The Integrated Review of UK Foreign Policy: 10 Key Insights

The long-awaited Integrated Review of the UK’s Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy was published on 16 March 2021, and launched by a speech from the Prime Minister to the House of Commons. The fact that this foreign policy strategy was announced by the Prime Minister, and the foreword of the Review sets out his ‘vision’, demonstrates the central significance of this document to the tone, priorities and narrative of this Government.

The Review marks a significant step forward in the UK’s new life outside of the European Union, and is a more comprehensive and nuanced strategic framework than many of the exercises that have preceded it. While its contents will be debated for months to come, and its implementation roadmap will evolve over the coming years, the Integrated Review signals the official opening of the Global Britain era – a project in which all Britons, and our allies, hold an important stake.

Here are 10 things we learned from the Review about the UK’s foreign policy ambitions:

1. The Indo-Pacific Tilt is meaningful, but we will not match the security presence of our Pacific allies.

Much has been made of the proposed Indo-Pacific tilt to be set out within the Review, however it is clear that this is not going to be framed entirely within a defence and security context. The substance of this ‘tilt’ will be expressed through an increasing involvement in regional trade via CPTPP, supporting action on climate change and the promotion of British values, the reinvigoration of our relationship with India, and our request for partner status at ASEAN. Our role in this region recognises that others have already developed productive forums for engagement, and we do not need to reinvent the wheel. That said, there is a degree of competition in our ambitions to become “the broadest and most integrated presence” of any European nation in the Indo-Pacific, building off our historical relationship with India. The Review makes clear that we will work alongside others, and within existing structures, to enhance the voice of the openness agenda. Significantly, it emphasises that our tilt must be seen as more than a faddish interest, committing us to a longer-term involvement in the region.

2. Our relationship with China will remain complicated, and aligned closely with the approach of Biden’s administration.

Despite the escalating alarm and antipathy in Westminster towards China, the UK Government will continue to pursue a fundamentally distinctive approach to China than our relationship to Russia provides. While Russia is characterised as simply a strategic rival and hostile state, China’s economic dominance and specific role in the international community – which the Review describes as a “systemic challenge” – requires a different frame. The Review sets out a more robust diplomatic framework for challenging China’s human rights record and its behaviour as a global actor, but also acknowledges the need to keep open pathways for engagement on other areas – whether economically, on climate change, or higher education. This approach aligns us closely with the view of the Biden administration – the United States’ Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, recently explained that China will be regarded simultaneously as a competitor, collaborator and adversary.

To learn more about the ‘systemic’ risk the Integrated Review identifies in China, please see my 2020 BFPG research report with Prof. Rana Mitter of the University of Oxford on Resetting UK-China Engagement.

3. Recognising Britain’s strengths does not mean buying into the mythology of ‘British exceptionalism’.

The United Kingdom is clearly in possession of a unique suite of capabilities and assets, some of which derive from our historical role in the world, but many of which are crucial to our capacity to adapt to the demands and opportunities of the 21st Century world order. The Review makes clear that we will harness these with confidence, but that we fundamentally recognise that we cannot achieve our most fundamental foreign policy objectives alone. Global Britain will be a collaborative agenda, as much about recognising the strengths of our allies as advancing our own. As the Review underscores, “we will lead where we are best placed to do so”. All the big issues of the day – whether security, human rights, democracy, climate change, cyber warfare – are positioned in the Review as areas where cooperation with alliances old and new will be central to our success.

4. Science, technology and digital will be the foundation of the UK’s future economy, security and foreign policy.

The core intersection of the Global Britain and Levelling Up agendas is their shared focus on enhancing the UK’s digital capabilities. The Review sets out bold new investment commitments into research and development, and it is expected that this innovation drive will also have a strong focus on driving regional economic growth. The UK already has a successful model in places such as the Harwell Space Cluster, of how targeted state support towards centres of technology agglomeration can seed job opportunities, strengthen our competitive expertise, and contribute to our national security. In considering our strengths and limitations as a mid-sized power, the UK Government has clearly decided that our intellectual and human capital – including innovation, digital, legal, standards and regulation – are a point of difference for Britain, and the best foundation on which we can simultaneously tackle structural challenges in our economic model, and secure a leadership role in the next phase of global governance.

5. The hard walls between our domestic and international policy-making have come down.

A quiet revolution took place in Whitehall during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, in which a dawning realisation about the full spectrum of the UK’s vulnerabilities led to a dramatic rethink in how we should conceptualise and uphold our national resilience. As policy-makers became more aware of the extent to which our strategic rivals had moved to a hybrid model of warfare stretching across the civilian-military divide – in which our economy, democracy, and society were all part of the new battleground of influence – it no longer seemed wise nor practicable to make such distinctions between our domestic and international resilience. The Review highlights the need to “establish a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to resilience”, which will allow us to “consider threats and hazards in the round”. Equally, it emphasises the understanding that the best foundation of a successful foreign policy is a cohesive and well-functioning society, to which end the potential break-up of the Union is regarded not only as a constitutional crisis but a tangible security risk.

The BFPG is currently exploring the synergies between the Levelling Up and Global Britain projects.

6. Sovereignty now stands alongside security and prosperity as the bedrock of the UK’s core national interests.

The term ‘sovereignty’ has been a frequent and divisive presence in Britain’s political debate since the EU Referendum, and its inclusion in the Review in such a prominent position at the heart of the definition of the UK’s strategic interests will raise eyebrows amongst certain parts of the foreign policy community here and abroad. There is no doubt this term is essential to the political narrative around the UK’s political settlement after Brexit, however the Review is keen to emphasise the wider significance of the concept of sovereignty in an age of grey-zone and hybrid warfare, and its centrality to the health of British democracy. In doing so, the Review seeks to depoliticise this most emotive of terms, extending its application to the very core of the resilience agenda – in effect arguing that the threats posed by authoritarian and hostile states to the UK’s democracy, society and economy would have necessitated a renewed emphasis on sovereignty, with or without the Brexit Referendum.

7. Britain wants to take a hard-nosed look at the future of international alliances, but will vehemently defend those it values.

Despite the emphasis on international cooperation, the UK Government does not believe that all alliances and institutions are created equal. Britain will play an overt role in defending those we believe are working well and are central to upholding global trade, health and security, but will also argue that the dynamic landscape of the 21st Century necessitates the formation of new forums of cooperation. Sometimes, these will require us to pursue relationships based on common interests, more than common values. The Review makes clear that we will play a central role in forming these new alliances to address “new frontiers”, designing their governance and ensuring productive outcomes – with our leadership of the G7 and the Cop26 Summits testbeds for this renewed expression of our diplomatic function.

8. Trade policy is now seen as a core component of the UK’s foreign policy – potentially paving the way for its integration into the FCDO.

Trade was not listed alongside security, defence, development and foreign policy, as one of the components in the official title of the Integrated Review, but it became increasingly central to the Review’s agenda over the course of its development. This partly reflects the emphasis on ‘integration’ that moved from the practical merging of the FCO and DFID, into the much broader conceptual shift around incorporating a wider suite of tools and touchpoints as potential levers in achieving our foreign policy objectives. As the Government’s confidence in the viability of its independent trading policy has increased, trade has become a more central aspect of our foreign policy – a platform through which to advance our diplomatic, security, development goals and values. Indeed, trade is singled out in the Review as standing “at the heart of Global Britain”. There is also a necessity to advance free trade across the globe, if we are indeed to come through the other side of the gamble we have made in disrupting our largest trading relationship. The significance of trade as both a strategic and moral instrument within this Review suggests that the FCDO may well be the ultimate destination for the DIT in the future.

9. Britain’s values agenda has been given teeth with the commitment to restoring the 0.7% aid commitment.

After a bruising year in which a decision was made to reduce the UK’s aid budget due to the pandemic, the UK has streamlined the focus in its values agenda towards a suite of core issues it believes are most central to collective wellbeing, security and prosperity, and on which it feels it has sufficient agency and legitimacy to lead. These are climate change, girls’ education, human rights and tackling global poverty, and each of these issues stands at the intersection of the UK’s strategic and moral objectives. The Government will surprise many of its critics in committing to restoring the 0.7% GNI commitment “when the fiscal situation allows”, making clear that its status as a leading global donor is considered central not only to the UK’s foreign policy and values agenda, but also to upholding our international reputation as a generous nation and a ‘problem-solver’.

10. The UK’s allies will welcome the Review, but it also signals areas of tension ahead.

Although the Review is frankly unusual in its emphasis on cooperation and collaboration, there are certainly areas that suggest some bumpy roads ahead in aspects of our international relationships. It will surprise few to see that the Review emphasises our intention to cooperate bilaterally with European allies (with France, Ireland and Germany particularly singled out), and our leadership in European security via forums such as NATO, while remaining somewhat more cautious towards cooperation with the European Union as an institution. The EU, however, increasingly aims to see itself as a foreign policy actor, and is signalling its intention to play a role in the Indo-Pacific, which may complicate Britain’s ambitions to become the leading European power in the region. Moreover, the decisions to shift towards a more ‘digital’ defensive capability may lead to some unease amongst our military allies, and our ‘balanced’ approach towards China will undoubtedly fall under constant scrutiny and perhaps even strain.

That said, it is difficult to see how our allies will not, for the most part, breathe an enormous sigh of relief to see the weight given within this document to the ‘active’ nature of our posture and role on the world stage. The coming months and years will prove the making of Global Britain, and there will be many tests along the way. But if this Review does indeed provide the framework and substance of the UK’s new foreign policy, we can close the door on the narrative of Britain in retreat.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.