The Integrated Review: Five key innovations

So it is done: fourteen months after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his government, if re-elected, would undertake the broadest review of British foreign policy in a generation, the Integrated Review has been published. The review process has been surrounded by much speculation and intrigue in recent months, not least because it was delayed at least twice due to the Covid-19 outbreak. 

At 114 pages long, ‘Global Britain in a competitive age’ is the most extensive strategic review to date. The 1998 Strategic Defence Review was just 72 pages long (0r 390 with annexes), the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was 75 pages in length (with an additional 39 pages for the National Security Strategy (NSS), and the combined 2015 NSS and SDSR was 96 pages long. Previous documents dealt exclusively with defence and national security; the Integrated Review – a broader overview of Britain’s international posture – will be followed by a Defence Command Paper on 22 March 2021.

The Integrated Review aims to transform and restructure Britain as a global power to enable it to succeed in an era of intensifying geopolitical competition. As such, and in keeping with the review’s original remit, it contains several important innovations that will, if fully implemented, alter the UK’s strategic composition and role in the world. Significantly, many of these innovations challenge some of the most potent core assumptions that have guided British strategic thinking since the end of the Cold War.

The review’s five most revolutionary strategic innovations include:

1. Embracing the Euro-Atlantic’s interconnectivity with the Indo-Pacific

The Integrated Review modifies over a century of British geostrategy, which has focused primarily, though not exclusively, on the Euro-Atlantic theatre. Since the First World War, Britain has increasingly concentrated on this region; the country ‘deglobalised’ its strategic posture to deal first with a revisionist Germany and then the threat from the Soviet Union.

However, the rise of China and the surrounding Indo-Pacific region has altered the global balance of power. The Integrated Review identifies China as a ‘systemic competitor’. Consequently, the review states that Britain will establish in the Indo-Pacific ‘a greater and more persistent presence than any other European country.’ While this was foreseen, particularly to those acquainted with Boris Johnson’s ‘East of Suez’ speech in Manama in 2016, it is still significant.

This so-called ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific will not, however, come at the expense of Britain’s presence in the Euro-Atlantic space. Even though the Euro-Atlantic is only mentioned by the review fifteen times in relation to the Indo-Pacific’s thirty-two, it unambiguously states that ‘the precondition for Global Britain is…the security of the Euro-Atlantic region, where the bulk of the UK’s security focus will remain.’

Unlike many of its European allies, therefore, Britain finally recognises that the defence of Europe can no longer start at the Narva river, to say nothing of the Vistula or the Rhine: given China’s emergence as a global power with Euro-Atlantic interests, manifest through the Belt and Road Initiative and via the Wider North, the UK now realises that the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific are an increasingly integrated geopolitical space – which requires a new approach.

2. Committing to an ‘open international order’ 

In previous strategic reviews, Britain declared its intention to underwrite a ‘rules-based international system’, which the 2018 National Security Capability Review even ‘championed’. In contrast, the Integrated Review adopts new language – that of an ‘open international order’ – which is conceptually similar to Japan’s vision of a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific. This distinction is not stylistic or accidental. The Integrated Review openly states that due to ‘intensifying competition between states over interests, norms and values’, the rules-based system is collapsing to the extent that ‘a defence of the status quo is no longer sufficient for the decade ahead.’

This implies that Britain will embrace a ‘negative’ order – defined elsewhere in the document as ‘a free association of sovereign nations’ – over a ‘positive’ one where rules suspend national sovereignty. The UK appears to be attempting to reshape the parameters of the international order to prevent its capture or closure by authoritarian powers.

3. Establishing a dynamic posture to lead in collective security

The Integrated Review’s vision for Britain’s role in collective security is bold and decisive. It aims to build on the country’s strategic means and wherewithal to underwrite the open international order. Accordingly:

The UK’s network of military alliances and partnerships is at the heart of our ability to deter and defend against state adversaries. It is also a powerful demonstration of the collective commitment to the free association of sovereign nations and the willingness to share the burden in maintaining an open international order.

Consequently, the review claims that British discursive, diplomatic and military assets will be deployed more frequently than in the past:

The UK will deploy more of our armed forces overseas more often and for longer periods of time, to train, exercise and operate alongside allies and partners across all our priority regions.

Supported by increased military spending and enhanced naval facilities, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, the Integrated Review sees the Royal Navy’s large aircraft carriers as the centrepiece of this new approach. This is because they will help to deter opponents and align allies and partners in British-backed strategic endeavours, themselves made possible by the carriers’ unique capacity.

The Integrated Review also throws down the gauntlet to the UK’s allies and partners, telling them they ‘must do more to prove the benefits of openness’ and that ‘the US will continue to ask more from its allies in Europe in sharing the burden of collective security.’ 

4. Embracing (democratic) sovereignty

Since the end of the Cold War, successive governments have argued that Britain was subject to powerful global forces – such as globalisation – it could do little to constrain or mould. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair famously argued in 2005 that debating globalisation was like debating ‘whether autumn should follow summer.’ In the more globalised world, British policymakers often assumed that national sovereignty would no longer be as crucial as it was in the past.

The Integrated Review embraces a different perspective. It positions the pursuit of ‘sovereignty’ as Britain’s most important national interest. While this is, in part, ‘to protect and promote the interests of the British people’, it has a deeper meaning. In keeping with its move away from an ambient posture in a rules-based system, the UK has realised that national autonomy is the foundation of power during an era of intensifying geopolitical competition. Therefore, the Integrated Review confirms Britain’s commitment towards multilateralism, but differently than before. 

5. Re-establishing technological leadership

Unlike previous British strategic reviews, the Integrated Review identifies the foundations of Britain’s global power more rigorously, namely its scientific and research base and its ability to pioneer and innovate technologically. Without the maritime, agricultural and industrial revolutions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is unlikely that Britain would have had the influence on the world it otherwise had. The UK is not a traditional great power; it is an island nation – a quintessential ‘seapower state’. But it has compensated for its relatively small size by its tremendous density and ability to apply technology, not least to compete successfully against far larger opponents to achieve its strategic ambitions. The Integrated Review recognises this and commits to strengthening British scientific and technological leadership, particularly in relation to the Green Industrial Revolution, which may lead to cleaner and more abundant energy technologies.

The Integrated Review is markedly different from those in Britain’s recent past. While it is just the first attempt to reset the country’s international posture – particularly towards an increasingly authoritarian and revisionist China – it nonetheless develops a potent new conceptual and intellectual apparatus to define Global Britain. It embraces new logic and empowers the UK to compete with far larger powers in the twenty-first century. This new framework is also remarkably integrated, flowing from the national to the international levels. If the government can refine, implement and properly resource the Integrated Review over the next decade, Britain may end up resembling the country identified in the Prime Minister’s Vision for 2030 – a bold, green, open and democratic nation, playing a pivotal role in upholding an equally open international order.

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.

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