On 16 March 2021, the UK Government published its long-awaited Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’. Setting out the Prime Minister’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade, the Integrated Review sought to bring coherence to the UK’s actions on the global stage, tying in trade and development as tools to meet foreign policy objectives.
This review was timely, set against a backdrop of the UK’s departure from the EU, a new US President in the White House and growing concerns about the regimes in Russia and China. Global competition has risen, partly due to the rising economic strength and international influence of non-’Western’ regions of the world, but also representing a battle of competing visions.
In the last decade, autocracies have repeatedly challenged the rules and norms that have governed international exchange for decades. Russia, for example, has often appeared militarily aggressive, and in 2014 launched its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine; Crimea remains under Russian occupation today despite almost universal condemnation. China has also sought to bring more and more states under its economic influence using gifts of technology and initiatives like ‘Belt and Road’ to evade challenges in global fora.
The pandemic has now brought these competing visions to the forefront of politics domestically. China was initially castigated for its suppression of information relating to the outbreak of covid-19 in Wuhan, then later won praise for eliminating the virus in Wuhan after one of the toughest lockdown regimes worldwide, enabling businesses to reopen and the region to resume normal life. Most ‘Western’ nations eventually followed China’s lead in pursuing strict lockdown policies, including of course the UK. There is also evidence that China has exploited global business weakness during the pandemic to position itself strategically.
This is a challenge to the West, who will be called upon to uphold the central tenets of the rules-based international system: democracy, human rights and free trade. In this context, the arrival of Donald Trump as US President in 2016 could not have been more harmful, nudging the world further into a damaging game of ‘our system’ versus ‘theirs’. The consequence could be that countries are forced to ‘pick a side’, with the early decisions they take becoming increasingly difficult to change and the sunk cost of new technologies embedding the values of one system into the heart of the economy.
Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, and the ensuing tumultuous relationship which recently saw the EU ambassador summoned by the Foreign Secretary for a ticking off, in a manner usually reserved for countries committing atrocities, over claims of vaccine exports being blocked, is a further demonstration of the absence of consensus-building leadership among Western powers. It remains to be seen to what degree the election of Joe Biden as US President in November 2020 can reverse this trend.
The UK response
In this world of competition, a truly Global Britain does however have the assets and legacy position to bring countries together and strengthen the rules-based international system.
Despite suffering the worst fall in output of any G7 nation in 2020, the UK remains the world’s fifth-largest economy according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) totalling more than £2 trillion. The UK also holds a permanent seat on the UN security council, while its signals-intelligence service, GCHQ, makes it an important member of the ‘Five-Eyes’ intelligence network.
The UK is also a muscular member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), with the highest level of defence spending other than the US – a position strengthened in November last year when the Prime Minister announced an increase in defence spending by £24.1 billion over the next four years (placing it comfortably above NATO’s target of 2% of GDP). The Prime Minister has also outlined plans to “upgrade our capabilities across the board”, with resources being directed towards cyber and future frontier capabilities to meet the new type of security threat posed by hostile state actors.
Critics have questioned the decision to move resources away from conventional capabilities. Power may still be projected, particularly as part of the UK’s quest to ‘establish a greater and more persistent presence than any other European country’ in the Indo-Pacific region over the next decade, with the HMS Queen Elizabeth due to make a 20,000 mile voyage to the region later this year in a clear rebuff to China’s ambition for control in its surrounding waters. However, the decision to cut conventional capabilities has not gone unnoticed by NATO allies, and despite the Integrated Review containing a renewed commitment to support the Eastern European neighbourhood, US concerns already raised about the number of troops available in the event of Article 5 being triggered.
Nevertheless, the UK’s financial and vocal commitment to an alliance that has, at times, looked unstable over the past decade is welcome. The US will take its responsibility for European defence seriously under President Biden, but the UK leading other NATO allies into meeting their defence spending commitments will help – particularly in resisting the ‘active threat’ posed by Russia.
The Integrated Review also correctly put an emphasis on the UK’s value as a global convenor. Yet it is in this sphere that the UK appears to be making poor use of its comparative advantages. While UK cultural exports have heavily contributed towards a ‘Cool Britannia’ moniker, and UK sport enjoys worldwide recognition on the back of the English Premier League’s commercial success and the continued allure of events like Wimbledon, the projection of ‘soft’ power has been considerably damaged in recent years.
Brexit has undoubtedly played a role in this decline. By breaking away from the EU and heralding its newfound independence, the UK sent a signal that it lacked confidence in institutions promoting shared political values and joined-up approaches to global challenges. particularly damaging at a time when Trump’s administration in the US was articulating the same message, making the West look divided.
While Biden’s administration has already signalled it will take a radically different approach to its predecessor, the UK’s threat to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement last year via the Internal Market Bill, and specifically its admission to breaching international law in a “very specific and limited way”, seriously undermines its ability to hold other countries to the rules-based international system.
The unilateral extension of customs grace periods with the EU continues this worrying trend of eroding the UK’s existing soft power, with legal action being brought against the UK for an apparent breach of an international treaty. Moreover, Biden and other senior democrats have repeatedly emphasised their support for measures to protect the Good Friday Agreement, which can be seen as a coded warning to the UK not to undermine the Protocol on Northern Ireland when paired with statements last year suggesting a US-UK trade deal could be blocked. The UK stands to alienate its key strategic allies in Europe and the US through any unilateral changes to the Protocol.
Each time the UK appears to backtrack on its international commitments it risks further damaging its stock of soft power. The renewal of the UK’s nuclear warheads is one example, breaching international non-proliferation agreements and making it harder to criticise non-allied states with ambitions for nuclear capabilities.
Another example is the cut to the budget for international aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI). While the Government has promised to restore the 0.7% level “when the fiscal situation allows”, damage has already been inflicted by the initial reduction. The UK was widely criticised for reducing its contribution to Yemen at the same time as continuing arms exports to Saudi Arabia and with a famine predicted in the country.
Other countries around the world also reduced their contributions to prevent famine in Yemen – the UN was only able to raise $1.7 billion of its $3.85 billion target – but this fact serves to highlight the missed opportunity for a truly Global UK to take on a position of world leadership. Britain could have sent a strong signal that it understands the enduring value of supporting the international system and countries within it by maintaining its commitment to 0.7% of GNI, even during a crisis. The total value of aid would have fallen with the UK’s economic performance in any case, but a ‘truly’ global UK must show it understands that a cut internationally is as damaging as a cut domestically.
Fig.4 Do you think the UK should or should not cooperate with international bodies to tackle world poverty and hunger?
Source: Number Cruncher Analytics. The full question posed was: Do you think the UK should or should not cooperate with international bodies in the following areas: Reducing world poverty and hunger. Sample size was 3,004 UK adults. Fieldwork was conducted between 18 February and 8 March. This poll was commissioned by Best for Britain.
Along with vaccine deployment, the aid budget is a powerful tool in the UK’s arsenal for championing the rules-based international system. A majority of respondents in the BFB/NCP poll said Britain should provide international humanitarian aid, and that Britain has a responsibility to provide financial support to lower-income countries. Nearly three quarters of people agreed the UK should work with other countries to tackle hunger and poverty worldwide.
Moreover, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently admitted about the retreat of US liberal democracy under Trump, “where we have pulled back, China has stepped in.” The UK must be at the forefront of efforts to meet this challenge with a truly Global Britain narrative of responsibility and concerted support.
This may well begin with plans to bring together a network like minded countries who do uphold the values of the rules-based international system. As Britain hosts the G7 conference this year, the Prime Minister plans to invite the leaders of Australia, India and South Korea to form a ‘Democratic 10’ group of countries, mirroring Biden’s pledge to hold a ‘democracy summit’ in his first year in office. Both plans emphasise the need for democracies to stand together in a world characterised by rising authoritarianism and great power rivalry. This ‘crescent of containment’ will concern China and promises to support Global Britain’s aims in multilateral institutions.
The values promoted by this group must be reflected in the domestic behaviour of its members: peaceful protests having been met with force in both the US and UK over the last year, and recent reports that the Home Office is considering offshore asylum centres will worry human rights activists. As the UK Government itself admits, “the international order is only as robust, resilient and legitimate as the states that comprise it.”
More work needs to be done to grow this club of countries beyond 2021 and there is no need to conduct this separately from the EU. The much-touted ‘tilt to the Indo-Pacific’ via trade and power projection will need to be accompanied by a more coordinated response from bigger powers. Such international cooperation has broad public support in the UK. More than three-quarters of voters believe Britain should face the challenge presented by China in concert with other countries, including nearly two-thirds of those in the least internationalist group according to the Index.
Beijing’s size and the importance of its place in global commerce is too important for isolated action – holding investment, import and exports interests in most economies, especially in the wake of covid-19. The Integrated Review recently cited China as a ‘systemic challenge’, which matches language from the EU’s own assessment. The ‘E3’ network with France and Germany, which has continued to meet in 2021 on issues such as the Iran nuclear strategy, provides precedent for continuing coordination in spite of the UK’s rejection of involvement in movement towards a joint EU foreign policy in recent years. The Government’s recent move to join coordinated action by the EU, US and Canada in targeting Chinese officials over its government’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims is a promising step in the right direction.
Fig.5 Should the UK work with allies or tackle threats from countries like Russia or China alone?
Source: Number Cruncher Analytics. The full question posed was: Do you think the UK should or should not cooperate with international bodies in the following areas: Science and research. Sample size was 3,004 UK adults. Fieldwork was conducted between 18 February and 8 March. This poll was commissioned by Best for Britain.
By starting from a basis of accepting some coordination with the EU on foreign policy and working to re-establish Britain’s commitment to the values of the rules-based international system, a truly Global UK can emerge from the pandemic. A key priority will be for the UK to wield existing soft power more effectively than it has been doing recently.
But if the UK can manage this at the same time as working with like-minded nations to reinvigorate the multilateral institutions designed to uphold the international system, while avoiding undermining its own message via its domestic interests, a truly Global UK can act as a convenor of nations, and in doing so fulfil its desire to be a ‘force for good’ in the world over the next decade.