One Year On: How Has the Integrated Review Refresh Held Up?

When the Integrated Review Refresh was released in March 2023, it was designed to respond to the myriad of challenges brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that its predecessor, the Integrated Review, failed to foresee two years earlier. But with conflict in the Middle East, ongoing war in Ukraine, and deep-seated economic challenges in the UK, how have the Refresh’s principles and priorities held up? And how much progress has been made?

The Refresh is undermined by failure to prioritise the Middle East

Focused on strengthening the Indo-Pacific tilt and on building on the momentum around UK-EU relations created by the Windsor Framework and the response to the Ukraine crisis, the Refresh failed to give due attention to other regional priorities. The Middle East, and the rest of the world, were relegated to the collective third priority of ‘the wider neighbourhood’. As a result, the Middle East received scant attention in the Refresh, with no clear strategy articulated for the UK’s approach to the region. Indeed, the Israel-Palestine conflict was not mentioned at all in the Refresh, despite long-term instability in the area.

This was an omission recognised by the Foreign Affairs Committee back in August 2023, well before the events of October 7th, with the Committee warning of the dangers of not giving enough attention to other regions, not least the Middle East. While few predicted the events of October 7th or what has followed, nor would the UK having a more coherent policy on the Middle East have prevented the ongoing conflict, it is evident that the Refresh failed to place due strategic focus on the Middle East. This has left the UK scrambling for a strategy and without the networks and capabilities to promote and support diplomacy and peace in the region at a time of major crisis.

The Refresh’s defensive focus and pragmatic tone are fitting for the current environment

The grandiose ‘Global Britain’ rhetoric that dominated the post-Brexit era of UK foreign policy was culled from the Integrated Review Refresh and replaced with a more sombre and pragmatic tone, which more accurately reflected the turbulence of the geopolitical environment of both then and now. Indeed, while there are a number of areas, not least the Middle East, where the Refresh fails to adequately prepare the UK for the current environment, its focus on geopolitical turbulence and the threats that lie ahead remains fitting. As the Refresh correctly identifies, in this increasingly uncertain environment, the UK should not be seeking to strike out alone, but rather finding opportunities to work with allies across the world to bring about peace and stability.

Progress being made, but sustainability of Indo-Pacific focus is in doubt

The Integrated Review Refresh claimed that the UK had already ‘delivered the ambition (it) set for the Indo-Pacific tilt’, calling for a move now towards a ‘long-term strategic footing’ in the region. At the time it was a stretch to claim that the tilt had been achieved, with few substantive commitments to show for it, but over the last year the UK has made some progress. This has included a formal agreement to join the CPTPP, the signing of new Accords with Japan, Singapore and the Republic of Korea, and some progress on AUKUS.

However, the ambitions for a ‘long-term strategic’ footing on the Indo-Pacific still eludes the UK. On trade, the much anticipated UK-India Free Trade Agreement is yet to materialise, while defensively the UK’s military presence in the region, particularly in the way of fighting force, lags significantly behind our allies. The long-term sustainability of the UK’s focus on the region will also ultimately necessitate greater resource investment in the region, particularly in terms of defence. However, with major conflicts raging elsewhere in the world, the UK’s willingness and ability to rebalance existing resources towards the Indo-Pacific is limited, throwing the long-term sustainability of the Indo-Pacific tilt into question.

China remains a balancing act but we need a clearer approach

The Integrated Review Refresh stopped short of calling China a ‘threat’, instead declaring it an ‘epoch-defining challenge’. The Refresh advocates for the UK to adopt a three-pronged approach to China – ‘protect’ national security in areas where China poses a threat, ‘align’ with allies to meet the challenge, and ‘engage’ with China where it makes sense to do so. This strategy is, in practice, quite vague, and provides little clarity on how the UK would, in practice, engage with China.

It is hard then to assess how the UK has performed against this objective, except to note that relations have softened slightly since the Refresh was published. The UK has sought opportunities for proactive engagement, with then Foreign Secretary James Cleverly visiting China in August last year and China being invited to the UK’s AI Safety Summit last November. The appointment of David Cameron as Foreign Secretary has seen a continuation of that trend, with Cameron emphasising the importance of engagement with China, even while asserting the importance of being attune to the threats that China may pose.

The difficulty in assessing the effectiveness and delivery of the UK’s China policy reflects the secrecy around the UK’s China policy. Unlike a growing number of our allies, the UK still does not have a public China strategy, making a whole-of-society approach to China incredibly difficult, with individuals and organisations outside of government lacking the information required to support the Government’s approach. Similarly, on resourcing for the UK’s China policy, Richard Moore, Head of the Secret Intelligence Service, has stated that the UK ‘now devote(s) more resources to China than anywhere else’. However, lack of public information about this makes it almost impossible to assess how much that is, or how much investment has been scaled up. 

Delivery on ‘security through resilience’ commitments

‘Resilience’ was the buzzword of the Integrated Review Refresh, mentioned 72 times in the report. Perhaps because of its prominence, and also because of the very tangible commitments made to it, it is one of the areas where there has been the most progress since the Refresh. The new National Protective Security Authority, which assumed the role of Centre for Protection of National Infrastructure but with a broader remit, has launched and the first meeting of the new economic security public-private forum has been held. 

The Government also launched its semi-conductor strategy in May 2023, as well as its critical imports and supply chain strategy in January 2024. The latter includes plans for a critical imports council and commitments to develop a new programme to identify and remove import barriers. The strategy comes at a crucial time, as Houthi attacks in the Red Sea continue to cause major disruption to global supply chains. However, with no new funding commitments announced, delivery on the strategy may prove difficult long-term.

Defence funding gaps grow ever starker

The headline statement of the Refresh was that defence spending would increase by £5 billion from 2023 – 2025, with £3 billion committed to nuclear enterprise (including AUKUS) and £2 billion targeted at boosting the UK’s munition stockpiles. It also included an ‘aspiration’ to move to spend 2.5% of GDP on defence.

While these financial commitments were substantial, particularly at a time of particular economic challenge in the UK, the uplift fell far short of the £10 billion the former Defence Secretary Ben Wallace requested. With the world even more uncertain now, these financial commitments are falling even shorter. The House of Commons Spending watchdog has warned that there is now a £16.9bn deficit between the MOD’s budget and the cost of the UK’s desired military capabilities. 

So stark is the situation, that two Ministers, Tom Tugenhadt and Anne-Marie Trevelayn, broke from convention and spoke out after the Spring Budget failed to deliver any new money for defence, calling for the UK to invest at ‘a much greater pace’. Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps has publicly called for the Conservatives to commit to a 3% defence spending target in their election manifesto, as the ‘ambition’ to reach 2.5% GDP spending on defence and the £5 billion commitment outlined in the Refresh prove insufficient in meeting the UK’s defensive needs.

Development is back in focus

Primarily a defensive document, development doesn’t receive a huge amount of attention in the Integrated Review Refresh. It does state that the UK will look to ‘reinvigorate (its) position as a global leader on international development’, although little detail is given on how this will be achieved. The last year has brought some welcome clarity to the UK’s development ambitions. 

The appointment of Andrew Mitchell as Minister for Development and Africa, and David Cameron as Foreign Secretary has created a sort of double act in Government with a genuine commitment to international development. Their vision for how to bring development is laid out in the International Development Strategy, which builds on and articulates the much-needed detail on the ambitions set out in the Integrated Review Refresh. There is still more to be done, not least in translating the International Development Strategy into practice, and ongoing questions about funding for development, but it is clear that the importance of development is now being re-emphasised.

A warming of relations with Europe

With the Windsor Framework signed a month before the Integrated Review Refresh was released, and the Ukraine crisis necessitating a renewed focus on Europe, the Refresh diverted fairly substantially from the Integrated Review on European relations, advocating for a ‘new phase’ of relationships in Europe. And over the last year, we’ve seen some important progress towards that goal. The most notable of these include the UK joining the Horizon Europe programme, the signing of the MOU on financial services cooperation and a new deal with Frontex (the EU’s border agency) on illegal migration. In tone too, there has been a notable shift, with David Cameron remarking that the ‘heat and anger’ has dissipated in the relationship, as both sides increasingly prioritise more constructive relations.

Climate change has fallen down the agenda

While tackling climate change and biodiversity was identified as a thematic priority in the Integrated Review Refresh, it was clear that the big ambitions for UK climate leadership seen particularly around COP26 had been dialled back. Indeed, the fact that Refresh announced no major new commitments on climate change should have been a clear indicator of where the UK was headed. 

In September, the UK pushed back many of its domestic climate commitments, including plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, and earlier this year the UK also handed out 24 new North Sea oil and gas licences. And while the UK pledged £1.6bn in international climate finance around COP28, this was widely critiqued as being inadequate to meet the pressing climate financing needs of the world’s poorest countries. This scaling back of ambitions has been noticed by the international community, particularly developing nations, with repercussions for the UK’s ability to lead on climate action internationally. 

Time for another refresh?

When the Integrated Review Refresh was published it did not receive anywhere near as much fanfare as the original Integrated Review had. But it did do a good job of reflecting the changed geopolitical environment, of reposturing and of being pragmatic about the need to work with partners and focus on shoring up our defensive capabilities. However, a year later and with conflict in the Middle East, the ongoing war in Ukraine, economic constraints and the potential for leadership change both here and in the United States, progress has been slow and a number of the priorities in the Refresh already feel outdated.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest lesson from both the Integrated Review and its subsequent Refresh, is just how difficult it is to develop a strategic approach to foreign policy. The unpredictability of the international sphere makes it very difficult to plan, to foresee what might come next, and how we can best be prepared for it. That doesn’t make it any less important, but it does mean even the best laid plans can quickly fall from relevance. If the UK has a new government by the end of the year, there will likely be another attempt at a strategic vision for foreign policy. And if the last two attempts have taught us anything, it’s that it will be no small task.

Evie Aspinall

Evie Aspinall is Director of the BFPG