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Integrated Review ‘refresh’: Sufficient?

After the publication of the Integrated Review ‘refresh’ (IRR) on Monday 13th March, the Council on Geostrategy asks six strategic experts whether, given the changes since the original publication of the Integrated Review in 2021, the ‘refresh’ sufficiently address the threats and challenges facing Britain…

Hillary Briffa, King’s College London

Enhanced focus on medium- and small-sized states

Medium-sized states feature heavily in the IRR, and small states are finally getting a look-in. To improve trade opportunities and cement the United Kingdom’s (UK) Indo-Pacific footing, a new Singapore hub has been launched for British international investment and a Digital Economy Agreement and Green Economy Framework has been established. To build resilience and compensate for the energy crisis, Britain is looking to investment partnerships in the Middle East on renewable energy, as well as further cooperation with the Benelux countries, Ireland, and the Nordics through the North Seas Energy Cooperation Group. In enhancing the capabilities of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Royal Air Force is patrolling over Romania, whilst deepening cooperation with Estonia.

Although Africa does feature, this remains limited. The UK does not have an Africa policy; to be frank, it has an anti-China and anti-Russia policy, and other states are only considered to the extent that they fit those strategic aims. In this regard, the acknowledgement that the UK will need a greater ‘appreciation of the needs and perspectives of key partners across the continent’ is a welcome shift in tone.

Positively, the reinforced commitment to fostering climate resilience in the Indo-Pacific region speaks to the priorities of many small island developing states. In fact, among the most notable gains in the ‘refresh’ are increases in climate finance, and crucial (albeit vague) commitments to Loss and Damage financing and reforming the global financial system to meet the needs of more vulnerable countries – areas where Britain can make a significant and world-leading impact

Whilst His Majesty’s (HM) Government remains obsessed with ‘major geopolitical players’, its stated aim of deepening cooperation with a ‘wider group of partners’ shows some practical and incremental steps in the right direction.

Gabriel Elefteriu, Council on Geostrategy

Return to tradition

The largest and most alarming change identified by the IRR is also one of the least discussed: the fact that multipolarity is the new paradigm in the global system. As recently as the Integrated Review the international system was only stated to be ‘moving towards’ a multipolar system. Now it is here: ‘Over the past two years…the transition into a multipolar, fragmented and contested world has happened more quickly and definitively than anticipated.’ This is a severe adjustment in HM Government’s assessment of the global power balance and one that carries enormous implications for British grand strategy.

The IRR’s response rises to the challenge: it openly signals a hard British turn to realpolitik. In the IRR, talk of ‘freedom’ gives way to old-school pragmatism. The end goal is an ‘open and stable’ international order (not necessarily a ‘free’ one), and the UK will ‘accept’ the need to work with others with whom it ‘may not share all of the same values and national interests.’ Underscoring this, there is also a complete – almost defiant – rejection of Washington’s view of the current geopolitical environment, with the IRR stating: ‘Today’s international system cannot simply be reduced to “democracy versus autocracy”’.

In recovering some of the best traditions of higher realism in British strategy, the IRR has done the UK a great favour.

Milia Purppura, Council on Geostrategy

Address the Chinese threat

When compared with Russia being labelled ‘the most acute threat to our security’ in the Integrated Review, calling the People’s Republic of China (PRC) an ‘epoch-defining and systemic challenge’ in the IRR displays a lack of perspective. Russian influence does not appear to permeate British media, academia, politics, and business to the degree of that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The UK is already decoupling at pace from Russia; British reliance on the PRC and its influence from the inside makes it no less of a threat.

HM Government should approach the ‘Engage’ part of the ‘Protect-Align-Engage’ framework more carefully; it is too late to push back after becoming aware of ‘attempts by the CCP to coerce or create dependencies’ (IRR). Huge profits have been made by various parties through the ‘engagement’ narrative – from the failures of embedding Huawei into Britain’s telecommunications network, to importing ‘Made in China’ personal protective equipment, Covid-19 test kits, and narratives about the pandemic. The avoidance of such follies is essential for the future as they come at a cost to British society.

Free and open nations have been naively engaging with CCP propaganda about the PRC’s intent to pursue a mutually beneficial, ‘positive trade and investment relationship’ (IRR). Cooperating with the CCP on areas of high relevance that require high levels of trust, such as climate change and global health, is an especially senseless idea. By now, it is known that the PRC can be trusted to betray. Failing to identify the PRC as a threat, and acting accordingly, will forever be at the cost of British security.

Louise Kettle, University of Nottingham

Britain’s shifting and core priorities

The IRR does not offer significant detail on all threats facing Britain today, but neither is that its role. Instead, the document is produced to highlight shifting UK strategic priorities to the public (and subsequently offer rationale for defence budget increases) and signal focus areas for Britain to the international community. As such, it is less detailed than its 2021 counterpart, and whilst some threats are given a cursory mention – for example Iran, climate change and Islamist terrorism – others are noticeably absent, such as simmering tensions in the Balkans. 

Nonetheless, it provides a new, more focused and pragmatic approach to the current strategic environment that is shorn of some of the rhetorical flourishes around ‘Global Britain’ present in the Integrated Review. It also makes primary endeavours clear; to demonstrate Britain’s commitment to Ukraine, to reinforce the focus on the PRC and the Indo-Pacific, to emphasise the importance of partnerships and alliances, and to recognise the importance of Europe and the European Union that was not possible under the political conditions of 2021. And while the IRR may not cover everything, or offer considerable detail, it is supported by more information in tangential documents, including the updated Defence Command Paper that is expected to be published in the coming months.

Allan Nixon, Former Special Adviser to the prime minister and security minister

Towards strategic advantage in science and technology

With the potential to transform the geoeconomic, geopolitical and military balances between nations, building strategic advantage by exploiting the technologies of tomorrow is the key to the UK’s power and influence. This fact has only grown since 2021, with the recent advent of game-changing technological developments like GPT-4 just one the myriad ways the global race for emerging technology is heating up.

On the face of it, science and technology is not as prominent as in the IRR as in the Integrated Review, with ‘Generating Strategic Advantage’ the fourth pillar of the former’s Strategic Framework, and science and technology a core – but not the sole – focus of this pillar. The Integrated Review, on the other hand, boldly put ‘Sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology’ as its first and most prominent pillar.

While this is somewhat regrettable, it belies a rosier reality.

First, the IRR backs up its commitment with specific action, establishing a new government-industry taskforce to build the UK’s capability in foundation models – a vital endeavour. Second, like the Integrated Review, the IRR focuses on ‘priority technologies’. But importantly it goes further. Where the Integrated Review was open-ended, the IRR is welcomely clear in delineating five specific priority technologies. Better still, these are the same five technologies which the new Science and Technology Department is being specifically geared up to focus on. Such coordination and focus had evaded HM Government until recently. 

Finally, combine this action, clarity and focus with the commitment to spending £20 billion a year on science and tech research and development by 2024/2025 (not to mention the welcome package in the Budget), and building this all-important strategic advantage looks to be very much in Britain’s sights.

Richard G. Whitman, University of Kent

How to now leverage British diplomacy?

The Integrated Review placed Britain’s role as a Euro-Atlantic provider of European security as a central preoccupation of the UK’s diplomatic and defence posture. It demonstrated significant sagacity in its definition of Russia as an ‘acute threat’ to European security. Subsequently, the UK has strengthened its European diplomatic and security credentials through its response to Russia’s war against Ukraine. 

The ‘refresh’ is not just a recapitulation of the centrality of the UK to European security. It also more strongly articulates the crucial linkage between the European and Indo-Pacific theatres. While the IRR is solid in its messaging on defence and security it seems less assured on the means and ends of British diplomacy in Europe. Its mapping of the European bilateral, minilateral and multilateral relationships the UK currently has in place, while extensive, provides less of a sense as to the core purposes of this network for Britain. With the UK in the vanguard of European states identifying the need for a strong response to the systemic challenge of the PRC, and the inseparability of European and Indo-Pacific security, the IRR was weaker on how Britain will leverage its European diplomacy to ensure this is a prevalent preoccupation for all European states.

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