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08 Sep 2023

Role in the World

As Rishi Sunak heads to the G20 in India, Malcolm Chalmers considers the security, defence and foreign affairs challenges the UK faces, the immediate and longer-term issues politicians will need to address, and the potential implications of the choices they might make. This piece is taken from our new report with Full Fact ‘Policy landscape 2023’.

What is the situation now?

Relations between the world’s major powers have deteriorated sharply over the last two years. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is a fundamental challenge to the European security order. The bitter war that has followed has seen a level of damage that Europe has not experienced since 1945. It shows little sign of ending any time soon. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) assessment is that the risk of nuclear escalation remains greater than at any time since the Cold War.

The Golden Age of relations with China that characterised UK policy eight years ago has long gone. Instead, the government emphasises that China is “an epochdefining and systemic challenge with implications for almost every aspect of government policy and the everyday lives of British people.”

In addition to the costs of increasing barriers to trade with the EU, an increasing focus on supply chain resilience in relation to China could add further economic strains. There is a debate about whether to restrict China’s ability to sell electric cars, or invest in battery factories, in the UK, given the risks of data capture and market dominance. Over time, the pressures for reducing trade and investment links with China are likely to intensify, despite the costs involved.

Recent events have also brought home the dangers posed by global threats such as climate change, environmental degradation and pandemic disease. The government’s analysis of the most serious acute risks facing the UK – calculated on both impact and probability – highlights possible terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons, alongside the secondary effects from the use of nuclear weapons elsewhere, even when the UK is not directly involved.

The one bright spot in an otherwise worrying international landscape is that the UK’s alliances with other G7 powers have been strengthened over the last year. The UK has played an influential role in military assistance to Ukraine, helping to encourage the US, France and Germany to do more. The last year has also seen a strengthening of UK security and economic partnerships with the Asia-Pacific, especially with Japan and Australia.

In contrast, the UK and its G7 allies have been less successful in winning over the so-called Global Middle Ground to support their efforts to isolate Russia.

Most major developing countries – including many Commonwealth states – have been concerned to protect their economies from the collateral damage from the war. And few are prepared to reduce existing ties with Russia, far less with China, viewing these powers as important counterweights to Western influence.

What is the state of the political debate?

According to the July 2023 Ipsos Index, ‘defence, foreign affairs and international terrorism’ is now 15th in the list of issues of concern to GB residents, named as one of the top three issues by only 1% of respondents. This may, in part, be because the polls do not reflect the extent to which high-salience domestic problems – such as the rising cost of living – have their proximate root in international events. But it also reflects the reality that there is now a broad inter-party consensus on the core elements of defence and foreign policy. There is now little debate on the UK’s commitment to NATO or nuclear weapons. And the British political elite is more united than in the US, Germany, France or Italy on its support for Ukraine.

There remain some more significant divisions on foreign policy within the major parties. Debates on Brexit and climate security – both inherently foreign policy issues – are covered in other contributions in this collection. The most significant other area of division is on China, where a significant minority (drawn mainly but not only from the Conservative Party) want a tougher line. This was reflected, most notably, in the recent report by the Intelligence and Security Committee.

What are the immediate and long-term issues that need to be confronted?

The UK’s poor growth record since the 2008 financial crisis is at the heart of many of its current domestic problems. Yet, with the combined impacts of Brexit, Covid and the Ukraine war still working their way through, the immediate prospects for GDP growth are poor.

If the UK continues to underperform economically, the government that emerges from the next election could find itself facing fiscal choices every bit as difficult as those which David Cameron’s leadership faced in 2010.

Spending on defence and security is unlikely to be exempt from scrutiny in such circumstances. A year ago, under Liz Truss’s premiership, preparations were being made for increasing defence spending to 3% of GDP. The faint echo of this policy is still seen in Rishi Sunak’s “aspiration” to increase spending to 2.5% of GDP “over the longer term” …“as the fiscal and economic circumstances allow.” Those who think that there is now going to be a large increase in defence spending, however, are likely to be disappointed.

Similarly, the commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on overseas development, while nominally a legal obligation, has been abandoned as unaffordable (at least in the next parliament) by the major parties, both of whom now defer to the constraints of ‘fiscal circumstances.’

This means that the next Defence Review – expected in 2025 – will be faced with a series of trade-offs, made more difficult by the emerging lessons from the war. There is relentless pressure to spend more on the nuclear deterrent, more relevant now that major power competition has returned with a vengeance. The scope for saving more money from squeezing military pay and conditions – an important element in post 2010 austerity – is limited. And more is needed to ensure that the military has the munitions that are required to be able to fight, as part of NATO, against Russia. The UK will remain one of NATO’s leading European defence powers, but Germany now seems set to overtake it as the second largest defence spender.

The UK will remain an important middle power, very strong in some areas and less so in others. But it is important not to overstate its room for manoeuvre in international affairs. One of the persistent illusions of the national discourse on foreign policy is that it is for the UK to ‘choose the role it wants to play’ in the world. The reality is that the UK foreign policy agenda is, in very large measure, driven by what others – allies and adversaries – do. The last two decades have seen a successive series of external shocks – the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the financial crisis in 2008, Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022, the 2020 pandemic. We do not know what the next shocks will be. But dealing with them will take up much of the energy of the next government. The challenge will be to do so, while still tackling the longer-term challenges such as climate security and relentless technological change.

By Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Deputy Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute. 

This piece was originally part of the report ‘Policy landscape 2023’ with Full Fact.


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