What is the integrated review?

The Prime Minister established an integrated review (IR) of foreign policy, defence, security and international development in February 2020. The Government said IR would cover all aspects of the UK’s place in the world, going “beyond the parameters of a traditional review by considering the totality of global opportunities and challenges the UK faces and determining how the whole of government can be structured, equipped and mobilised to meet them”.

The IR was originally meant to be published alongside a comprehensive spending review in autumn 2020. However, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the comprehensive spending review was scaled back to a one-year spending review. The Prime Minister announced in November 2020 that the IR would conclude in early 2021. At the same time, he announced he was increasing defence spending by £24.1 billion over the next four years, raising defence spending as a share of GDP to at least 2.2 percent. Mr Johnson said the Ministry of Defence needed a multi-year financial settlement as equipping the armed forces required long-term investment.

The Government published the main conclusions of the IR in a command paper, Global Britain in a Competitive Age—The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, on 16 March 2021. It covers:

  • The Prime Minister’s vision for the UK in 2030, from which the other outputs of the IR flow.
  • The Government’s current assessment of the major trends that will shape the national security and international environment in 2030.
  • A strategic framework that establishes the Government’s overarching national security and international policy objectives, with priority actions, to 2025.
  • An outline of the approach the Government will take to implementing the strategic framework.
  • A list of spending review 2020 decisions that support the IR.

The Government has produced other documents to accompany the main IR command paper:

The Government said in the IR paper it would publish other strategies in due course, including on national resilience, cyber, and international development.

Key themes in the IR

Major trends in the national security and international environment

The IR identified four overarching trends facing the UK between now and 2030:

  • Geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts such as China’s increasing power and assertiveness internationally, the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific to global prosperity and security, and the emergence of new markets and growth of the global middle class.
  • Systemic competition: the intensification of competition between states and with non-state actors, manifested in: a growing contest over international rules and norms; the formation of competing geopolitical and economic blocks of influence and values that cut across our security, economy and the institutions that underpin our way of life; the deliberate targeting of the vulnerabilities within democratic systems by authoritarian states and malign actors; and the testing of the boundary between war and peace, as states use a growing range of instruments to undermine and coerce others.
  • Rapid technological change: technological developments and digitisation will reshape our societies and economies, and change relationships—both between states, and between the citizen, the private sector and the state. Science and technology (S&T) will bring enormous benefits but will also be an arena of intensifying systemic competition.
  • Transnational challenges: such as climate change, global health risks, illicit finance, serious and organised crime (SOC) and terrorism. These threaten our shared security and prosperity, requiring collective action and multilateral cooperation to address them. Of these transnational challenges, climate change and biodiversity loss present the most severe tests to global resilience and will require particularly urgent action.

The IR assessed that the trends would overlap and interact with each other, and the long-term effects of Covid-19 would influence their trajectory in ways that are currently difficult to predict.

Strategic framework

In response to these prevailing trends, the IR sets out a strategic framework to run to 2025. This consists of four overarching national security and international policy objectives. Each objective is underpinned by several goals, and the strategic framework sets out a series of priority actions the Government intends to take to achieve the goals and objectives. The overarching objectives the Government has set itself are:

  • Sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology (S&T): we will incorporate S&T as an integral element of our national security and international policy, fortifying the position of the UK as a global S&T and responsible cyber power. This will be essential in gaining economic, political and security advantages in the coming decade and in shaping international norms in collaboration with allies and partners. It will also drive prosperity at home and progress towards the three objectives that follow.
  • Shaping the open international order of the future: we will use our convening power and work with partners to reinvigorate the international system. In doing so, we will ensure that it is one in which open societies and open economies can flourish as we move further into the digital age—creating a world that is more favourable to democracies and the defence of universal values. We will seek to reinforce and renew existing pillars of the international order—such as the UN and the global trading system—and to establish norms in the future frontiers of cyberspace, emerging technology, data and space.
  • Strengthening security and defence at home and overseas: we will work with allies and partners to address challenges to security in the physical world and online. NATO will remain the foundation of collective security in our home region of the Euro-Atlantic, where Russia remains the most acute physical threat to our security. We will also place greater emphasis on building our capacity and that of like-minded nations around the world in responding to a growing range of transnational state threats, radicalisation and terrorism, SOC and weapons proliferation.
  • Building resilience at home and overseas: we will place greater emphasis on resilience, recognising that it is not possible to predict or prevent every risk to our security and prosperity—whether natural hazards such as extreme weather events or threats such as cyber-attacks. We will improve our own ability to anticipate, prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from risks—as well as that of our allies and partners, recognising the closely interconnected nature of our world. And we will prioritise efforts to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, long-term challenges that if left unchecked threaten the future of humanity—in addition to building global health resilience.

UK relations with other countries

The IR states that it does not set out to provide detailed regional and country strategies. However, it does give an overview of the UK policy position towards other countries and regions. Maintaining and bolstering the UK-US relationship and collective security through NATO are identified as important continuities in the UK’s approach. The IR describes the US as “our most important bilateral relationship, essential to key alliances and groups such as NATO and the Five Eyes [intelligence-sharing relationship between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand], and our largest bilateral trading partner and inward investor”. The UK pledges to remain the leading European ally in NATO, with a continued defence expenditure above the NATO guideline of 2% of GDP.

The IR identifies the UK’s departure from the EU as an opportunity to “mark a distinctive approach to foreign policy” but says that the UK will work with the EU where the two sides’ interests coincide. It states that the UK’s commitment to European security is “unequivocal”, and the UK’s European neighbours and allies will remain “vital partners”. In particular, the IR highlights plans to enhance the UK’s “deep and long-standing” security and defence partnership with France and its “growing foreign policy partnership with Germany”. It also underlines the UK’s commitment to a strong bilateral partnership with Ireland.

The IR also sets out a framework for what it describes as an “Indo-Pacific tilt”. The Prime Minister’s vision is for the UK to be “deeply engaged in the Indo-Pacific as the European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence in support of mutually-beneficial trade, shared security and values” by 2030. This approach is said to recognise “the importance of powers in the region such as China, India and Japan and also extends to others including South Korea, Vietnam, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines”. The IR identifies the Indo-Pacific region as being of “increasing geopolitical and economic importance, with multiple regional powers with significant weight and influence, both alone and together”. The Government’s assessment is that over the next decade, “competition will play out there in regional militarisation, maritime tensions, and a contest over the rules and norms linked to trade and technology”. It aims to “lead where we are best placed to do so and […] partner and support others as necessary” to pursue the UK’s goals in the region.

On China specifically, the IR notes that there are both challenges and opportunities for the UK:

China’s growing international stature is by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today, with major implications for British values and interests and for the structure and shape of the international order. The fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours, presents challenges for the UK and our allies. China will contribute more to global growth than any other country in the next decade with benefits to the global economy. China and the UK both benefit from bilateral trade and investment, but China also presents the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.

The IR says the UK will need a “robust diplomatic framework” to manage this relationship. It outlines a multi-pronged approach: the Government will pursue deeper trade links and more Chinese investment in the UK, at the same time as increasing protection of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, institutions and sensitive technology and strengthening the resilience of critical supply chains. The Government says it “will not hesitate to stand up for our values and our interests where they are threatened, or when China acts in breach of existing agreements”.

On Russia, the IR states that it remains “the most acute direct threat to our security”. It declares that “until relations with its government improve, we will actively deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats emanating from Russia”.

UK nuclear deterrent

The Government announced a change to the UK’s nuclear posture in the IR. It said the UK would move to an overall nuclear weapons stockpile of no more than 260 warheads, “in recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats”. This marks a departure from the Government’s previous policy of decreasing the cap on the UK’s nuclear stockpile: in 2010, the Government stated its intent to lower the ceiling from not more than 225 to not more than 180 by the mid-2020s. The Government also said it would no longer give public figures for the size of the UK’s operational stockpile or the number of deployed warheads or deployed missiles. It described this as an extension of the “long-standing policy of deliberate ambiguity” about when, how and at what scale the UK would contemplate using nuclear weapons. It argued this ambiguity “complicates the calculations of potential aggressors, reduces the risk of deliberate nuclear use by those seeking first strike advantage, and contributes to strategic stability”. The implications of this announcement are discussed in the House of Commons Library briefing: Integrated Review 2021: Increasing the Cap on the UK’s Nuclear Stockpile.

Responses to the IR

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said his party wanted the IR to work, but he cast doubt on the Government’s ability to deliver the objectives it had set out. He argued it was “built on foundations that have been weakened over the past decade”, with cuts to the size of the armed forces and real-terms falls in defence spending and armed forces pay. He criticised the Government’s lack of action to implement actions in the Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russia and its “inconsistent policy” towards China over the last decade. He called for an explanation of the “strategic purpose” behind breaking with the policy of successive governments to reduce the UK’s nuclear stockpile.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Conservative), chair of the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee, argued the IR “overpromises and under-delivers”, although it contained some valuable analysis and insight. She was critical of the absence of a vision for international development and the lack of prioritisation between “a laundry list of issues, some highly pertinent […] and some less obviously central to the topic”. She implied there was too much focus on China and the Indo-Pacific “tilt” when Russia was identified as the most acute direct threat to the UK. She also suggested “there could hardly be a less opportune moment—just months before the Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—for Britain to backtrack on [nuclear] disarmament”.

Sir Simon Fraser, a former Foreign and Commonwealth Office permanent secretary and current vice-chair of Chatham House, suggested the IR was not as much of a “radical reset” as trailed. In his view, the “core prescription” of British foreign policy with global reach, defending liberal democratic values, the rule of law and trade, was familiar, as was the emphasis on ties with the US and the UK’s role in NATO. However, what was new was the emphasis on integration, “a significant step in connecting domestic and international aspects of security, as well as traditional and innovative instruments of foreign policy”. He also welcomed the stress on science and technology as foundations of competitiveness and security.

Will Jessett, Tom McKane and Peter Watkins, three former senior Ministry of Defence officials, described the IR’s analysis of the changing security environment up to 2030 as “thoughtful and comprehensive”. However, they questioned whether it would prove possible to “enact a meaningful ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific without weakening [the UK’s] ability to respond to crises in Europe”. They contrasted the IR’s “clear-eyed” view of Russia with a possible under-estimation of the security impact of China and accelerating climate change. They argued that the increase in defence spending announced in November 2020 meant the IR struck a better balance between policy, commitments, the forward programme and the defence budget than any other post-Cold War review. However, they cautioned that past experience showed “how unexpected commitments and inexorable cost growth in the defence programme can quickly put policy, plans and the budget out of balance again”.

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