Brave new world? Credit: Davit Kachkachishvili/Anadolu Agency/Getty

March 17, 2021   6 mins

With the release of the long-awaited (and long-delayed) Integrated Review yesterday, British voters were finally privy to the longest and most developed insight yet seen into how the Government perceives the global system of the next decade, and how to secure Britain’s place in it. We can only speculate on how the Covid crisis affected its recommendations, yet its warnings of the “systemic risks” posed by future pandemics, and emphasis on managing global supply chain vulnerabilities, indicates the Government is addressing the challenges facing a globalised economy.  

The overall context of the Review is that of a global system marked by China’s rise and its corollary, America’s decline. Like Ham in Genesis ashamed by his father Noah’s nakedness, the British defence establishment finds the stark facts of American decline too shameful to face directly. Though American decline is referred to only obliquely through the polite euphemism of “a more competitive and multipolar world”, its consequences are the thread which runs through the entire review. 

It acknowledges that China’s growing international stature is by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today, “with major implications for British values and interests and for the structure and shape of the international order”. And with archetypal British understatement, it adds that “the fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours, presents challenges for the UK and our allies”.

While Russia is described as “the most acute threat to the UK” on our continent, it is China that threatens to overturn our strategic world. Addressing the hard facts of China’s rise squarely, the Review observes that “the international order is more fragmented, characterised by intensifying competition between states over interests, norms and values”. A defence of the status quo, it insists, “is no longer sufficient for the decade ahead”, and a strategic tilt towards the Indo Pacific is outlined.

Justifying Britain’s much-vaunted tilt, the Review observes that China’s rise is now the engine of world history: “by 2030, it is likely that the world will have moved further towards multipolarity, with the geopolitical and economic centre of gravity moving eastward towards the Indo-Pacific”. And it describes China’s increasing power and international assertiveness as “the most significant geopolitical factor of the 2020s”. 

Yet the nature and intensity of Britain’s new Indo-Pacific tilt seems less marked than either its proponents were urging or its detractors cautioning against. As much as China is Britain’s greatest strategic challenge, the Review also welcomes continued Chinese investment in the British economy, and commits to engaging with China on climate change, while promising action to prevent British vulnerability to Chinese economic pressure, and urging the construction of a new diplomatic framework to manage the increasingly tense relationship. In all this, the Review strikes a cautious and sensible middle ground between confrontation and engagement.

In reality, it is not vastly different to the much-criticised EU trade agreement with China asserting much the same things. We are more rhetorically opposed to China’s human rights abuses than the EU is, and it is right that the Review seeks to “ensure that British organisations are neither complicit in nor profiting from them”, while remaining realistic enough not to promise we can prevent them. Indeed, it does not commit Britain to any concrete goals to contain China’s rise other than in the vaguest terms — there is no commitment to defend Taiwan, for example, which given America’s growing anxieties over its own ability to do so, is only sensible.

Nevertheless, for all that the world is reorienting itself around China, the Review reaffirms the strategic centrality of the Special Relationship to Britain, situating the transatlantic alliance in the realm of eternal values as well as hard power. It claims that “the heart of the relationship is a human one: the flow of people and ideas between our countries, our shared history, and a common language”, and “also one of common values – a shared belief in democracy, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms”. If any thought has been given to how America’s political ferment might lead to a divergence in our common values or interests, as our closest European allies are now finding, the Review gives no space to such considerations.

Indeed, in its commitment to preserving an open world system of free trade and purported “universal values”, the Review leads Britain into the 21st century committed — at least rhetorically — to the defence of 19th-century liberalism. A markedly Whig document, it asserts that we will “support open societies – characterised by effective governance and resilience at home, and which cooperate with other countries on the basis of transparency, good governance and open markets” with the intention to “shape an open, resilient global economy, restoring trust in free and fair trade”. The emphasis on, or at least aspiration towards, free trade is indeed one of the central planks of the review, which asserts that “the UK’s openness to the flow of trade, capital, data, ideas and talent is essential to our long-term prosperity”.

This may not reflect the realities of a rapidly deglobalising international system — or the scepticism of British voters — yet a degree of realism is permitted to intrude upon our aspirations. Much as we may wish to defend an open global economy, it cautions that more states will adopt economic statecraft as a lever in systemic competition,  involving “greater protectionism and economic nationalism” and “the deliberate use of economic tools 
 to target and undermine the economic and security interests of rivals”.

The sections on our military posture, including cuts to the numbers of jets and tanks have already grabbed headlines. But it is unclear how boosting our numbers of nuclear warheads will qualitatively enhance our security, other than deepening the defence relationship with the US and acting as an assertion that Britain still has teeth while we hurriedly rebuild our armed forces. Its promise that the Army will undertake a rapid modernisation programme, an urgent concern highlighted by the title of the recent Defence Committee paper on our armoured component, Obsolescent and Outgunned, is necessary, and should be carefully monitored following the Army’s manifold failings so far. 

The emphasis on training allies rather than committing to defend them with massed forces, on cyber warfare and the challenges and opportunities offered by the technological revolutions reshaping modern war are all sensible — and given our denuded military capabilities, perhaps as much a case of necessity as desire.

There are other new and welcome elements: the pronounced emphasis on scientific research as well as its insistence that green energy is a matter of national security and economic growth. Also strong are the sections on increased focus on space, as well as action on climate change, mass migration and terrorism. Its commitment to an open global internet in the face of tech authoritarianism, however, is counterposed by a need to defend Britain from “disinformation” — the similarities with the restricted virtual spaces of rival powers may end up greater than anticipated.

High on lofty aspirations, short on detailed policy and maps, the cautious, sober document realistically outlines the challenges facing Britain — without overstating our capacity to prevent them. If a criticism could be made, it is that the Review commits the UK to managing the deleterious consequences of a globalised international system it pledges itself to defending. The first principles underlying Britain’s strategic posture are not questioned. The problem of managing divergence between the Atlantic alliance and an increasingly independent-minded EU is not addressed. Nor is the likelihood that China’s statist example will prove inspiring to disaffected political entrepreneurs at home, with the CCP remaining largely indifferent to the political enthusiasms of the outside world as long as wealth and power continues to flow its way.

Perhaps the central, and so-far under-discussed claim that the Review makes, which underpins the choices it urges, is its assertion that in the new multipolar order, instead of a return to “Cold War-style blocs”,  the “influence of middle powers is likely to grow in the 2020s, particularly when they act together”. This immediately strikes the reader as a realistic outcome whose full implications are worthy of further consideration. This is the same analysis which drives the EU’s appreciation of a multipolar world as a strategic opportunity, though the policy choices Britain derives from this of cooperation between far-flung nation states, and not consolidation in a continental power bloc could not be more different. Which, if either, approach will prove to be the best bet can only be a matter of speculation.

The deepened strategic cooperation with France, Japan and Australia which the Review urges follows from this analysis, and offers the potential to enhance Britain’s place on the world stage. Though it frames these strategic decisions in terms of shared values (as it markedly does not when discussing Britain’s Middle Eastern alliances), this is a sensibly Realist appreciation of how to use shifting power dynamics to enhance Britain’s influence. Indeed, by underpinning its lofty rhetoric with a sober appreciation of the world as it actually is, the Review manages to balance the ethical and ideological impulses of international politics with a frank and cautious analysis of hard power. It can see Britain’s place in a dangerous and volatile new world, without over-promising our capacity to shape it. 

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.