Diplomatic Correspondent for BBC News James Landale discusses the government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world
What is the United Kingdom’s foreign policy? It should be a daft question. It should be possible to infer a country’s approach to world affairs simply by observing its allies, geography and interventions. Where is the country located? Who do they support? Who do they oppose? With whom do they trade? When are they willing to apply sanctions or even military force? Yet when it comes to Britain, it is at times hard to detect a doctrine – or even an idea – that binds its overseas diplomacy into some kind of coherent package. Sometimes the UK leans towards the United States, sometimes towards Europe, sometimes it goes it owns way.
It is even more remarkable that such a fundamental question can be asked about a country’s foreign policy only four years after it took the momentous decision to leave a huge free-trade and political alliance on its doorstep. One might assume that such a decision would not have been made without a clear strategy of what came next. Yet here we are, after all those years debating Brexit, still scratching our heads as to what the UK is about. And when I say we, I don’t just mean the denizens of diplo-world – the officials, journalists and assorted foreign policy wonks who lurk on the fringes of embassy functions and think tank briefings. No, I also mean HMG itself.
The government has now formally begun what it calls an Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Even for Whitehall, the acronym of IRSDDFP is too much of a mouthful, so officials seem to have settled for calling it the ‘integrated review’ or IR for short. It will be shaped by the Prime Minister. The cross-Whitehall group carrying out the review is made up of a team from the Cabinet Office and Number Ten. It will report directly to the PM and he will chair the National Security Council meeting that signs it off.
And this is no normal defence review. This is not just the usual assessment of how many soldiers and planes and ships we need to fight the conflict of the moment, whether in AfghanistanorIraqor Syria. It is billed instead by Boris Johnson as “the biggest review” of UK foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. It will, we are told, “define the government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world”. And it means it. This will be an existential review that asks: ‘what is the point of the UK?’. It will seek to put flesh on the bones of the much-maligned Global Britain strategy: a slogan, some say, that has always been in pursuit of a policy. The review will seek to answer – yet again – the challenge first posed by the former USsecretary of state, Dean Acheson, who said in 1962 that “Great Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role.”
And crikey – what a lot of options there seem to be! Britain, some argue, could become a Singapore-on-the-Thames, a kind of free trading, low tax, low regulation state. Or it could throw its lot wholeheartedly in with the United States and be honest about its role as a subordinate, transatlantic partner. Britain could alternatively shake off its historic scepticism and rejoin the European Union in a fit of buyer’s remorse. To some, particularly those brought up on comics like Warlord and The Victor, Britain should cast itself as a buccaneering, independent nation, buoyed by myths of its role in World War II. Then there are others who think the UK should look squarely in the mirror and accept that it is a middle-ranking kind of nation – a sort of Canadawith nuclear weapons – that should give up its delusions of global grandeur and abandon its permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. The list of options seems as exhausting as it is inexhaustive.
This, then, is the debate that is being had as part of the review. Talk to officials and they accept they are looking for a middle ground between the extremes of post-imperial nostalgia and declinist realism. Ambitious this review certainly is. And yet the government seems to be doing its best to make things hard for itself. Such a big question requires time to ponder, to consult. But Downing Street has imposed a short deadline on the review, insisting it must be completed by the time the Treasury has finished its comprehensive review of government spending at an unspecified date later this year. There is no point having a foreign policy review, so the argument goes, if there are no agreed means to fund it.
Yet the lack of time will have consequences. The review will not be as comprehensive, open and transparent as some would like. Officials accept that this will make it hard to achieve anything like a national – or even a cross-party – consensus around the review’s conclusions. And that matters if – as expected – some of those conclusions are radical. Any further cut to the number of armed forces personnel would be politically tricky. Merging government departments would almost certainly cause sparks to fly.
Officials insist the review will be an “intellectually serious and honest debate.” It will take a long-term view, trying to look decades ahead. Officials note how the Conservative manifesto does not tie their hands, containing much less detail on foreign affairs than usual. Yet the review is not quite as comprehensive as officials would have you believe. The UK government will remain committed to spending more than 2 per cent of its GDP on defence and 0.7 per cent of its GNI on international development. The nuclear deterrent will remain.
So what hints do we have about where the UK might end up? Much of the strategic focus will be on calibrating the UK’s relationship with Chinaover coming decades. Much too will reassess Britain’s broader relationship with the European Union after Brexit. There will also be consideration of how the UK should respond to America’s changing view of the world. There is much talk of technology and countering the threat from artificial intelligence, cyber-attacks and climate change. Officials speak of the UK being a “problem-solving, burden-sharing nation.” But they also point to a clear articulation of UK national interests. Whitehall sources say the UK will continue to be a defender of the international rules-based system. But they also warn about the risks of fetishising that system. The IRBS should be a means to an end, they say, not an end in itself.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that he wants more coherence in the government’s foreign policy, which means the existing Whitehall “fusion” policy is likely to be extended. That is likely to involve greater cooperation – or even a merger – between the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. The UK may remain committed to the target of spending 0.7 per cent of GNI on development but it is going to scrutinise rigorously what it means by development. This will provoke a tough battle with the aid charities and non-governmental organisations.
So this review is a big piece of work. The key test will be whether it manages to escape the short-term pressures of the moment, whether they be budgetary or corona-related, and manages to forecast sensibly where Britain’s place in the world should be in 10 or 15 years’ time. And in an increasingly fluid world, with the UK adrift from its traditional American and European bearings, that is no mean task.