The House of Lords is due to debate the following motion on 3 May 2023:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans to move that the Grand Committee takes note of the United Kingdom’s changing role in the world and its implications for foreign policy.

This article focuses on the recent “refresh” of the 2021 integrated review of defence, security and foreign policy. This sets out the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world and its foreign policy implications.

1. Background: Integrated review 2021

In March 2023, the government published ‘Integrated review refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world’. This was an update to the 2021 integrated review of defence, security and foreign policy entitled ‘Global Britain in a competitive age’.

In the 2021 integrated review (‘IR21’), Boris Johnson’s government had set out its post-Brexit vision for the UK’s role in the world and its defence and foreign policy aims up to 2030. It stated that the UK’s values included:

A commitment to universal human rights, the rule of law, free speech and fairness and equality. The same essential values will continue to guide all aspects of our national security and international policy in the decade ahead, especially in the face of rising authoritarianism and the persistence of extremist ideologies.

IR21 said the UK would continue to play a “leading international role in collective security, multilateral governance, tackling climate change and health risks, conflict resolution and poverty reduction”. It defined “Global Britain” to include:

A renewed commitment to the UK as a force for good in the world—defending openness, democracy and human rights—and an increased determination to seek multilateral solutions to challenges like climate change and global health crises […]

IR21 identified four overarching trends facing the UK in the period up to 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.
  • 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, and terrorism.

In response to these trends, the review set out a strategic framework comprising four overarching and mutually supporting national security and international policy objectives for the period to 2025:

  • sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology
  • shaping the open international order of the future
  • strengthening security and defence at home and overseas
  • building resilience at home and overseas

On threats from specific countries, IR21 stated that Russia remained “the most acute direct threat” to UK security. It described the rise of China as “the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today”. It acknowledged that although there were opportunities for bilateral trade and investment between the UK and China, the country also represented “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security”.

For further information on IR21, including a summary of reaction to it, see the Lords Library briefing ‘Integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy’ (16 April 2021).

2. Integrated review refresh 2023

In a foreword to the 2023 integrated review refresh (‘IR23’), Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set out factors since 2021 that had prompted its publication. After noting the “persistent destabilising behaviour of Iran and North Korea”, he said:

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, weaponisation of energy and food supplies and irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, combined with China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, are threatening to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division—and an international order more favourable to authoritarianism.

IR23 stated that the “broad direction” of IR21’s defence and security assessments “was right”. It said that the four overarching trends identified in IR21 remained the trends that the government anticipated would “dominate the decade ahead”. However, it said the transition to a “multipolar, fragmented and contested world” had happened “more quickly and definitively than anticipated”.

IR23 stated that the government would build on the conclusions of IR21 by implementing a strategic framework based on the following four pillars:

  • shape the international environment
  • deter, defend and compete across all domains
  • address vulnerabilities through resilience
  • generate strategic advantage

IR21 had said that the Euro-Atlantic region was where the “bulk of the UK’s security focus” would remain. However, it had also set out the government’s intended ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific region as part of the Global Britain agenda. This received some criticism, including from the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee, which said the government should “guard against” over-committing defence resources in the region. In IR23, the prime minister stated that the ‘tilt’ had been “delivered”, largely through trade and diplomatic means. However, IR23 committed to putting the UK’s links with the Indo-Pacific on a “long-term strategic footing”, making the region a “permanent pillar” of the UK’s foreign policy.

In terms of geographical priorities, IR23 reasserted that the UK’s “overriding priority” was the security of the Euro-Atlantic region. It said this would be “bolstered by a reinvigoration of our European relationships”. It said that the “most pressing” national security and foreign policy priority in the short to medium term was the “threat posed by Russia to European security”. It argued that “our collective security is now inextricably linked” to the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine.

IR23 described China as an “epoch-defining challenge” to the international order. The prime minister said the government would work with China on issues such as climate change, but where there were attempts by the Chinese Communist Party “to coerce or create dependencies”, the UK would “work closely with others to push back against them”.

In light of these challenges, IR23 committed the government to a £5bn increase in defence spending over the next two years. The government said this would mean defence spending was “2.2% of GDP this year”. It also said it had a “new aspiration to reach 2.5%” of GDP, but it did not specify a timeframe to reach this figure.

3. Reaction to IR23

IR23 was debated in the House of Commons on 13 March 2023. Setting out the details of the refresh, the foreign secretary, James Cleverley, said it “reconfirms that the UK will play a leading role in upholding stability, security and the prosperity of our continent and the Euro-Atlantic as a whole”. He added that the government’s approach was “imbued with a spirit of international cooperation” and a “pragmatic willingness” to work with other countries that shared the UK’s values.

The Labour shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, said the refresh was “overdue but welcome”. He said that the opposition supported many of the policies and priorities which had been identified in IR21. However, he said that “in too many areas its promises have not matched reality”. He claimed that the government was “dragging their feet on the big decisions”. He said IR23 “does not answer growing questions” about “capability gaps that weaken our national defence and undermine the UK’s NATO contribution”.

Prior to the publication of IR23, David Lammy gave a speech at Chatham House setting out the Labour Party’s “Britain reconnected” foreign policy agenda, which it would implement if it won the next general election. Mr Lammy argued in his speech that in recent years UK foreign policy had become “disconnected” from the country’s traditional allies and priorities. He claimed that under a Labour government, the UK would be reconnected:

  • to defend the UK’s security, with strong armed forces and resilience against 21st century threats
  • to champion the UK’s prosperity, and lead the industries of the future
  • for climate action, turning our response into an engine of growth
  • for international development, helping to promote the UK’s security, health and jobs in the process
  • for diplomacy, to re-establish the UK as a trusted, reliable and influential partner while protecting Britons abroad

The Fabian Society has also published a pamphlet setting out the policy, written by Mr Lammy: ‘Britain reconnected: A foreign policy for security and prosperity at home’ (28 March 2023).

Foreign policy think tanks have also responded to the publication of IR23. Bronwen Maddox and David Lawrence at Chatham House have argued that IR23 is too dominated by defence and the refresh needs “more clarity on Europe, trade, and development—and more money”. They agreed that the conflict in Ukraine was now “centre stage” in terms of defence and security for the UK. However, they said Ukraine exposed a “prime weakness” of the refresh—that the £5bn additional defence spending was “far less than the £11bn” which the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, had reportedly called for. The authors said that the commitment to spend 2.5% of GDP on defence by an unspecified date in the future was “all but meaningless”.

On the Indo-Pacific tilt, Ms Maddox and Mr Lawrence said the UK “lacks the resources” to make the tilt credible. Even if it did so, they said the policy may involve diverting resources from elsewhere; a “hard choice” that “this review sidesteps”.

The authors said that one of the “biggest omissions” in IR21 had been the UK’s relations with Europe at that time. While this had improved, for example through the agreement of the Northern Ireland protocol Windsor framework, they argued there was a “Europe-shaped hole in the review’s discussion of trade”. They claimed that this impacts the resources available for foreign policy, as new trade agreements outside Europe “make little difference to GDP”.

The authors concluded that IR23 was “more coherent” than IR21, but the “biggest hole is money”. They claimed that the UK “does not have the resources for the role in the world it would like”.

Will Jesset, Tom McKane and Peter Watkins at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) made similar arguments. They said that much of IR23’s content was “worthy of support”, given the “deterioration” in the international situation since 2021. They argued that its focus on the Euro-Atlantic region as the primary theatre for the UK’s defence and security activity was a “welcome recognition of reality”. They said that references to improved relations with European allies were a “significant change in tone and, it is to be hoped, in substance”.

The authors noted that the ‘Defence in a competitive age’ command paper, which had accompanied IR21, was due to be updated in June 2023. The authors concluded that although IR23 was “not short on aspiration”, its implementation would have to take account of the “realities of budgetary constraints” impacting the defence command paper refresh.

In a separate article on IR23 for RUSI, Veerle Nouwens and Ed Arnold noted that:

‘Global Britain’ has officially been abandoned […] The go-it-alone tone—as being distinct from the EU—has been replaced by one of intense cooperation and leveraging the UK’s convening power.

On the Indo-Pacific tilt, they stated that “sceptics” of the policy often argued that the UK lacked the resources “for any meaningful contribution” in the region. However, they claimed that there is “scope for creative policymaking” with allies in the Indo-Pacific, where the UK “already has an important presence”.

Overall, the authors concluded that the refresh offered a “welcome comprehensive summary” of the UK’s foreign policy. However, they also said the government had “missed an opportunity” by not publishing a refreshed defence command paper at the same time.

Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the government’s tone in IR23 was “thoughtful and sensible”, whilst resisting pressures within the Conservative Party for “a major increase in defence spending and a more belligerent policy towards China”. He noted that the specifics of how IR23 would create better relations with Europe was “left undefined”, apart from cooperation over Ukraine. He also stated that the lack of reference to the EU’s Horizon Europe programme was a “bizarre omission”, given IR23’s emphasis on building the UK’s science and technology capacity. He concluded that IR23 had reintroduced “sensible pragmatism” to UK foreign policy compared to its predecessor.

Evie Aspinall, director of the British Foreign Policy Group, argued that IR23 was a “pragmatic and essentially defensive document”. She said that the biggest change in IR23 was one of tone, in which the previous rhetoric about ‘Global Britain’ had been replaced with an emphasis on the “challenges that lie ahead”. She noted that IR23 made no commitments for extra funding for aid and development and “no new commitments” on tackling climate change. Overall, she claimed that international allies assessing IR23 content would be “clear-eyed about the UK’s resource constraints” but would see the document as a “positive indication of the UK’s future role in the world”.

4. Read more

Cover image by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash.