What will the British people make of the Integrated Review of UK Foreign Policy?

On the 16th March 2021, the UK Government released its long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, the most comprehensive rethink of the UK’s international policy since the Cold War.

With the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating existing geopolitical shifts, and tensions continuing to rise between the US and China, the Review comes at an important moment as the UK attempts to carve out its post-Brexit geopolitical position. It outlines an “increased commitment to security and resilience, so that the British people are protected against threats” and presents a vision of the UK as a “problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective”. It outlines a strategic framework which prioritises four key areas of focus; the role of science and technology in gaining strategic advantage, shaping the open international order of the future, strengthening security and defence at home and overseas, and building resilience at home and overseas.

As the Integrated Review recognises, the UK’s foreign policy “depends on a bond of trust with the British people” and the Review therefore provides an important opportunity to build public understanding of, and support for, the UK’s foreign policy. The BFPG’s 2021 Annual Public Opinion Survey on Foreign Policy and Global Britain emphasised the profound distinctions between social groups, demographics and geographies in trust, engagement and knowledge around foreign affairs. Below we set out where British public opinion currently stands on many of the central aspects of the vision set out in the Integrated Review.

A Tech-Led Resilience Strategy

In order to meet the challenges posed by fast-changing security threats as well as changing market needs, the Integrated Review outlines an objective for the UK “to have secured our status as a Science and Tech Superpower by 2030”. To achieve this, it highlights how “the UK must take an active approach to building and sustaining a durable competitive edge in S&T”, outlining plans to cement the UK’s position as a responsible science and technology leader, particularly in cyber, including through significant new investment commitments and the publication of a comprehensive cyber strategy later this year.

Britons are acutely aware of emerging cyber threats to the UK, with 84% of Britons seeing cyber-attacks from other countries as an important threat in the next 10 years, including 45% of Britons who view it as a ‘critical threat’. Older Britons, graduates, residents in Wales, and Conservative and SNP voters are particularly concerned about cyber-attacks, and will therefore be particularly likely to welcome this focus on cyber. 

Developing our position as a responsible, democratic cyber power is also seen as a method by which to “detect, disrupt and deter our adversaries” and the importance of “increas(ing) protection of our CNI, institutions and sensitive technology…so that we can engage with confidence” with China is recognised. This will be welcomed by Britons, 78% of whom distrust China to act responsibly in the world and 79% of whom see the rise of China as a world power as an important threat in the next ten years – up from 69% in 2020, likely a result of China’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Britons are also particularly sceptical of any Chinese involvement with the UK’s critical national infrastructure, with just 13% of Britons supportive of Chinese involvement in building infrastructure in the UK such as nuclear plants, 5G and technology. Developing our capabilities in science and technology will therefore be widely supported in the UK, as a means of strengthening the UK’s resilience.

However, efforts will need to be made to increase awareness of, and support for, some of the newer priorities within science and technology, with a sharp focus on how these areas intersect with the UK’s interests and values. The Integrated Review outlines plans to make the UK “a meaningful actor in space”, in part through the creation of the UK’s first national space strategy to be launched in 2021. However, just 2% of Britons see our new Global Britain space programme as their greatest source of pride as a British citizen, suggesting that space is not, yet, a priority for the British public. 

Merging Levelling Up and Global Britain

The Integrated Review recognises that “liberal democracies must do more to prove the benefits of openness”, particularly amongst those sceptical of its rewards, and emphasises the important intersection between Global Britain and Levelling Up. The heart of this intersection will be investments in the UK’s digital infrastructure and capabilities, which could help to reinforce the UK’s national security while also stimulating regional economic growth. This symbiosis will be integral to building public support for the initiatives outlined in the Integrated Review, as the perceived asymmetrical benefits of globalisation are a fundamental driver of scepticism of a liberal international agenda. Two-thirds of Britons believe that the UK as a whole has benefited from globalisation, however there is a clear sense that these benefits have not been evenly distributed, and while the majority of Britons think London specifically (79%) has benefited, they are less likely to believe areas outside of London (54%), and they and their family (53%) have benefited from globalisation. 

Britons in the North and East of England and in Scotland, Wales and particularly Northern Ireland are the most unlikely to perceive personal benefits from globalisation, and are therefore more sceptical of the wider benefits of globalisation for the UK as a whole. Older Britons, school-leavers, Britons in lower social grades, and Conservative-Leave voters are also among the least likely to believe globalisation has benefited them on an individual level. These concerns also align with their broader relative tendencies towards isolationism and scepticism towards foreign policy expenditure. Prioritising the intersection between Levelling Up and Global Britain could therefore be a powerful tool in building support for the ambitious foreign policy agenda outlined in the Integrated Review.

Shaping the International Order

At the heart of the Integrated Review is a desire for the UK to be “more active in shaping the open international order of the future”. The Review outlines the UK’s role as a convening power, working with partners and allies to reinvigorate the international system and support the development of open societies and open economies. This is a role that the British public understand and recognise, and which has broken through in the messaging around Global Britain, with 34% of Britons viewing Global Britain as a ‘champion of free trade and globalisation’, and 27% viewing it as a ‘diplomatic powerhouse, brokering negotiations in the UK’s interests and helping to facilitate cooperation’. 

However, it is also true that a sizeable proportion of the UK (21%), particularly older Britons, residents in the East Midlands and the North East, those who identify as English, Leave voters, and crucially the Conservative party’s own voters, view Global Britain as a ‘nation with strong and secure borders, focused on issues at home’. Importantly, this is down from 26% of Britons in 2020, suggesting that the Government’s vision for Global Britain is becoming clearer to the public. As such, while an active posture in our foreign policy will not come instinctively to all Britons, by making special efforts to explain and persuade regarding the rationale behind this in terms of strengthening our own security, it may be possible to bring these individuals onboard.

Reinvigorating the UK’s Alliances

The UK Government will also need to work to reinvigorate public trust in some of the alliances prioritised in the Integrated Review. The Indo-Pacific tilt is designed to build on our existing relationship with India, but Britons are divided over whether to trust (51%) or distrust (49%) India to act responsibly in the world. Levels of distrust are particularly high among older Britons, residents in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and Leave voters. Furthermore, it is widely speculated that the Indian Government will expect improved immigration access to the UK in return for the closer trading relationship that the UK seeks. However, our 2020 Annual Public Opinion Survey found that just 10% of Britons support increased immigration from India, compared to 39% who want to see Indian immigration to the UK decline, and any immigration trade off for improved economic relations is therefore likely to prove controversial among the British public.

In addition, and despite the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States, the majority of Britons (53%) in fact do not trust the United States to act responsibly in the world. Distrust in the United States has fallen since 2020, when it reached a high of 57%, and it can be expected that Britons’ trust in the United States’ international behaviour will recover over the coming months under President Biden, who is distinctly more popular in the UK than President Trump. However, it is worth noting that while the Integrated Review asserts that “the United States will remain our most important bilateral relationship”, the majority of Britons (53%) view the UK’s relationship with the European Union as more important than its relationship with the United States, compared to 27% of Britons who view our relationship with the United States as more important.

The broader messaging around the UK’s future relationship with the European Union is likely to also remain divisive in the aftermath of Brexit. While the Integrated Review emphasises the importance of “constructive and productive relationships with our neighbours in the European Union”, it also asserts the importance of sovereignty and “the UK’s freedom to do things differently, economically and politically where that suits our interests”, making clear that Global Britain will seek to forge its own path independent of the EU. However, 49% of Britons support the UK pursuing greater realignment with the EU than was set out in the Brexit deal, with the largest plurality of Britons (27%) supporting pursuing a much closer relationship with the EU, including the possibility of re-joining. Just 12% of Britons want to see greater distance between the UK and the EU, and 24% think the UK should maintain its current level of distance from the EU. Where it is in the UK’s interests to, there would therefore be a clear appetite among the British people to align for the UK Government to align more closely with the EU around areas of foreign and security policy.

A Force for Good

The Integrated Review outlines ambitions for the UK to be a force for good in the world. It positions the UK as a protector and promoter of democracy and human rights globally, while also balancing these values with a degree of pragmatism – including working with partners who do not always share the same values. This careful balance of values and strategic benefits in the UK’s foreign policy is supported by 30% of Britons, while 20% support a foreign policy driven ‘slightly more’ by economic and defence interests than democracy and human rights, and 10% think it should be driven ‘slightly more’ by democracy and human rights. Very few Britons think the UK’s foreign policy should be driven ‘much more’ by either economic and defence interests (18%) or democracy and human rights (9%), such that this careful balance between the two will likely be acceptable to the majority of Britons.

Britain’s role as a force for good is visualised primarily through its aid and diplomatic initiatives. The Integrated Review commits to developing a new international development strategy, building on the UK’s ODA strategic priorities for 2021-22, specifically, climate, global health security, open societies and conflict resolution, girls’ education, humanitarian preparedness,science and technology and trade and economic development. These are priorities that are supported by the overwhelming majority of Britons, with 76% of Britons supporting using aid spending to implement basic health programmes, 74% supporting providing emergency assistance in a crisis and 72% supporting providing infrastructure for essential public services. Some of the other areas highlighted in the Review, such as girls’ education and women’s security (66%) and fighting environmental degradation (67%), are somewhat less enthusiastically embraced by the British people, but the BFPG’s research suggests that consistency of messaging is central to building longer term support for aid spending.

It is important to note that these positive stories about support for aid does mask a degree of variation between different groups. For example, Conservative voters, Leave voters and residents in Northern Ireland, show consistently low levels of support for all aid priorities, unless the initiatives are seen to deliver direct benefits to the UK, such as investment opportunities or reduced migration. There is clearly work to be done on developing a robust communications and education strategy to support the UK’s foreign aid investments moving forward.

Moreover, it is also the case that while Britons show high levels of support across a diversity of aid programmes, they remain much more reticent towards the concept of aid spending itself. These sentiments appear to have intensified during the pandemic. While only 17% of Britons oppose the UK’s spending on aid in general, three-quarters of Britons argued that it should be stopped or reduced during the pandemic, until the UK economy recovers to pre-pandemic levels. The Integrated Review makes clear the Government’s commitment to restoring the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on foreign aid, and despite widespread concern expressed amongst the development sector towards the spending reduction, it appears the Government will have the British public on their side – at least for now – in leaving an ambiguous framework around the restoration of the commitment. 

The UK’s Defensive Capabilities

In November 2020, the UK announced a £16.5 billion increase in UK defence spending, above what was committed in the Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto, and the biggest programme of investment since the Cold War. Building on this, the Integrated Review outlines plans for the UK to work closely with our allies to tackle threats to our security, as well as enhancing our capacity to respond to a diversity of transnational state threats. 

Britons are highly perceptive of the growing suite of international threats, particularly cyber-attacks from other countries (84%), international terrorism (83%) and the rise of China (79%) and will therefore be supportive of the central focus on enhancing our capacity to deal with a diversity of transnational threats. In particular, they are likely to be highly receptive to plans for a Counter Terrorism Operations Center and a National Cyber Force, which respond to what Britons perceive to be the biggest threats facing the UK.

Britons will also be highly receptive to the recognition that “cooperation with allies and like-minded partners will be fundamental” to strengthening security, with 67% of Britons supporting the UK’s NATO membership, compared to just 8% of Britons who think the UK should leave NATO. Britons who support NATO membership are also highly supportive of the underlying principle of NATO, with 86% of Britons supporting adherence to Article 5 requiring all NATO members to provide defence support if a fellow NATO ally is attacked.

However, the decision within the Integrated Review to spend over 2.2% of GDP on defence, exceeding NATO spending commitments and Conservative Party 2019 manifesto promises, may prove less popular. While Britons are largely supportive of current levels of foreign policy spending, with 40% of Britons thinking the UK should spend ‘about the same’ on its foreign policy programmes as it does at present, only 23% of Britons are supportive of spending more on foreign policy. Furthermore, our 2019 Annual Public Opinion Survey found that of the four central components of foreign policy – trade, defence, diplomacy and international development – only 31% of Britons thought defence was the component of foreign policy that the UK should spend the most money on. Defence already comprises a significant part of the UK’s foreign policy spending and the British public may therefore be hesitant to support such high levels of defence spending, especially at a time of domestic financial difficulty.

Furthermore, while developing the armed forces to be prepared for the diversity of threats that Britons perceive as threatening their safety will be welcomed, as will attempts to mitigate against conflicts, the adoption of a system of ‘persistent engagement’ below the threshold of war in order to meet these challenges may prove controversial. In practice, ‘persistent engagement’ may require military interventionism or a greater military presence abroad, something which is supported only with conditionality by the majority of Britons. Less than a fifth of Britons support British military action abroad under any circumstances, and the largest single group of Britons only supports intervention in the case of direct attacks on British soil or assets, or in the case of a humanitarian genocide. 

Women, younger Britons and those in lower social grades are the least supportive of UK military action. Of those who are hesitant, their caution is primarily driven by concerns about being drawn into conflicts (45%), a sense that the UK’s track record of involvement in other countries is bad (35%), and that money spent on military interventions should be spent at home (28%).

UK-China Relations

The Integrated Review, recognising its economic and strategic importance, defines China as a “systemic competitor”. It outlines plans for a constructive relationship which, while challenging China on its human rights record, seeks to find opportunities for cooperation on key global issues. These are the two forms of engagement which are most supported by Britons, with 40% supporting challenging China on its human rights record and 38% of Britions supporting cooperation on shared global challenges such as climate change. 

Nonetheless, this relatively pragmatic relationship with China may cause some discontent among the UK population. Just 22% of Britons support the UK government pursuing economic engagement with China, and just 13% support China investing in the UK’s infrastructure. A small, but notable, proportion of the UK (15%) do not support any engagement with China, particularly older Britons, those in lower social grades, school-leavers and SNP, Conservative and Leave voters, who will no doubt be uneasy about the level of engagement set out in the Integrated Review.

There is also some way to go in convincing Britons of the strategic value of the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ set out in the Review, which describes the region as “critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies”. Currently, a very large proportion of Britons – 37% – remain unsure of their stance on an Indo-Pacific tilt, just 8% of Britons believe the Indo-Pacific is a ‘crucial hub of economic, security and diplomatic activity and the UK should make this region the centre of its foreign policy’, and 35% of Britons believe that the region is important but that ‘the UK’s involvement in this region should be balanced with investments elsewhere’. The defence component of the tilt is particularly unpopular, with just 18% of Britons supporting the deployment of security resources to contain China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific, which underscores the wisdom in the emphasis the Review has placed on our regional presence being driven by trade and other forms of cooperation. Should the Government believe the Indo-Pacific region is indeed central to our economic future, there will be a need to educate and persuade as to the strategic rationale behind the potential redistribution of our defence, security, diplomatic and development resources.

Strengthening Domestic Resilience

The Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of grey-zone warfare have illustrated the need for nations to build their resilience in order to meet the new and evolving challenges posed by the increasingly globalised international order. The UK’s Integrated Review responds to these challenges by calling for a “whole-of-society approach to resilience” working to improve our ability to anticipate, prevent, respond to and recover from risks, and working to strengthen global resilience.

To this end, the Integrated Review sets out the value of the Union to the UK’s security and sets out an objective to ensure “the benefits of growth and opportunity shared between all our citizens, wherever they live in the UK”, in order to strengthen support for, and resilience in, the Union. The Integrated Review’s framing of the break-up of the Union as a security threat is less widely understood by the UK population as a whole: although 66% of Britons see this scenario as a threat, this is significantly below levels of concern about other UK security threats. Residents in Scotland, the North East, lower socio-economic backgrounds, and particularly SNP voters, show particularly low levels of concern about the break-up of the Union. 

The Integrated Review also emphasises the importance of working to “shore up stability and improve socio-economic conditions in fragile regions” in order to build global resilience and address the issues that drive irregular migration. It also commits to returning migrants who do not have the right to remain, to their country of origin or other host countries to distinctivise the use of illegal routes. This will be widely supported among the British public, the majority of whom think the UK’s population is already too high (58%), and only 22% of whom think the UK should accept all migrants and asylum-seekers, regardless of how they arrive in the UK. The largest plurality of Britons (29%) think the Royal Navy should be deployed to intercept and turn back migrant boats, 18% think they should have their claims processed in offshore detention facilities and 10% think the Government should build deterrence mechanisms to prevent boats reaching British shores.

Tackling Climate Change

The Integrated Review underscores that the UK Government “will make tackling climate change and biodiversity loss its number one international priority”. It pledges to accelerate both the UK’s and a global transition to net zero by 2050, reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 and to invest in a ‘nature positive’ economy. The UK’s leadership of the COP26 conference and presidency of the G7 present opportunities to bring this vision to life and Britons will be highly supportive of this mission.

The vast majority of Britons support the UK taking a leading role on climate change (68%), and they overwhelmingly (78%) view climate change as an important threat over the next 10 years.  Older Britons, residents in the South West and Wales, graduates, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Remain voters are particularly supportive of this leadership role. Britons are also willing to take individualised action, as well as a global leadership role, to tackle climate change, with just 14% of Britons unwilling to commit to any personal actions on climate change. These Britons tend to be younger, BAME Britons in lower social grades, who also tend to be less supportive of the UK taking on a global leadership role on climate change – perhaps in part because they tend to be less engaged with UK foreign policy on the whole.

Conclusion

The Integrated Review is a landmark publication, setting the roadmap for the UK’s foreign policy over the next decade. It is clear that many components of the Integrated Review, particularly the strengthening of the UK’s technological capabilities, leadership on climate change and support for multilateralism will be well received by the British public. However, if the UK Government wishes to fulfill its objective of ensuring “our foreign policy rests on strong domestic foundations”, it will need to work to build a much deeper level of knowledge and support for some of the Review’s core components, particularly for the Indo-Pacific tilt and the strong commitment it provides towards foreign aid spending.

The full findings of the BFPG’s 2021 Annual Public Opinion Survey on Foreign Policy and Global Britain can be found here.

Evie Aspinall
evie.aspinall@bfpg.co.uk

Evie is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group.