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What are the most pressing foreign and security issues for the new government?

Britain is facing an increasingly challenging geopolitical environment: Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine continues,  tensions continue to rise in the Indo-Pacific, and convulsive political change looms in France and the United States (US). With the General Election just a week away, the next government will be faced with a multitude of challenges on the global stage. So, what are the most pressing foreign and security policy issues that the government should focus on in the first 100 days of the new administration? We asked ten experts in this week’s Big Ask.

There is no conceivable reason to wait 100 days. On day one, the new prime minister should directly address the first responsibility of government, the security of the nation, by confirming that defence spending will increase to 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product by 2030. From a foreign policy perspective this would allow him on day four, at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Leaders Summit in Washington, to show that his government understands the gravity of the global geopolitical outlook, and the threat to democracy, and declare its commitment to strengthening alliances and deterring adversaries.

This would be of strategic benefit not only to the United Kingdom (UK), its armed forces, security agencies and defence industry, but, ahead of the United States (US) election, also to NATO. And it would give the prime minister a credible political platform to order a one 100 day review, not of the threats and wider global risks and priorities (that was done as recently as 2023 in the Integrated Review Refresh to justified international acclaim), but of what more needs to be done to expedite further investment in and integration of ‘all of government’ efforts to optimise the UK contribution, within the IRR risk landscape, to its alliances worldwide.

Faced with acute and likely enduring threats, the focus must include long term and short term effects sought: credible UK deterrence founded on expeditionary capability; the prioritising of like-minded partner states committed to delivering rapid reaction and deterrence; a long term strategy for free and open countries to compete with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its allies for influence in the ‘middle ground’ – countries unaligned with any side.

It’s going to be a busy 100 days, whoever wins the election. Job one is the foreign policy priorities of the new UK government need to be robustly highlighted, both at home and abroad. Neither Britain’s domestic audience nor its international partners will necessarily be familiar with the series of foreign affairs objectives identified by the incoming government. Thus, whether goals revolve around the usual foreign policy suspects including championing multilateral causes, defending democracy, and combating poverty and climate change or something wildly different, internal and external audiences will require a clear update. 

Second, the UK needs urgently to restore its relations with the EU. This could entail limited contributions, mid-range coordination or full-bodied collaboration, in anything from a recrafted political declaration to an enhanced security agreement, from a markedly widened Trade and Cooperation Agreement to adding the UK to the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC).

Equally, the UK needs to bear in mind that engagement with the EU is not a one-way approach. The Brexit context has shifted markedly, but both sides still need to sit down, and sensibly consider their optimal strategic relationship in the short, medium and long-term. Joining the FAC for example means exploring opportunities for a more structured dialogue on the one hand, but also reconsidering the UK’s current third-party status with the EU. Working more productively with the EU opens the door to a third foreign policy opportunity for the UK: enhanced coordination and indeed leadership in the context of the crisis in Ukraine, but also looking ahead to additional security and defence opportunities in terms of specific crises, as well as improved coordination with NATO.

Depending on who is consulted, this question will elicit very divergent responses. This is in the nature of a plural democracy. Some will argue that climate change mitigation measures are urgent, others will push for a closer union with Europe, and still others that preparing for a change in direction in US foreign policy is the most pressing. Despite the calls everywhere for change, even radical change, there is much to be said for steady continuity in British foreign policy.

 The UK needs to continue to reinforce NATO, deter Russian aggression, and modernise its armed forces. It needs continuity in contesting Russian, Chinese, and Iranian malign actions that are below the threshold of conflict. It must remain vigilant against terrorist threats, persistent cyber-attacks, and the theft of intellectual property.

Nevertheless, change must come in the UK’s defence posture. It cannot continue to maintain global influence with the current parlous investment in its defences. Nor can it hide behind the idea that somehow NATO will come to its assistance. Britain must exercise strategic initiative, plan more comprehensively for the long term, integrate its forces fully with the US, and terminate, once and for all, the narrative of decline it has indulged in.

The UK’s long retreat is over. It must now show leadership and be prepared to exercise power with confidence against the threat posed by aggressive, authoritarian regimes. This will take courage, adroit investment, financial discipline, and the restructuring of its economy, rejuvenated through automated manufacturing, infrastructural investments, and a ruthless shearing of bureaucracy. Above all, it requires a carefully calibrated strategy, navigating the risks of escalation while asserting its national interests and the higher interests that benefit the globe.

If Labour wins, they have promised to conduct a ‘China audit’ in the first 100 days of their tenure. The audit should be conducted whatever the outcome of the election. This is one of the UK’s most complex bilateral relationships of this century and HM Government needs all PRC experts on deck. 

First to note is that the next prime minister’s decision on whether to engage directly with Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will set the tone for future relations and signal intentions to British allies. This early engagement is crucial for strategic positioning.

Second, it is important that the government takes a long range view when judging the tradeoffs which engagement with the PRC inevitably entails. The PRC needs to be in the room for discussions about artificial intelligence safety, climate change, antimicrobial resistance and delivering other global goods. But balancing these engagements with protecting Britain’s national security is a highly complex matter. Tradeoffs and their future ramifications should be assessed and debated rigorously with the guidance of a panel of PRC experts, across different governmental departments. Insufficient communication between different departments with competing interests is partly to blame for the UK’s schizophrenic conduct in relation to the PRC over the last decade.

Third, the audit should identify sectors critical to the UK’s national and economic security and assess all areas of dependency on the PRC. Mitigation strategies should focus on building domestic industrial capacity, diversification, and harnessing UK strategic advantage.

Finally, an audit should take full advantage of the strengths provided by the UK’s allies, particularly like-minded democracies, including the US and EU countries, and adopting best practices from Indo-Pacific partners.

The next government will come to power amid a series of rapid, tectonic shifts: it is possible that the French election produces a minority far right government; and that five months later the US election produces a second Trump administration. Add continued Chinese aggression against Taiwan, and the ongoing Russian aggression towards Ukraine, and the temptation will be to enter a holding pattern.

The priority should be to avoid this: to outline an explicit UK grand strategy, and to work proactively through the multilateral institutions to execute it.

First, the government should recommit in explicit language to Ukraine’s victory: the expulsion of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory, including Crimea; the indictment of war criminals, full reparations and no lifting of sanctions until these conditions are fulfilled. The incoming government should quickly demonstrate its support for Kyiv, devising new means of material support for Ukraine and – for example – making London’s financial centre a lynchpin of the US$50 billion loan disbursement process.

Second, the government should outline its aims in negotiations with the European Union (EU), and move swiftly to find allies and obstacles to them, leading with the offer of a comprehensive security pact.

Third, it must demonstrate both alliance with, and independence from, the Biden administration’s strategy towards Israel’s wars. It should work actively for a ceasefire in Gaza, and could offer to play a leading role in the stabilisation process in return for no major offensive war against Hezbollah.

While Russia continues to wage war in Ukraine and pursue an aggressive foreign policy, British policy towards Russia will be shaped by the need to respond to the security threats that Moscow poses. Immediate priorities for the UK’s Russia policy in the first 100 days after the general election should therefore be focussed on three areas. First, the new government needs to consider the potential for expanding its support for Ukraine and placing further restrictions on economic links with Russia. Any measures that strengthen Ukraine’s ability to resist Russia’s invasion and weaken Russia’s capacity to wage war will increase European and global security.

Second, the UK needs to reduce its vulnerabilities to Russian covert operations, including cyber attacks, and clearly communicate that resolve to Moscow. Russia has a track record of using a range of instruments, including criminal groups, in attempts to weaken its opponents. London needs to restrict Russia’s ability – real and perceived – to conduct such operations on British soil.

Third, the next government needs to work with partners, especially in Europe, to strengthen regional and international organisations. The US will go to the polls in early November, and there is a real risk that a second Trump presidency would not only end American support for Ukraine but also weaken Washington’s commitment to transatlantic security and NATO. The new UK government needs to use this valuable time to work with its partners to ensure that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and other international institutions are strong enough to withstand any instability in American domestic politics in the short or medium term.

The 2024 ‘year of elections’ unfolds amid complex regional and global dynamics, with democracies across Asia, Europe, and North America confronting challenges widely recognised as threats to the open international order and national security. This perception is shared across bipartisan or multi-partisan lines. Following the conclusion of the recent Indian election, the next significant democratic exercise will take place in Britain. Regardless of the outcome, it is crucial for the UK to maintain certain key priorities in its foreign policy to uphold a global focus. This will ensure the UK remains an active and independent player in the Indo-Pacific and Asia.

Britain’s relationship with India is central to this vision, with the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between these two maritime powers gradually evolving across various sectors. In the first 100 days, a new UK government with respect to India should prioritise the success of the Roadmap to 2030, focusing on reaffirming its commitment to finalising the UK-India trade deal, which remains stalled following the recent 14th round of negotiations.

Maintaining the momentum of the burgeoning India-UK defence partnership is essential, but expanding UK-India security cooperation on critical disputes is even more urgent. The PRC’s unilateral attempts to alter the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and its assertive actions in the trans-Himalayan region must be addressed in diplomatic dialogues between Britain and India. This is especially pertinent as Britain increasingly views the PRC as an authoritarian state with different values, and shows that Britain’s return to action in the region is not limited to the Indo-Pacific, but Asia as a whole.

The three most important foreign policy areas are Ukraine, the EU, and the PRC – the effects of a possible second Trump presidency will come outside the 100 days. They could be described successively as clear, knotty, and daunting. I am not qualified to tackle knottiness, so a few words on the PRC. The Conservatives resolutely refused to produce a ‘China strategy’ throughout their time in government. Let us hope that a new government is less daunted. Labour has promised an audit of ‘China policy’ within 100 days, if it forms the government after the election. It is a promise which must be honoured whoever wins.

Having bought 100 days of grace, the new government should produce a ‘China strategy’ by spring 2025. Most of the work has been done. The inelegantly named Integrated Review Refresh took a deep look at the PRC and Whitehall has been reinforcing its ‘China facing’ officials for some years. But a strategy is only as good as its implementation. Whatever its contents, the greatest good a new government could carry out is to stop playing ministerial musical chairs and to keep civil servants in their posts longer (one said to me that ‘in your day, you changed every two years; nowadays it can be around a year or even months’ – wrong: in my day it was 3-4 years).

It takes six months for a minister to master their brief. Whoever becomes Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office must stay until a ‘China strategy’ is settled and implementation is well underway. So must senior civil servants – which perhaps requires reforming the civil service. And the prime minister must then ensure that his ministers follow the strategy.

The signals that a new government sends at the beginning of its tenure shape how it is perceived, and how the UK will be perceived going forward. The next British government is going to face a plethora of international threats to national security – including Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine and aggression in Europe, a belligerent Chinese Communist Party, a fractured and violent Levant, and threats to shipping in the Red Sea. Each of these requires a carefully tailored approach, but all have something in common – they can only be addressed through a stronger military and deeper cooperation with allies and partners.

The first 100 days of a new government should therefore focus on reiterating and bolstering our collaboration with our friends. The new government should immediately make clear its commitment to participating in joint military exercises, intelligence sharing, and diplomatic efforts, particularly with the US and other NATO allies. There should also be a swift pledge of continued support to Ukraine and a repeat of strong condemnation of Russia’s aggression.

For these signals to be taken seriously, they should also be backed up by a firm commitment to increasing defence spending and investment in Britain’s armed forces – particularly the Royal Navy. The UK is a proud defender of its friends and has some of the best military capabilities in the world – the new government should reinforce this in short order.

The UK’s future relationship with the EU has attracted considerable attention over the election campaign. And especially because of the Labour Party’s general election manifesto proposal for an UK-EU security pact. However, the incoming government needs to immediately focus on a broader vision and policy for Europe. Russia’s war on Ukraine has altered the landscape of international relations in Europe and placed the security of Ukraine and its people as the centre of how Europeans need to think about their future security. The new landscape of security in Europe is the divide between those European states which have embraced that new reality and those who are still to do so. The UK has been in the former group.

It is important that the new government recapitulates UK-European leadership by looking both to where it might do even more to support Ukraine militarily with like-minded partners but also doing more to press the case for swift integration of Ukraine into NATO (a ‘path to NATO membership’ is a manifesto commitment) as a core policy objective.

While improved foreign and security cooperation with the EU has benefits, it should be viewed solely as a means to the end of strengthening European security and the UK’s place in Europe. Its key objective should be to pressure EU leaders to stay the course on support for Ukraine and not to allow the prospects for its EU membership to recede into an indeterminate future date.

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