The consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have put the Integrated Review’s vision of the UK as a ‘problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with global perspectives’ to an urgent and severe test.
The UK government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (the Integrated Review), published in March 2021, pointed to two interconnected futures. One emphasized the risks of a more competitive and unstable age, in which the persistent threat from a resentful Russia would be compounded by the continuing rise of an authoritarian China. The risks of instability emanated not only from the determination of these two powers to contest the post-Cold War international order, but also from the global challenges arising from accelerating climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and digital vulnerabilities, among others, and the huge stresses each of these presents for the Global South in particular. A year later, in the weeks following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, some of the gravest risks identified in the Integrated Review have come to pass. Confronting this crisis and – just as importantly – its global spillovers will be the focus of UK foreign policy for years to come.
The second of the interconnected futures concerned the role that the UK would play in this more unstable and contested world. Here, the core argument revolved around the assets that ‘Global Britain’ could bring to bear to help shape this world to its advantage, and to that of its allies and partners. These assets include its status as one of the largest economies, which affords it a wide range of tools – military, diplomatic, and related to development and intelligence – with which to pursue its international priorities; and its leading position in an exceptionally broad network of international institutions, ranging from the G7, the G20 and the IMF, to the UN Security Council, NATO and the Commonwealth.
Britain’s international voice is enhanced by the fact that UK-based companies sit at the heart of global finance, while its academic institutions are leading contributors to scientific innovation, research and development, and its media and NGOs give UK perspectives an influential voice in global debates on international policy. Drawing on these assets, British civil society, as well as the UK government, has long been among those leading international responses to the global challenges of climate change, infectious diseases and cybersecurity.
The consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have put the vision of the UK as a ‘problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with global perspectives’ to an immediate and severe test. This paper considers the UK’s performance in the year leading up to and into this crisis against the ambitions that the government laid out for Britain’s future global role. It analyses how the UK has fared economically and geopolitically, and makes an early judgment as to whether the UK is adapting to a more competitive age. The paper then considers the country’s prospects and choices for the next two critical years.
In the Integrated Review, the government set out four main strategic priorities. First, the UK would help shape an international order that upholds liberal democratic values, especially in Europe and the Indo-Pacific; an order that is open politically and economically, and that supports the government’s desire to strike new trade agreements and economic relationships based on its national assets and interests.
Second, the UK would live up to its obligations as a major contributor to upholding international security. The focus would be on Europe, its own neighbourhood, where Russia was assessed as constituting ‘the most acute threat’ to British security. Hence, the government described its determination to be ‘the leading European Ally within NATO’. The Integrated Review also confirmed a ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, an increasingly important region for UK and global economic security and the epicentre for the strategic competition between the US, Britain’s main ally, and China, described as a ‘systemic competitor’.
Third, the UK would build greater ‘resilience’ globally, as well as at home, by playing a leading role in addressing the critical global challenges posed by climate change, health insecurity, conflict and poverty. It would do so by drawing on its strong diplomatic and development resources, as well as its legally binding commitments to delivering the green transition and its financial pledges to support better global health provision.
The UK has more assets than most countries to pursue its international goals in a meaningful way. But assets do not automatically translate into influence or success.
Fourth, the government would pursue the UK’s economic interests internationally, ensuring a connection between its foreign policy and the economic welfare of the UK and its citizens. In part, this would be through a proactive trade agenda. Linked to this was the ambition to become a ‘science and technology superpower’ by 2030. A combination of government assets (such as GCHQ and the new National Cyber Force), the power of the City of London, and private sector and academic capabilities would attract investment and high-quality jobs into digital innovation, while ensuring that the cyber realm does not become a vector for greater insecurity.
The UK has more assets than most countries to pursue its international goals in a meaningful way. But assets do not automatically translate into influence or success. Resource prioritization and policy implementation, as well as the dynamics of the international context, are critically important.
One central challenge for the UK over the past year, as the Integrated Review recognized, has been to manage the inevitable tensions between the government’s near-term interests, which are generally economic, and long-term goals, related to upholding the values that underpin liberal democratic order and the institutions designed to protect them. Another challenge has been to marshal limited national financial resources towards the government’s international goals, when there is increased domestic competition for these same resources following the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of a decade of fiscal austerity. There is also the challenge of determining how best to leverage bilateral relationships and multilateral institutions at a time when Brexit turbulence has not abated, leaving the UK at greater risk of being targeted by its rivals or excluded from some aspects of coordination between its close allies.
The UK government has tried to chart a careful course through each of these challenges in the year since the release of the Integrated Review, and now in the context of the war in Ukraine. As discussed in Chapter 2 of this paper, it has upheld its commitment to the country’s core geopolitical objectives, including marshalling alongside the G7 a wider community of liberal democracies. But the way it has managed its resource trade-offs has undermined the commitment to enhancing global resilience. Moreover, while the government, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has been a canny opportunist in pursuing its international economic agenda, it has also continued to demonstrate, like the prime minister himself, a counterproductive antagonism towards the EU. Continuing to fuel a fractious relationship with this major neighbouring institution carries clear risks for the UK’s economy, and for the government’s capacity to meet the other objectives of the Integrated Review.
Continuing to fuel a fractious relationship with the EU carries clear risks for the UK’s economy, and for the government’s capacity to meet the other objectives of the Integrated Review.
Chapter 3 assesses how the UK could mitigate some of the divergences between the government’s stated objectives and its current direction of travel. It considers four steps:
- First, given the new context in Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, how can the UK improve its relations with the EU in order to achieve its first two objectives.
- Second, how can it build on its investment in a larger ‘G7 Plus’ of liberal democracies that will improve prospects of confronting the world’s two largest autocracies successfully, while reducing the risk that the UK will find itself squeezed by a closer US–EU relationship.
- Third, how should the government now rethink its trade policy more explicitly along geo-economic lines and use it to expand and strengthen Britain’s global network of allies in an increasingly divided world.
- And fourth, how should the UK follow through on its global resilience agenda given the potentially devastating economic spillovers from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and from the sanctions imposed by the G7 and others in reply. Proving that Britain will be a reliable partner to countries around the world, in supporting their own priorities around resilience and economic development, will be an important counterweight to perceptions that the UK’s strategic focus will now return to Europe.