Britain’s global pipe dream

The UK’s Integrated Review clings to old illusions and ignores today’s situation on the ground. Britain should accept the realities of geography and rebuild cooperation with its closest partners.

Brexit has not got off to a flying start. UK goods exports to the European Union fell by more than 40 per cent in January; a new row has erupted over UK ministers’ propensity to breach the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol unilaterally; and the government’s incomplete preparations have forced it to delay the introduction of checks on incoming EU goods, to avoid empty supermarket shelves. But the country’s mood, and the government’s poll ratings, have been rejuvenated by the successful national vaccination effort. The long-awaited publication on 16 March of Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the government’s new foreign policy and security review, was intended to offer further reassurance of the wisdom of Brexit.

Much of the eye-catching stuff had been trailed a while ago: the £16 billion increase in the defence budget over the next four years (and the concomitant reduction in overseas aid); the “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”, where untapped markets await British exporters, and democratic allies will be heartened by the reappearance of British forces east of Suez; and a new Integrated Operating Concept for the British armed forces (“the most significant change in UK military thought in several generations”), the details of which will follow in a Ministry of Defence publication on 22 March. But the 100-page review had plenty else to offer in the way of promised new investments and organisations – much of it aimed at sweetening recalcitrant Scots and restive northerners – along with lashings of Johnsonian bullishness. By 2030, the United Kingdom is to become a science and technology superpower; the country will, according to the review, “continue to be renowned for our leadership in security, diplomacy and development, conflict resolution and poverty reduction”; it will be a champion of this and a model of that.

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In point of fact, there is quite a lot to like in this document. The broad analysis of the international environment is generally persuasive. The major emphasis on science and technology reflects a British comparative advantage, and – wisely, if unsurprisingly – highlights cyber, artificial intelligence, digital, and space as the key fields of international competition and contestation. No one should argue with the top priority afforded to climate change. The frank hostility towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a reflection of reality (though it would be more persuasive if Russian oligarchs’ billions did not continue to wash through the City of London). There is a welcome refusal to succumb to the Sinophobia that grips the Conservative Party: “we will continue to pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with China”, even while responding to the “systemic challenge that it poses to our security, prosperity and values”. This is a simple recognition of economic reality, but will not be an easy balancing act as we butt heads with the Chinese over Huawei, Uighurs, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea.

But there are also fundamental flaws in this review. It is not just that “I wouldn’t start from here” – a couple of glancing nods in the EU’s direction in 100 pages confirms that Brexited Britain is scarcely ready to recognise the continuing existence, let alone importance to most international agendas, of the EU. But that is the state we are in, and it will not improve quickly. The problem is the other ways in which this review clings to old illusions and ignores today’s reality.

For, despite all the high-techery, there is more than a whiff of the nineteenth century about the Britain this review envisages. A “soft power superpower” we may be, but the huge boost to defence spending shows that we are still hung up on maintaining the attributes of a Great Power. Johnson exults at the prospect of our reclaiming our status as owner of the biggest European navy; and the tilt to the Indo-Pacific apparently justifies the upcoming deployment of our massive new aircraft carrier (with US jets embarked) to show the Chinese just who rules the waves. And we will not only remain a nuclear power – we will increase our warhead holdings, without even offering an explanation for why we are doing so. (It scarcely needed the reaction of the Iranian foreign minister to point out the damage this cavalier announcement will do to international non-proliferation efforts.)

As for soft power, the review describes a world of continuous multi-level competition in which non-military instruments are indeed of increasing importance. Events in recent years may have done much damage to Britain’s reputation as a pragmatic, law-abiding, and stable country. But our public administration, foreign service, national broadcaster, and judiciary are still widely admired. The review may name-check the BBC as ”the most trusted broadcaster worldwide” but, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the Johnson government is actually waging war on all these institutions. Foreign aid has been slashed to pay for armaments. And the review shows no recognition that, if you disdain to engage with your European neighbours collectively in the EU, you will need a lot more diplomats to do so effectively in 27 national capitals.

Brexited Britain is scarcely ready to recognise the continuing existence, let alone importance to most international agendas, of the EU.

There is a similar detachment from reality in the Indo-Pacific agenda. Of course, south-east Asia is set fair to be the epicentre of global growth in the years ahead. But all the excited talk about the wonderful new commercial opportunities awaiting British exporters, especially if we join 11-nation trade deal the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, ignores the fact that most of these opportunities were open to us for years as a member of the EU – which has negotiated, or is negotiating, bilateral trade agreements with nine of these countries. So, there is every chance that buccaneering British merchant-venturers, faring forth to these palm-fringed shores, will find a German exporter already well ensconced there.

The tilt also betrays the endurance of that other, seemly unshakeable, UK delusion – that the best thing we can do is ingratiate ourselves with the Americans, and present ourselves as their loyal first lieutenant, standing shoulder to shoulder with them in the arena of their greatest strategic concern. True, the strategy did not work so well in Iraq and Afghanistan – but maybe third time lucky in the Indo-Pacific? Hence the government’s readiness to present our inability to put together a carrier strike group without American help as a virtue rather than a national embarrassment. The irony of course is that if, as it seems, even this is to be achieved by cutting the army and denuding the central region of NATO, we may find the Americans less gratified than we expect.

Here, the British public is, it seems, ahead of the government. Recent ECFR research has revealed the profound impact of the Trump years on European attitudes towards the United States. Confidence in the US security guarantee has evaporated – not least in the UK, where a startling 74 per cent agreed that “Europe can’t always rely on the US; we need to look after our own defence capabilities”. The British Foreign Policy Group’s 2021 survey of public opinion similarly found that “Britons are warming to Biden’s America, but the United States remains less trusted than other key security partners, such as Canada, Australia, Germany, and Japan, and is considered a less important relationship than our partnership with the European Union.”

The final unreality hanging over this review is money. Britain’s national finances are in free-fall, with the biggest economic hit from covid-19 amongst the G7 compounded by the heavy blow of Brexit. National debt has now exceeded £2 trillion (some 100 per cent of GDP – the worst fiscal position for 70 years) and continues to rise. The hard truth is that no one currently knows what Britain will be able to afford in the years ahead – and all the spending promises scattered through the review may prove no more durable than the government’s manifesto pledge to maintain foreign aid at 0.7 per cent of GNI.

Thus, at the risk of reminding the Chinese of how we treated them in the nineteenth-century Opium Wars, much of what this review tells us about Global Britain is a pipe dream. In the cold light of day, we will have to adjust better to the new reality of where we sit in the world. We need to learn to play to our real strengths, even if these lack the nostalgic appeal of military hardware; and, accepting the realities of geography, to rebuild cooperation with our closest partners.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow

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