On 28th November 2022, the world got the first glimpse of the Sunak doctrine. Standing in front of a large golden ornament of a ship, Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, gave his annual speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in the Guildhall on his government’s international objectives for the next year. The speech comes just a few months before the ‘refresh’ of the Integrated Review will be published – expected in March 2023.
This refresh, ordered by Liz Truss during her short stint as prime minister, is designed to assess how the international environment has changed since the Integrated Review was drafted in 2020, as well as how His Majesty’s (HM) Government should respond to these changes. Russia’s elevated aggression towards Ukraine and the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) more assertive and authoritarian posture under Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), give credence to the fact that the ‘intensifying geopolitical competition’ identified by the Integrated Review is giving way to naked confrontation – even cold war, where the largest powers confront one another in the ‘grey zone’ between ‘peace’ and ‘war’.
Indeed, in his speech, the prime minister points directly to Russian and Chinese aggression, before outlining how his government would respond: First, by ‘being stronger in defending our values and the openness on which our prosperity depends’; second, by ‘delivering a stronger economy at home, as the foundation of our strength abroad’; and, third, by ‘standing up to our competitors, not with grand rhetoric but with robust pragmatism.’ What, though, does this mean?
To begin with, Sunak explains that insofar as Britain’s ‘adversaries and competitors plan for the long term’, HM Government needs to do the same. This suggests that he acknowledges that British national strategy has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and until recently, decidedly ‘astrategic’. Successive governments have neglected the connectivity of economics and geopolitics and have allowed Britain’s defences to weaken. At the same time, they have placed undue faith in so-called ‘soft power’ and multilateralism, while allowing authoritarian regimes to grow in strength.
Already, the Integrated Review more than touched on these issues. Significantly, the review began to draw the economy back into national strategy after successive governments, buoyed by the mantra of globalisation, took an increasingly hands-off approach. For example, it outlined why HM Government needed to properly fund and regain direction over the British science base to uphold technological ascendancy – the very essence of world power for a compact maritime country.
So, while, at first glance, the prime minister’s speech might appear to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, on deeper inspection it reveals some significant changes in approach – even the return of strategic thinking – at the heart of the British state.
With his statement that the economy is ‘the foundation of our strength abroad’, Sunak reconfirms this direction of travel. But he goes further. Not only does he put to bed the ‘golden era’ established between the UK and PRC by David Cameron and George Osborne, but he also defines the PRC as a ‘systemic challenge’. For some, this may represent little more than an attempt to placate Conservative backbenchers who would like HM Government to define the PRC – similarly to Russia – as a ‘threat’. This would, however, be unfair.
For one, the Integrated Review described the PRC as a ‘systemic competitor’. By upgrading it to a ‘systemic challenge’, the prime minister acknowledges that the PRC is no longer a mere competitor which plays by the rules, but an opponent that is prepared to do whatever it takes to get its way. Moreover, a ‘systemic challenge’ is actually a far greater long-term concern than a threat; previous systemic rivals – Philip I’s Spain, Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – threatened not only the international order, but the UK’s very existence. For another, by labelling the PRC a ‘systemic challenge’, Sunak has signalled that HM Government will scrutinise Chinese investment into British infrastructure and takeovers of British companies more rigorously than it did during the ‘golden era’.
It is at this point where Sunak introduces the notion of ‘robust pragmatism’, which dovetails with his assertion – contained also in the Integrated Review – that ‘actions speak louder than words’. Here, beyond rebuilding the national powerbase and making it more resilient to undue foreign influence, Sunak argues that the UK ought to more proactively lead and align other countries in pursuit of its interests. He points to how successful this approach has been where it has been practised, from challenging European dependence on Russian energy supplies and initiating the international response to Russia’s war on Ukraine to creating new and lasting centres of geopolitical gravity in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific, respectively, through the Joint Expeditionary Force and AUKUS.
Finally, Sunak’s speech was sprinkled with references to the virtuous circle between maritime power and prosperity, from his opening remarks about his home city of Southampton as ‘the gateway to the world’ and the geostrategic significance of the Indo-Pacific, to it being in British ‘interests to keep…trade lines open.’
So, while, at first glance, the prime minister’s speech might appear to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, on deeper inspection it reveals some significant changes in approach – even the return of strategic thinking – at the heart of the British state. Indeed, while Sunak decries, ironically, ‘Cold War arguments and approaches’, the thinking behind his speech – insofar as it favours greater national direction and sovereignty, even over the economy – takes Britain closer to a cold war posture than it has had in many years. The refresh of the Integrated Review will almost certainly take these ideas further.
But there is still a long way to go for the Sunak doctrine to be realised. To implement ‘robust pragmatism’, Sunak’s government will need to focus on stimulating the national powerbase by implementing greater supply-side reforms to the economy and enhancing economic resilience. In particular, the UK’s creaking infrastructure – not least the transport and communication systems – and research and scientific centres need significant investment to boost productivity. In a maritime century, it will also need to grow the Royal Navy. Only then will HM Government preside over a national powerbase with the means to attract and align allies and partners, and constrain rivals.
James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.
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