The Refresh of the Integrated Review of UK Foreign Policy: 10 Key Insights

When the UK released its Integrated Review of Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy in March 2021 it was designed to carve out a long term strategic vision for UK foreign policy. But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine less than a year later, growing tensions with China and the world in the throes of an energy crisis, the geopolitical landscape looks starkly different now than it did in 2021.

Two years on, almost to the day, the UK therefore released the ‘Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a More Contested and Volatile World’, a refresh which while retaining much of the strategic ambition outlined in the 2021 Review, seeks to better meet the UK’s needs in the current geopolitical landscape.

Here are 10 things we learned from the Review refresh about the future of UK foreign policy:

1. In an increasingly divided world, the UK’s approach to foreign policy will be more sombre and pragmatic

One of the sharpest differences between the Integrated Review Refresh and its original iteration is one of tone. Gone is the grandiose “Global Britain” enthusiasm about the opportunity for the UK to carve out a new image for itself, replaced with a more sombre tone which seeks to emphasise the challenges that lie ahead. The Refresh reminds us that we are living in an increasingly competitive world, one in which volatility ‘is likely to last beyond the 2030s’. In listing out the increased threats we have seen from a number of strategic rivals in the last two years, it makes clear the sheer severity of the challenge that lies ahead. The Refresh isn’t an exciting new vision for the UK, it’s a pragmatic and essentially defensive document, reflecting a turn that the UK has been forced to make, and which seeks primarily to ensure the UK’s future security and prosperity in this context.

2. The Tilt has been made, but the focus on the Indo-Pacific is here to stay

The Indo-Pacific Tilt was one of the flagship principles of the 2021 Review and even in spite of the war in Ukraine, the impetus for the tilt – in particular, the growing economic and security importance of the region – has only strengthened.

Through achievements such as dialogue partner status with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and final phase negotiations on accession to CPTPP, the narrative of the Refresh is that the tilt itself has already been delivered. The Refresh therefore focuses on moving towards embedding longer term strategic engagement with the region, to help achieve a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’.

Crucially, the nature of engagements with the region has also changed. While there was a note of competition with allies in the Indo-Pacific in the 2021 Review, not least through stated ambitions to be the European partner with the ‘broadest, most integrated’ engagement in the region, the Refresh places much greater emphasis on the importance of partnership. Recognising the limitations to the UK’s resourcing capabilities in the region, the Refresh specifically draws on the opportunity for greater alignment with allies which are deploying Indo-Pacific strategies such as France and Japan, and makes clear that the UK will look to pursue an increasingly collaborative approach in the region.

3. China is not officially a “threat” but the UK recognises the need to strengthen its resilience to China

The Refresh stops short of declaring China a threat, replacing the rather vague term of ‘systemic challenge’ from the 2021 Review with the similarly vague but presentationally stronger definition of China as an ‘epoch-defining challenge’. Much will be made of the language and the decision not to declare China a threat – language used both by former Prime Minister Liz Truss but also by Rishi Sunak during his Conservative Party leadership campaign.

However, looking beyond the linguistics it is clear that, as with the 2021 Review, the UK will continue to walk a careful tightrope between protecting national security, human rights and economic prosperity when it comes to China. But this time, the response is more robust with significantly more bandwidth given to how Britain can protect its security interests when engaging with China. In particular, the announcement of a refresh of the Critical Mineral Strategy and a new National Protective Security Authority in the Security Service (MI5) will help the UK reduce its reliance on, and shore up its resilience to, China.

The BFPG has long called for the UK to enhance its institutional knowledge of China. The doubling of funding for the China Capabilities Programme – which provides Mandarin training and enhances diplomatic China expertise – will help facilitate better understanding of, and more constructive engagement with, China. This forms part of a broader long-term vision to ‘leave room for open, constructive and predictable relations’ with China, with the growing size and prowess of China seen as making engagement essential. For the UK then, the careful balancing act continues: the UK will still engage with China when it is in its interests to do so, while also seeking to shore up its resilience to potential threats posed by the nation. This is a balanced approach which will be welcomed by many commentators, but it will be no easy feat to achieve in practice.

4. The UK military is likely to face capability gaps despite a spending uplift

The headline statement is that defence spending will increase by £5 billion over the next two years, with £3 billion committed to nuclear enterprise (including AUKUS) and £2 billion targeted at boosting the UK’s munition stockpiles. Given the UK’s current economic troubles this is a sizable uplift but still falls significantly short of the approximately £10 billion Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is said to have requested, calls which many defence advocates have echoed, reflecting the scale of reductions defence spending has experienced since the end of the Cold War.

Longer term, the Refresh outlines an ‘aspiration’ to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP, although the commitment to do so by 2030 made by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in June last year has been dropped. Without a commitment on when or how the UK would meet this pledge it is hard to assess its feasibility, although such an uplift would not be without controversy, as any percentage increase would inevitably come at the cost of domestic spending.

In the meantime, there are legitimate concerns that the planned £5 billion uplift will not be enough to address capability gaps in the UK’s defence after years of defence cuts and during a period of particular geopolitical uncertainty. But the difficult fiscal context and competing domestic priorities make it unlikely that calls for spending to rise significantly above the latest uplift will gain wider political traction barring a further deterioration in the geopolitical environment.

5. ‘Security through resilience’ and investment in science and technology, growing priorities in an increasingly uncertain world 

Mentioned 72 times in the 63 page report, resilience is one of the biggest buzzwords of the Refresh which focuses heavily on the development of a new operating model for national security – ‘security through resilience’. By prioritising protective and preparatory action, the model, which will take time to embed and develop, is designed to ensure operational activity can focus on long-term interventions. The Refresh announces a new National Protective Security Authority in MI5, a refresh to the Critical Minerals Strategy and reaffirms commitment to the creation of a new Semiconductor Strategy, the latter of which particularly is long overdue.

Building on the 2021 Review’s ambition to be a Science and Technology Superpower by 2030, enhancing investment in innovation, artificial intelligence, cyber, science and technology is also recognised as key to achieving domestic resilience. Given the shared focus on digital capabilities seen in the Levelling Up agenda and in the Integrated Review Refresh, there is a clear opportunity for this focus on resilience to contribute to the UK’s domestic and international ambitions simultaneously, through initiatives such as the Government Protection Agency’s First Street Hub in Manchester.

6. The UK will enter a ‘new phase’ of relationships in Europe and will prioritise Atlantic-Pacific relationships

In contrast to the 2021 Review, which focused on building bilateral relationships in Europe and was notably cautious about cooperation with the European Union itself, the Refresh places much greater emphasis on the value of UK cooperation with Europe and the European Union.

Such a shift has been brought about both by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has reoriented strategic focus to the importance of European security, as well as the successful negotiation of the Windsor Framework, which has triggered a notable shift in tone in relations with the EU. The Refresh therefore heralds a ‘new phase’ in post-Brexit relationships in Europe and the genuine warmth in tone seen both in the Refresh and in recent public statements, not least around the announcement of the Windsor-Framework, suggest that we may be moving towards a more friendly and constructive relationship with European allies, including the EU. However, other than Prime Minister Sunak’s commitment to host a meeting of the European Political Community launched by President Macron last year, there is no detail on whether or how the UK might seek to engage more formally on security with the EU institutions at this stage.

This reinvigoration of relations with Europe forms part of a wider strengthening of Euro-Atlantic relations which are also seen to be closely intertwined with the Indo-Pacific. As well as signalling a strengthening of relations with partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, this also suggests a renewed focus on institutions such as the G7, AUKUS, Five Eyes and NATO which will provide constructive avenues to work with allies.

7. The premise behind ‘patient diplomacy’ lives on but there will be no extra money for aid and development

Although the language of ‘patient diplomacy’ trialled in James Cleverly’s first major speech  as Foreign Secretary last December doesn’t make it into the Refresh, the principles behind it do. The Refresh places a strong emphasis on the importance of developing long term partnerships with a diversity of nations, where such partnerships support the UK’s interests or a shared higher interest in an open and stable international order. This will include cooperation with so-called ‘middle-ground powers’ who do not want to be drawn into values debates or required to pick sides in growing geopolitical divides. This reflects a wider caution around the imposition of values and a desire to prioritise security and economic interests over values promotion, though the three are often closely intertwined.

In line with this vision for the UK’s international relationships, in relation to aid and development, previous commitments to the promotion of human rights and open societies have been dialled down and there is no commitment to focusing on the poorest nations. The UK’s commitment to return to 0.7% GNI spending on aid and development ‘when the fiscal situation allows’ pledged during the 2021 Review and reaffirmed repeatedly since, is also notably absent in the Refresh. With the aid budget also being used domestically to house refugees in the UK, the UK aid sector looks set to face continued financial challenge. A new FCDO-HM Treasury governance structure will provide greater oversight of aid spending; the practical implications of this are so far unclear and will merit study.

8. Climate Change will remain a strategic priority, although no new commitments offered

While certainly not receiving the same level of attention it did in the 2021 Integrated Review, published in the year the UK held the COP26 Presidency, tackling climate change and biodiversity loss remains the UK’s first thematic priority. It is still seen to transcend geopolitical divides – it is identified as a key opportunity to cooperate with China and is recognised as a threat multiplier with major ramifications for the UK’s other international objectives. The lack of tangible new commitments on climate change shows how climate change has fallen down the government agenda in recent months, particularly in the face of the cost of living crisis, but in identifying climate change once again as the UK’s key thematic priority, the UK has tied itself to continued global leadership on climate change long term.

9. While the UK’s focus is very much on hard power, there is still a role for soft power in achieving the UK’s international objectives

With war raging in Europe, it is unsuprising that the Refresh focuses heavily on hard power and shoring up the UK’s defensive capabilities. Nonetheless, the Refresh does make some recognition of the importance of soft power, committing to doing more to embed soft power in the UK’s broader foreign policy approach. The Refresh also commits to £20 million in additional funding for the BBC World Service to protect all 42 world language services for the next two years. As a global public service provider of reliable news and information, this investment will be key to stopping the spread of misinformation and to protecting the UK’s national security, as well as promoting positive perceptions of the UK internationally.

There are few specifics beyond this, but the commitment to embedding soft power in UK foreign policy is welcome and, if successfully realised, will provide the UK with a wider variety of tools to use in pursuit of its international objectives. As Co-Convenors of the UK Soft Power Group, the BFPG will seek to support the Government and the sector in the realisation of this endeavour.

10. The UK’s allies will welcome the Refresh but challenging times lie ahead

The theatrics of releasing the Refresh at the AUKUS Summit, with Prime Minister Sunak standing side-by-side with allies in the United States and Australia, sends a firm message not only of the UK’s continued focus on the Indo-Pacific but also of the perceived importance of cooperation with our allies. It makes clear that the Refresh is not designed to be enacted alone but rather to work alongside and collectively with our allies and their own strategic ambitions. In the document itself, partnerships are placed front and centre, including with Europe, and there is a strong sense that the UK’s foreign policy will first and foremost be collaborative. Amongst the – admittedly likely small subset of – international partners and officials who have read the Refresh, the document will broadly be seen as a positive indication for the UK’s future role in the world. They will be clear-eyed about the UK’s resource constraints, but in that context will at least see the uplift in defence spending – no certainty in current circumstances – as a welcome signal of intent, while the increase in a range of specialist capabilities, hard and soft, will ensure that the UK can continue to earn a seat at the table.

The Refresh would also likely endure a change of Government in the UK at the next General Election. While Labour has already promised to undertake a further review if (as current polls suggest is likely) it gains power, following the departure of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, bipartisanship in defence and security is back and it is clear the key themes would persist, though one would expect both climate and development to have a higher profile in a putative Labour “refresh of the refresh”.

This blog is the first of a number of analysis pieces from the BFPG on the Integrated Review Refresh. Over the coming days and weeks we will be delving further into the Review and what it means for the future of UK foreign policy. Stay tuned!

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group