictual UK-EU relationship could sour what should otherwise be strong US relations with Britain outside the EU.
Putting the UK’s proposed realism into action
Despite the surprise announcement to raise the cap on the nuclear warhead stockpile, Britain is not going back to the future, and this Review is not the ‘boosterist’ manifesto for a Global Britain which hopes once again to rule the waves, or ‘waive the rules’, as some joked during the chaotic process of leaving the EU in 2018-19.
The second half of 2021 will hopefully see some of the pragmatism infusing the Integrated Review also permeate into the UK-EU relationship, and – the expected acceleration of the EU’s COVID-19 vaccine roll-out aside – two major events should help.
The UK’s hosting of the G7 summit in June should see it agree with the EU, France, Germany and Italy – alongside other G7 members – specific steps to recover sustainably from the COVID-19 crisis, putting some of the current vaccine wars to rest. And the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November, which Britain co-chairs with Italy, provides another reason for the UK to work closely with the EU and its member states. Alongside the UK, the EU is leading the world on legally binding commitments to decarbonize economic activity.
These two summits will be tests of whether the Johnson government can bring the same level of realism to its diplomacy as it has in drafting its vision for Britain’s global future.