Main Image Credit Foreign Secretary James Cleverly shortly after leaving a Cabinet meeting in Downing Street. Courtesy of ZUMA Press / Alamy Stock Photo
The refresh to the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was directed to ‘ensure the UK’s diplomatic, military and security architecture is keeping pace with evolving threat posed by hostile nations'. The refresh provides a welcome comprehensive summary of UK foreign policy, but starves allies of the crucial detail of the UKs defence policy.
Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a More Contested and Volatile World provides a useful, if not critical, update to UK strategy. A modest £5-billion increase in defence spending, to complement the additional £24 billion already committed, amounts to 2.2% of GDP this year. ‘Global Britain’ has officially been abandoned. In its place is a vision of the UK working relentlessly with like-minded allies and partners across the globe, in existing and new formats, to actively defend and strengthen the international order. The go-it-alone tone – as being distinct from the EU – has been replaced by one of intense cooperation and leveraging the UKs convening power. The UK intends to leverage new networks of ‘Atlantic-Pacific’ partnerships to link overlapping ‘strategic arenas’, noting that the prosperity of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific, the primary and secondary geographic priorities, are ‘inextricably linked’.
Overriding Priority Remains the Euro-Atlantic
Within the home region, the ‘most urgent priority in the Euro-Atlantic is to support Ukraine to reassert its sovereignty and deny Russia any strategic benefit from its invasion’. The UK is unequivocally linking the ground war in Ukraine directly with European, and therefore global, security, in overlapping strategic arenas. It is key to understanding the current political unity on support to Ukraine which is second only to the US, and Ukrainian respondents to a Munich Security Conference poll put the UK at the top of the ‘done well’ category. The UK has already committed £2.3 billion of support for Ukraine in 2023.
Moreover, the review provides extensive evidence of UK leadership in Europe, such as security guarantees to Finland and Sweden and through a surge in Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) activity and maps the growing patchwork of bilateral and minilateral connections to the continent. The review adds areas where the UK believes it is best placed to do so, including to providing a renewed emphasis on strategic stability and managing miscalculation and escalation, as part of the objective to ‘contain and challenge’ Russia and its challenge to UK, European and global security.
The review provides extensive evidence of UK leadership in Europe, such as security guarantees to Finland and Sweden and through a surge in Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) activity and maps the growing patchwork of bilateral and minilateral connections to the continent
The ‘EU-shaped hole’ of the original document is directly addressed and the language used to describe the ‘positive evolution’ of post-Brexit relationships is notably warmer. Specifics, such as the Windsor Framework and practical cooperation on support to Ukraine and sanctions can build stronger UK–EU relations. Indeed, the war in Ukraine has highlighted far more areas of potential cooperation between the UK and EU than could have been in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the political signalling to intensify these is more positive.
However, UK Euro-Atlantic strategy had already been refreshed several times through The UK’s Defence Contribution in the High North paper, the third Arctic Policy Framework, the NATO Strategic Concept and the 19 January 2023 Tallinn Pledge which stated that ‘Together we will continue supporting Ukraine to move from resisting to expelling Russian forces from Ukrainian soil’. These separate artefacts, taken collectively, already provide a clear indication of UK priorities and approach to the Euro-Atlantic.
China and the Indo-Pacific
The Indo-Pacific Tilt is now formally a ‘permanent pillar’ of UK foreign policy. The review corrects three misgivings of its predecessor. First, it rightly acknowledges that the Tilt of 2021 has been achieved, particularly through non-military means, with only ‘a modest initial increase in our regional defence presence’. Indeed, the Tilt of 2021 was primarily not one of defence policy which is an enduring feature.
Second, rather than reinvent the wheel and operate alone, the UK has delivered on engagement with partnerships. It will now seek to further implement the long list of diplomatic, economic and technological agreements that it has signed over the past two years: from joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a Dialogue Partner and finalising negotiations on acceding to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, to signing roadmaps with India and Indonesia, agreements with South Korea and Singapore, and embarking on new defence technological partnerships through AUKUS and the UK–Japan–Italy Global Combat Air Programme. Partnerships will remain central to the Tilt, and more is yet to come, particularly with ‘middle-ground powers’. This includes with European countries and the EU, particularly those that have already published an Indo-Pacific Strategy (although the Netherlands was curiously omitted). Following the tensions over AUKUS, the UK–France agreement on carrier strike group deployments is highlighted in order to ensure a coordinated European maritime presence in the region.
The Indo-Pacific Tilt is now formally a ‘permanent pillar’ of UK foreign policy
Finally, it outlines in no uncertain terms the fundamental challenge that China’s aggressive rise presents to the UK at home, partners in the Indo-Pacific and on the global stage through the values it promotes and the levers of state power that it employs to create an ‘international order more favourable to authoritarianism’ including with Russia. This is a sharper tone. There is a sense of urgency in getting this challenge right and acting now, not later. Taiwan received several mentions – it received none in the 2021 version of the Integrated Review – and was alluded to by noting the disastrous global consequences of a conflict in the Indo-Pacific. However, much of this is a continuation of existing policy. China is still a ‘systemic challenge’, even if now on an extended time horizon. The UK will double-down on protecting national security such as through the National Security and Investment Act, while building out capacity in government to understand China. Partnerships remain key both in encouraging and deterring Beijing. Importantly, the door for engagement remains open, although it rightly stresses that dialogue is a two-way street. Overall, the slogan of ‘protect, align and engage’ is a realistic and comprehensive approach that is not dissimilar from the 2021 Integrated Review, although the greater detail is welcome.
However, rather than relegating regions to the ‘others’ category of geographical relevance, the review could have tied these into the Indo-Pacific. Not only are countries such as China and Russia active in, for example, East Africa or the Gulf, but the UK’s own presence there is of utility to implementing the Tilt. Sceptics of the Tilt too often reduce the region to its furthest reaches while proclaiming that the UK lacks the resources for any meaningful contribution. Instead, there is scope for creative policymaking on and with subregions in the Indian Ocean region where the UK already has an important presence, including in defence, that would supplement its existing burden sharing efforts across the Indo-Pacific wider expanse.
Too Much Thinking, not Enough Implementation
The review drafting process has taken at least six months, with an expected further four before the Defence Command Paper update – roughly the timeframe for a full review. Moreover, shadow Defence Secretary John Healey has committed to a Labour-led review within 12 months of taking office, while shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy promises a ‘complete audit’ of the UK’s China policy. Whoever wins the next general election, it is likely there would be another review in 2025 which would take the tally to six in ten years, including six different prime ministers and possibly a change of party in power, compared to six in the preceding 15 years and just five during the Cold War.
In times of war defence policy is more reassuring than foreign policy
The outcome of the war in Ukraine is far from certain. However, following over a year of brutal industrial state-on-state war, the priorities are clear for UK forces that have been accused of being hollowed out for warfighting: ammunition expenditure demands adequate stockpiling; defence-industrial capacity needs increasing; the critical importance of enablers such as logistics; and the absolute requirement for layered air defence and the protection it affords to civilian populations.
In times of war defence policy is more reassuring than foreign policy. In creating a gap between the review and the refreshed Defence Command Paper, the UK has missed an opportunity to build on its leadership and confirm its role at the heart of European and global security. 25 of 30 NATO members have already announced increases to defence spending. Most significantly, France has increased its 2024–30 budget by one-third from £261 to £366 billion and Germany’s special fund is £88.5 billion with an additional request of £8.84 billion for 2024. Poland is forecast to climb sharply from 2.4% of GDP in 2022 to almost 5% by 2024 (about $40 billion) with $85 billion of new equipment orders already in.
The UK, internally and externally, defines its value as a warfighting division – to NATO and to the US. Future Soldier commits to deliver a ‘modernised warfighting division’ by 2030. However, the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review had already committed to a ‘sovereign warfighting division’ under Joint Force 2025. Credibility matters, in the eyes of allies and adversaries alike, and it is curious that the review does not mention a UK division – the benchmark – once. If the UK wants to continue to be measured against this target, then it must deliver. The review describes one of the lessons of the war in Ukraine is ‘achieving mass in combination with allies and partners’. Therefore, a UK-led division, which would be available much earlier, utilising JEF plug-ins could satisfy this requirement. Unless the UK is prepared to pay for these capabilities, then it will have to settle for other options.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to email@example.com and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific
Research Fellow, European Security