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The Integrated Review and the defence of Europe

Two controversies surrounding the Integrated Review[↗] concern the so-called ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific and the United Kingdom’s (UK) nuclear stockpile. As a recent editorial[↗] comment in Le Monde argues, this new British focus on the Indo-Pacific comes at the expense of the Euro-Atlantic. Making matters worse, this supposed turn away from European security is taking place in parallel with Britain’s plans to increase its nuclear stockpile, thereby reversing previous cuts made since the 1990s. Critics have charged[↗] that this announcement has a dubious strategic basis and will only serve to undermine international stability.

The picture one may get of the Integrated Review is that Britain has at best a muddled sense of its own geopolitical priorities or, at worst, terribly misguided policies that will hurt the very international order it swears to defend. These criticisms are wrong and overlook the subtle connection that the review makes between ends and means in relation to European security.

As far as geography is concerned, much discussion on the Integrated REview centres on the so-called ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific. The review mentions the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ more times than the ‘Euro-Atlantic’ (32 to 15) and devotes its own special section to clarify this new element in British strategy. Yet, it would be a grave mistake to conclude that this Indo-Pacific focus comes at the Euro-Atlantic’s expense. On the contrary, the Euro-Atlantic still retains its pride of place in British geostrategy.

To begin with, the Integrated Review clearly states that Britain will ‘focus our security efforts primarily (emphasis added) on the Euro-Atlantic region and providing support in Africa.’ This point is important: whereas the United States (US) strategic documents have lately come to mention the challenge posed by China first before highlighting the threat from Russia, the review proceeds in the reverse order. In fact, the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ should be best understood as remedying a blind spot that might have previously marked the strategic outlook of Her Majesty’s Government. In other words, the Integrated Review simply says that the UK has, until very recently, accorded insufficient attention and resources to geopolitical and trade problems arising in that part of the world. The novelty of this approach is arguably the best explanation for the greater number of references that the Indo-Pacific receives over the Euro-Atlantic.

More significant is the threat assessment contained in the Integrated Review. With China, as others have pointed out[↗], the review equivocates. Despite the renewed emphasis on the Indo-Pacific and a passing reference to China’s ‘international assertiveness’, the review declares that the United Kingdom ‘will continue to pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with China.’ There is no such ambiguity with Russia: the Integrated Review avers that ‘Russia will remain the most acute direct threat to the UK’ and explains that ‘we will work hard with [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] NATO Allies to ensure a unified Western response.’ Hence, regarding collective security, the Integrated Review lists, in order of priority, the need, first, to ‘reaffirm our commitment to leadership in NATO, supporting its adaption to threats above and below the threshold of war under international law’; second, ‘to improve interoperability with our Euro-Atlantic allies’; and third, ‘improve our ability to manage and de-escalate a multi-domain crisis.’ Only thereupon does the review mention the Indo-Pacific.

Far from leaving European security behind and engaging in reckless defence decisions, the Integrated Review augments European security and helps to restore extended nuclear deterrence.
Alexander LanoszkaDr Alexander Lanoszka

Regarding collective security and UK leadership within NATO, the Integrated Review unhesitatingly describes the British military presence in Estonia and Poland as a ‘tripwire’. The use of this term is significant. For many countries participating in the Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic region, for which Britain serves as the Framework Nation for the 831-strong battlegroup in Estonia, calling the mission a tripwire is controversial. It implies that forward-deployed military personnel are not so much there to kill as they are there to die in the (improbable) event that hostilities do break out with Russia. According to ‘tripwire logic’, any lethal attack on these forces would precipitate escalatory dynamics that will slip away from Russia’s control, making the cost of any aggression unacceptably high. Although the battlegroups’ actual combat credibility is subject to debate[↗], few practitioners and policy-makers embrace[↗] the tripwire’s unsavoury logic and instead emphasise how the battlegroups embody alliance solidarity and risk-sharing.

The explicit invocation of the term ‘tripwire’ matters, especially in the context of the Integrated Review’s prescriptions on Britain’s nuclear arsenal. Citing ‘developing range of technological and doctrinal threats’, the review announces that the UK will increase its nuclear stockpile from a maximum of 180 warheads to no more than 260. 

Critics allege[↗], dubiously, that this buildup violates Article 6 of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which provides that ‘[e]ach of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.’ Others worry[↗] about its implications for international stability and arms control. Such arguments are at best specious: Britain did affirm its Article 6 commitments in 2015 when it announced reduced warheads on its ballistic missile submarine, but Article 6 speaks of negotiating in good faith and does not strictly require states to disarm. The UK’s commitment to Article 6 is not at issue – it has arguably fulfilled its obligations. The real problem is with Russia since it has been developing new nuclear weapons systems since 2015. 

That Russia has made these investments – in addition to expanding its missile capabilities – puts a strain on promises made by the nuclear-armed powers of NATO – the US, the UK, and, to a lesser extent, France – to provide extended nuclear deterrence to countries most alarmed by the prospects of Russian aggression. Already Russia has a large arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons; the overarching doctrine guiding their potential use in a crisis has been a subject of significant debate[↗]. Suffice to say, it appears that British decision-makers are concerned that their country’s nuclear deterrent has become vulnerable due to these developments. Whatever the real underlying reason, be it Russian ballistic missile defence[↗] or else, these vulnerabilities impair Britain’s ability to follow through on promises to provide a devastating riposte if Russia were to attack the Baltic states and thus trigger the tripwire. Indeed, the Integrated Review explicitly highlights that ‘a minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent, assigned to the defence of NATO, remains essential in order to guarantee our security and that of our Allies.’

Of course, critics might argue that this is all posturing. No way, they might say, would Britain sacrifice London for Tallinn. The credibility of extended nuclear deterrence turns not only on capability but also on willingness and resolve to incur massive costs. This criticism is valid; despite assurances from national leaders[↗], whether a country fulfils a promise to use nuclear weapons at a future date during an extreme situation is fundamentally unknowable. Nevertheless, capability is part of the equation. And indeed, Britain’s participation in the Joint Expeditionary Force alongside the Baltic countries and other Northern European countries demonstrates that its engagement in the region covers not just the land and nuclear domains but naval as well[↗]. By making the Trident announcement, Her Majesty’s Government is intimating that it would consider such a nuclear exchange, conveying some measure of resolve. This may simply be a bluff, but it is neither cheap nor isolated from the UK’s wider military posture in Europe. 

Far from leaving European security behind and engaging in reckless defence decisions, the Integrated Review augments European security and helps to restore extended nuclear deterrence. 

Dr Alexander Lanoszka is an Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo.

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