Global Britain: a competitive age or economical foreign policy?

We knew it was coming. But what does the government’s March 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Developkment and Foreign Policy(to give the document its proper name) actually mean?[1]   Is it a bold new venture? Or reworked diplomatic niceties? A new dawn for a new Britain? Or an attempt to heal the wounds of Brexit on various international stages? In a nutshell, the Review suggests a  markedly truncated relationship with the European Union, an expressed interest in trading with upcoming partners in the Indo-Pacific region, an aim to improve its self-sufficiency regarding Chinese technology, budget reductions that threaten to lose more in the long run than they may save in the short term (e.g. funding schemes such as the GCRF (Global Challenges Research Fund, via the ODA(Official Development Assistance), and most importantly, the overall vision for a truly “Global” Britain.  What follows are only the ‘highlights’ of the Integrated Review. There’s plenty to dig into, so brace yourself for further blogs going into more detail, and exploring the consequences for Britain, Europe, and its global partners.

Europe Lost?

The are winners and losers. For many hoping for a post-Brexit avenue back to the EU, there is little to play with. Europe in general is a named partner, but the EU itself gets short shrift. There are reactive and active aspects to the UK’s interests with Europe. Reactive issues including that of migration, phrased as managing “the movement of people within Europe’s wider neighbourhood, including towards the UK”. Active issues include security and defence, which may come as something of a relief, asserting that the UK will “shoulder our share of the burden in providing for stability and security at the global level as well as in the Euro-Atlantic area”. Areas in which the UK is undertaking a shift from Brexit-reactie to globally-active include trade and investment, with the overall goal “to be well-placed to take advantage of emerging markets, shifts in the global economy and global progress in S&T”. Interestingly, it is precisely trade and investment that are now acting as the linchpin between its former involvement as an EU Member State in the EU Single Market and Customs Union and the trans-national sphere, arguing that British “patterns of trade and investment are as global as they are European, and our international policy reflects this reality.”  For all the shifts to global horizons, the document refers clearly and repeatedly to the UK as “a European country”, but a country unique among the rest of the European congregation for its  uniquely global interests, partnerships and capabilities”. 

To Tilt, or not to Tilt?  Indo-Pacific Options 

The tilt itself comprises both hard power, and soft power in the form of trade and investment. To those worried that the proposed Indo-Pacific tilt is too globe-spinningly remote, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab reassures us that the UK ‘has shared interests and values’ with many of the states in the Indo-Pacific region, ranging from maritime security, protecting vital. supply chains, and tackling the climate change crisis with like-minded partners from the region. Critics however, including those less tha persuaded by Raab’s somewhat synthetic approach to high policy have argued that the tilt will not compensate for the net losses accured by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU’s Single Market, as well as the corona-sized hole in public finances. Still, a little diplomacy goes a long way, and key. delegates from the Indo-Pacific states will be invited to attend the G7 summitof June in Cornwall which has raised eyebrows among the G7 community. High stakes indeed for the fabled Cornish hospitality industry. 

The tilt is likely to go down well in Washington, so long as the UK aligns itself with US interests in the form a partner, and not a competitor, particularly on matters relating to Beijing. It’ll take another blog to tackle the ticklish role in which Prime Minister Johnson finds himself in bridging the increasing number of China ‘hawks’ in Cabinet, key committees and the House, and the remains of the doves, in his attempts to reset the UK’s foreign policy towards China.  The next few months are likely to bring a series of diplomatic storms with China over the Muslim Uighur community in Xinnjiang to governance upheavals in Hong Kong, as well as clashes over high-tech and security issues. China is mentioned in the Review a state demonstrating  “increasing international assertiveness”,with the Indo-Pacific region as a whole characterised by “systemic competition, including between states, and between democratic and authoritarian values and systems of government”.  The chief risks, as the UK sees it, include both technological changes and transnational challenges including climate change, biosecurity risks, terrorism and serious and organised crime (SOC). 

The Review however suggests that diplomacy itself is the most viable avenue, underpinned by clear-headed pragmatism, arguing that a combination of investment, balance, understanding and cooperation with China is the best approach. Indeed, the Review commits to “invest[ing] in enhanced Chinafacing capabilities, through which we will develop a better understanding of China and its people, while improving our ability to respond to the systemic challenge that it poses to our security, prosperity and values – and those of our allies and partners.” Diplomacy of course  comes in many different stripes. The ‘tilt’ presumes ann engagement with the region as a whole,  and is likely to prioritise a relationship with India ahead of China. In terms of shiny assets,the HMS Queen Elizabeth,the UK’s newest and most most adanced aircraft carrier yet, is to be sent to East Asia to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. China’s repeated territorial claims in the region, set against the UK’s declaration that China is in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration  suggest further tensions lie ahead. 



Whilst there are budget cuts in some areas, there are budgetboomsin others.  UK defence is undoubtedly going to experience significant increases in finances, with the UK set to be the largest defence spender in Europe, and the the second highest in NATOThis spate of investment seeks to improve the UK’s abilities in all areas of defence: including sea, land, air, space, and cyberspace. The UK’s defence industry now supports over 300,000 jobs and will experience a further planned investment of £210 billion over the next 10 years. UK armed forces are also expected to go abroad more frequently, and for longer periods of time, largely for counter-terrorism ops. While the Navy looks set for a renaissance, the army looks set to face severe cuts in funding, losing up to 10,000 personnel, four infantry battalions, 100 or fewer tanks, and just under 800 Warrior fighting vehicles. The Royal Airforce will also lose 24 Typhoon jets, and the Hercules transport plane fleet. Are such cuts designed to balance the books at the Ministry of Defence, offset budget cuts in the face of Covid costs, or downsize the UK’s overall net force capacity? None of these quite line up with the adventurist proposals that run thorugh much of the Integrated Review. 

The UK is also committing to expanding its nuclear arsenal from 180 nuclear warheads to 260, an increase of 45%. This increase is justified on the basis of countering quantitative increases by countries and their enhanced diversified nuclear capabilities. While this increase might privately reassure European neighbours (particularly France, with whom the UK has a series of long-standing series to embed and ensure parallel developemtn in nuclear technology), it has unnerved others. Are more nuclear warheads warranted? Should the UK encourage expanding nuclear warfare capabilities in general? Or should the UK be leading the path to denuclearisation and focusing on domestic defence?  

Indeed, with the increase in nuclear warheads, the question arises as to whether the UK is in breach of the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 1968).The UK has clearly defined , international obligation under the NPT notto increase its stockpile of nuclear warheads, or pursue disarmament; limiting its activities solely to the promotion of the peaceful utilisation of nuclear power for energy. The decision seems rash to some, including Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons),who argues that the decision to increase the UK’s “stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in the middle of a pandemic is irresponsible, dangerous and violates international law.” More problematically, the E3 group, of which the UK is a part, alongside France and Germany, and which has led the charge in limiting the Iranian nuclear programme under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), stated in February 2021  that  “regarding Iran, the E3 and the United States expressed their shared fundamental security interest in upholding the nuclear non-proliferation regime”. Britain may find its E3 relations not only frosty on the topic of nuclear profliferation, but have an especially hard time in looking Iran in the eye when it comes time to renegotiate the JCPOA. 



A London-based new situation centre is planned for 2030, with funding of £9.3 million coming from the latest £24 billion investment into defence. The ‘sit cen’ is designed to expedite decision-making areas such as space, directed energy weapons, and sophisticated high-speed missiles. Also planned is a National Cyber Force to bolster counter-terrorism operations, to bolster the ongoing work of British intelligence services who since 2017 have foiled 28 planned attacks on UK soil.


The Review lays out the UK’s intentions to improve its national self-sufficiency in advanced technology, specifically referencing the use of 5G networks, with 6G on the horizon. The software keywords for Global Britain in this respect are very much technology-oriented and resilience-based. The challenge is ‘onshoring’ all, or even some aspects of complex, multi-agent, trans-national supply chains. Covid, and increasingly Brexit issues regarding the importation of goods, demonstrates that shifts of this kind are very difficult to accomplish effectively, or indeed swiftly. .

Turing Scheme

With the UK leaving the EU, the UK’s participation in the Erasmusmobility scheme has also come to an end. Its replacement is the Turing Scheme, which will provide funding to students (but not staff) undertaking education and training in the UK, to study or or take up work or training placements across the world. The drawbacks is that the funding only goes one way: i.e. outbound from the UK, and not from Europe or international destinations back to the UK. Euqally, Turing encompasses rather more by way of categories (including schools, colleges, universities, further education colleges, and vocational education) as well as short, medium and long sessions. Designed to be intrinsically global,  Turing may well increase the likelihood of students going to both European and non-European destinations, as well as showcasing the UK as “a magnet for international innovation and talent”, but much relies on the final look of the UK’s new points-based immigration system to viably integrate this new talent within the “research and development, education and cultural institutions” of the UK.

Global Research and Foreign Aid

After a challenging year with finalising Brexit and battling the coronavirus pandemic, the UK is now in a fundamentally weaker position in terms of its financial and economic security. This has led to a number of deeply regrettable cuts in key policies, including overseas aid causing great difficulty for the GCRF (Global Challenges Research Fund), which funds a critical range of both high-tech and ground-level research to address the wide range issues faced by developing countries, and is part of the UK’s overall ODA (Official Development Assistance). Due to severe financial pressures caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and arguably, the consequences of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, GCRF funding will be reducedby a staggering £120 million, to just £125 million for the financial year of 2021 to 2022.

These reductions are going to complicate both the UK’s determination to remain a ‘world leading aid funder’ in fighting vital challenges such as climate change, poverty, and global health, as well as the role of UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) in disseminating the funds.  Will we see changes here? There was been an enormous and sustained outcry among HEIs and recepients alike to this government decision; there are suggestions that the UK’s commitment may at some stage return to the 0.7% GNI targetonce the financial situation permits. In the meantime, the impact will be tough for many institutions including universities, who rely on ODA funding to expand their research and technological abilities and provide upcoming talent with the resources necessary to stay leagues ahead of competing countries. There is also the diplomatic aspect to consider: 


Overall, it is clear the UK has vast plans to remain a vocal and unmistakable global partner, despite their withdrawal from the world’s  single largest economic bloc. The UK is on the one hand reassuring a national (and possibly global audience) that it can realisticallybe  a leading figure in numerous sectors, including trade, technology, and defence.  Equally,much has been left  behind, from previous (and evidently potential links with Europe) to ODA funding. Raab has justified the UK’s new direction, by suggesting that “the UK has a central role to play on the world stage as an independent sovereign state, a leading member of the western alliance, and an energetic and dependable partner in the growing prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region”. From a normative prespective, Raab expects Britain (somewhat paradoxically) “to fight for peace and prosperity” and generally “act as a force for good.” Being a force for good however requires trust. 

A precipitious rise in defence investment may propel the UK into a new tier of military capabilities and commitments  but it won’t necessarily guarantee trading partnerships or influence in international forums.  This could come in a number of roles:  responsible partner, dependable ally, problem-solver, democracy-protector, or as Chatham House has recently suggested, Broker Britain: a sort of champion convenor. Trust, however, is needed for all these roles, and worryingly, the UK seems to be setting a precedent of shifting from core commimtments in key treaties and legislation, including the EU Withdrawal Agreement, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and indeed GNI funding (itself enshrined in law). Britain needs to reflect carefully on what it can actually achieve at home,  as well as abroad. 

[1]With many thanks to Will Hitt for putting in the legwork. And actually reading the Defence Reiew.