The Integrated Review: where is British Foreign Policy going?

The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published March 2021, is the largest and most comprehensive review of British foreign policy since the Cold War. It seeks to unify, or integrate, the many disparate ways the UK interacts with the wider world – from traditional hard power elements, such as the armed forces, to soft power and economic elements such as the BBC and the UK’s research and development base – into one single strategy to guide behaviour over this decade and beyond. 

The review is undeniably ambitious. It talks of the UK being a “Science and Tech Superpower”, the most invested European player in the Indo-Pacific, and a “global champion” of free trade all the while continuing to “lead the advanced economies of the world” in green technology and innovation. But this is to be expected. No country, especially after such a serious geopolitical reorientation as Brexit, would publish a relatively mediocre foreign policy strategy. 

There is nonetheless a desire for British foreign policy to be defined by more than the US and Europe

The more interesting aspects are found not in how ambitious it is, but where it places this ambition. There are two components of the answer to this: the geographical and the more abstract. Geographically, the review lays out where the UK is to place its foreign policy focus. While it notes that the “Euro-Atlantic” is the UK’s home area and the one most crucial to UK security, with Russia remaining the “most acute threat”, there is nonetheless a desire for British foreign policy to be defined by more than the US and Europe and being the bridge between them. 

Anticipating the “geopolitical and economic centre” of the world moving eastwards towards Asia, places this desire in the Indo-Pacific. The UK sees the region as instrumental to future economic growth and as the centre of the negotiation of “international laws, rules, and norms” – negotiations the UK clearly intends to be a part of. There is also a security aspect,  the UK recognising the region as the increasing centre of geopolitical competition in the world, with the South China Sea a particular focal point. 

Additionally, there is also a developmental and values-based aspect. The UK seeks to promote and uphold the international rules-based order, free trade, and democracy, all the while promoting economic development and causes such as girls’ education. Indeed, this ambition has already begun to take shape: the UK has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Also the UK Carrier Strike Group’s first operational deployment will be to the South China Sea to demonstrate the UK’s commitment to the region and uphold freedom of navigation. By 2030, the UK wishes to have the “broadest and most integrated presence” in the Indo-Pacific out of all European countries.

Britain should capitalise and build upon its comparative advantages – in technology, research and development, cybersecurity, and intelligence

On the more abstract level, the review concedes that Britain should no longer seek to be a sizeable, conventional military power that has influence and bases across the globe all the while maintaining substantial conventional forces in Europe to hold off an invasion from the East. That role is now firmly in the hands of the US. Britain has neither the money, manpower or motivation to attempt to fulfil this role. Instead, the thinking has shifted to argue that Britain should capitalise and build upon its comparative advantages – in technology, research and development, cybersecurity, and intelligence, to increase its influence and presence in the world. The review seeks to do exactly this.

This shift in thinking is perhaps best exemplified in the new approach to the British armed forces taken in the review and subsequent Defence Command Paper. The armed forces, in particular the British Army, are to become more agile, professional, and technologically advanced. The focus will switch from “last resort” conventional war-fighting capability, to becoming “more present and active” around the world.  

There is a particular focus on operating “below the threshold” of open conflict. The armed forces can expect a greater amount of and more persistent international deployments as they become more globally entrenched. The Defense Command Paper envisages a “professional cadre of permanently deployed personnel”, and further investment in the military presence in Cyprus, Gibraltar, Kenya, Oman, and Germany.

The Army’s target size will fall from 82,040 to 72,500

A new Ranger Regiment will be at the forefront of this expeditionary revamp, designed to operate rapidly, globally, persistently, and below the threshold of conventional conflict. The Army as a whole is to be “leaner, more lethal, and nimbler”. This increased professionalisation and technological investment comes with a reduction in the Army’s size: its target size will fall from 82,040 to 72,500. 

Numerous old and ageing equipment systems will be retired, and the effective size of the tank fleet will fall due to only 148 tanks being upgraded. It will become a “specialised workforce fit for the digital age”, with “human-machine teaming”. There will be a new experimentation battalion specifically designed simply for trialling new technologies to drive innovation. The Navy and RAF will receive similar treatment, but already being more technologically and expeditionary orientated, fare better and faceless cuts.

To provide for all of this, funding for defence research and development is to rise, investing in next-generation unmanned, energy weapons, with AI, data, and intelligence capabilities so that the UK can fight a “near-peer, high-tech” conflict with a “digital backbone”. The Defence Centre for Artificial Intelligence will be created, in an attempt to give the British Armed Forces a “decisive edge” in AI. The Paper notes that future conflicts may be won or lost on the “speed and efficacy” of the AI solutions deployed. 

As part of the desire to make the armed forces more technologically capable, there is a view as to make the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and its services much more integrated: across land, sea, air, cyber, and space, it is envisioned that there will be rapid and easy sharing of data and information, which will both improve efficiency and do what the MoD always desperately needs to do – save money. Tight integration of the MoD and the Intelligence Community (GCHQ, SIS) is to occur through the National Cyber Force.

The way that Britain views itself in the world is changing; the review is evidence of that. It has played a careful balancing act between two competing factors: Britain’s history as a dominant, global, maritime power, and the increased recognition that this is no longer viable. This is reflected in the careful wording that is throughout much of the review. 

The UK is a European country with global interests

– The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy

The UK is now viewing itself as a “European country with global interests,” which will take priority in its diplomatic efforts. Within the Indo-Pacific, the UK’s new focus, the UK will take the lead when “best placed to do so”, and otherwise will “partner [with] and support others”. Our armed forces and intelligence agencies will be the most innovative and effective “for their size” in the world. 

Though careful, the balance the review has struck is clear. The government is not content with the UK being simply a European power, it intends on staking out a positive role in the world, promoting democracy, human rights, free trade, and liberal values across the globe, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. But it simply cannot compete with the likes of the US and China in quantity or in every sector, so instead the UK will seek to maintain and strengthen its comparative advantages so that it can compete and remain a leader in quality and in the areas which it has a natural edge.

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