The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is the Global Britain blueprint that everyone has been waiting for. Former Foreign Office press secretary Simon McGee believes that below the fizz and spark is an engaging and considered strategy
THUS LANDS GLOBAL BRITAIN. Few Diplomat readers would have missed last month’s publication of the long awaited Integrated Review (IR) of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy; I imagine that most would have sought it out and devoured it immediately – some for the purpose of hastily-drafted diplomatic telegrams to their MFAs – given it defines that post-Brexit concept of a Global Britain like no other document has so far. I also assume that most Diplomat readers will have read the ensuing news coverage of its publication, so I will avoid repeating its headlines on challenging China, new Hollywood-style situation rooms, and space cadets. Instead, here are some observations and themes that I believe underpin a substantial shift in Britain’s global outlook.
Above all, the IR strikes me as an unexpectedly fulsome reflection of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s personal vision of the United Kingdom free from the European Union. The Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ – the headline policy that I predicted in my last Diplomat article – is not only the logical result of the long-expected rise of the Pacific but a reflection of Johnson’s own connection with, and admiration for, the democracies of India, Japan and, above all, Australia. India, he told audiences when we visited Delhi in January 2017 to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was literally family through his then in-laws. When we visited Japan in July 2017, he was excited by another island trading nation focused on hi-tech industries, AI and robotics, also preparing for the Tokyo Olympics and Rugby World Cup. And when he was welcomed with open arms in Australia, a country where he had spent his gap year between school and university, he met bright young Sydney entrepreneurs who all wanted visas to come and work in post-EU Britain. It felt to me at the time that were he ever to become Prime Minister he would seek our fortune in those seas.
Johnson, who never visited China as Foreign Secretary, also made a little-noticed, off-the-cuff announcement during that 2017 Sydney visit that demonstrated even then his thinking and commitment to Indo-Pacific security – and undeniable ‘mateship’ with Oz. The main business of that visit had been the annual Australia UK Ministerial (AUKMIN) meeting of foreign and defence ministers, and high on the list of agenda items was the Australian navy’s dogged commitment to undertaking Freedom Of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the international waters of the South China Sea in defiance of China’s Nine-Dash Line claim. During his public concluding remarks to the press at the end of the meeting, Johnson committed Britain to sending at some unspecified time in the future the as-yet-unfinished HMS Queen Elizabeth to assist Australia, and the US, with those FONOPS. The IR commits that very same aircraft carrier to sailing to the Indo-Pacific in 2021 alongside policy commitments to “deploy more of our naval assets across the world to protect shipping lanes and uphold freedom of navigation” and an “absolute commitment to upholding the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in all its dimensions.” Four years after that unscripted promise Johnson looks very much set to deliver it, to the delight of allies and annoyance of China.
If the IR blows kisses to Australia, it could probably be described as a love letter to the US. As I observed in my previous Diplomat article on the prospects for a closer and more genuine US-UK Special Relationship, the Indo-Pacific tilt and commitment to projecting hard power further from the North Atlantic and Middle East re-frames the UK as the US’s natural partner of choice in non-traditional theatres such as the Far East, Arctic and space. Throw in long-standing military interoperability, the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, a similar stance on hostile states, and exact policy coherence on climate change, and you have a recipe for harmony; the only risk to which is an unravelling of the UK-EU trade and cooperation agreement threatening the delicate peace in Northern Ireland, an issue close to the heart of the Irish-American president of the US.
Britain’s membership of the EU had always been an awkward marriage of convenience, but the IR suggests a brutal divorce, almost certainly aggravated by recent rancour over the UK-EU trade and cooperation agreement and vaccines. Its summary of Britain’s new regard for the EU – detailing the UK’s new freedoms and speaking only of bilateral state-to-state relationships – is stark: “As a European nation, we will enjoy constructive and productive relationships with our neighbours in the EU, based on mutual respect for sovereignty and the UK’s freedom to do things differently, economically and politically, where that suits our interests.” It talks about working particularly closely with France and Germany, bilaterally and in the E3 configuration, as well as with Ireland, Italy, Poland, and a host of other EU and non-EU European states. But otherwise, there is almost no mention at all of the EU, not in terms of coordinating sanctions, not in terms of how the UK will in future interact with the Brussels institutions, and not in terms of partnering with the European External Action Service abroad. The IR suggests that Britain no longer sees the EU as a legitimate entity with which to conduct international relations. Johnson used to speak often and passionately about how a future Global Britain would act as a ‘flying buttress’ supporting ‘the EU cathedral’ but it appears the blueprints to that particular structure haven’t survived the post-divorce bonfire.
The challenges of the Middle East and North Africa were a British diplomatic, military and development priority for decades but they also look set for a significant downgrade over the coming decade. While the challenges there – Iran persisting in developing nuclear weapons and wider regional destabilisation, the remnants of Daesh in Iraq, the conflicts in Libya and Yemen, the fallout from the Syrian civil war – remain important, and a British military base in Oman will be upgraded, the IR does not place the region front and centre as previous strategic plans have done. This is reinforced by British humanitarian relief having already been cut in and around those conflicts, a result of the government’s controversial decision last November to temporarily reduce its overseas development assistance commitment, from 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent, putting a squeeze on development funding across the board. The collapse of the 2015 Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), for years the crowning achievement of global diplomacy, and the intractability of these regional challenges will have encouraged Johnson, who himself worked on many of them, and the IR to look elsewhere to secure better returns on investment and effort.
In summary, the IR looks and feels like a weighty statement of intent. It is a commitment to being pugnacious by unconventional means against those who threaten democratic values and international norms; it is clear about seeking new friends abroad and what it seeks to trade in and care about; and it provides an attempt to bring together seemingly competing and disparate priorities into one plan and narrative. It isn’t without its contradictions and won’t please everyone – it wants Britain to remain a development and humanitarian superpower without committing to 0.7 per cent, it wants to both challenge China and trade with her, and it fails to convince that the British taxpayer can actually pay the bill for such an enlarged and ambitious global footprint – but it is welcome and necessary. Crucially, Global Britain finally has substance and it really doesn’t miss the ex at all.