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Amelia Hadfield, Georgina Wright, and Tea Zyberaj explore what the government’s recent ‘refresh’ of the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy tells us about the UK’s international role and priorities. 

Much has taken place since the UK government first published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign policy in February 2021: the retreat of allied forces from Afghanistan, increasing technological rivalry between the United States and China, and the devastating return of war in Europe.

Many of the international trends that were identified in the 2021 Integrated Review, including shifts in the global distribution of power, rapid technological advancements and risks of systemic competition, remain. But the UK government’s recent update to the Review now appears bolder: chiefly, in its desire to be a leading and reliable partner both in Europe and overseas.

Against the backdrop of Russia’s war on Ukraine and China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, the UK government appears to have embraced a more pragmatic and sober approach to building resilience in the Refresh.

Unsurprisingly, IR23 identifies the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic as a ‘core priority’ for the UK, and indeed makes clear that within this theatre, Russia now counts as the greatest of threats to the UK’s immediate neighbourhood.

The UK has pledged to continue working with partners to provide Ukraine with the military, economic and diplomatic support it needs to reassert its sovereignty, and begin to plan its future reconstruction – a pledge that was also made at the Franco-British summit, which took place in Paris days before the Integrated Review Refresh was published.

Set against this Euro-Atlantic-focused challenge, the Refresh illustrates the need to strengthen the ‘European family of nations’ to achieve greater collective security and strategic stability and highlights the intricate web of defence ties, including bilateral deals and ad hoc groupings, that the UK has with different European countries.

In this respect, while the US remains an essential partner for the UK, European allies receive more mentions than they did in the 2021 Review (France gets 22 mentions in 2023, compared to 11 in the 2021 Review; Germany gets 4 more mentions).

Just as in 2021, the UK retains its promise to be both the leading European ally in NATO as well as remaining influential in the G7. With defence spending on the rise for key NATO members including France, Germany and Poland, as well as enhanced defence coordination managed by the EU, the UK’s own hardware uplift is largely in sync with prevailing trends, which may yield future opportunities for collaboration.

The UK is also keen on continued involvement with the European Political Community, a new pan-European platform launched in Prague in May 2022.

Even the EU itself is no longer the taboo it once was, with the UK making clear that it would be open to more cooperation in specific areas of mutual benefit, including on defence through the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation Mechanism (PESCO), and energy security cooperation.

IR23 appears not to indulge in an undervaluing of European and EU partners, but rather attempts to recalibrate both Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific theatres, laying to rest any doubts prompted by IR21 that the UK might be turning its back on Europe to focus on the Indo-Pacific.

On China, the language in the 2023 Review is unsurprisingly tougher than it was in 2021 – referring to an ‘epoch defining challenge’. Nevertheless, the 2023 Refresh proposes to maintain the three-pronged strategy towards Beijing, based on constructive engagement and appropriate cooperation when China is aligned with the UK’s national interests, while also protecting key UK sectors from over-dependence on China, especially in sensitive areas, such as research.

Crucially, IR23 recognises the complexity of the multipolar international system, which ‘cannot simply be reduced to ‘democracy versus autocracy’, or divided into binary, cold war-style blocs’. In this respect, it acknowledges – if somewhat simplistically – the need to establish effective coordination on global challenges.

It is clear that different coalitions are needed to address different problems. From tackling climate change to sanctions coordination and the protection of UK industry in the face of the great technological rivalry between the US and China, the UK will need to find ways to work with countries, even when they do not fully share the same values or perspectives.

The Refresh was announced on the day of the AUKUS summit in San Diego, highlighting the increasing importance of allies and alliances to the UK, which it will need to consider how to make best use of in balancing Euro-Atlantic and Indo-pacific commitments.

Nothing is perfect. The establishment of the new £1 billion Integrated Security Fund, while apparently geared towards the delivery of the refreshed Review’s core priorities, has raised concerns about the extent of the UK’s commitment to conflict prevention, development, stability and deterrence. Unlike its predecessors, it does not identify ‘conflict prevention’ as a priority, nor does it delineate specific funding instruments for overseas engagement.

Similarly, the traditional tools of development and aid spending are missing in action, as they were in IR21. This is reflective of wider trends, including the merging of the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office, and the reduction of Britain’s overall aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Income.

Current estimates suggest that aid ‘is likely to remain in the region of 0.5% until at least 2027/28’, which raises questions about how impactful UK foreign policy can genuinely be in bringing to bear the combined impact of UK aid, trade, and diplomacy on chronic problems around the world.

While the Refresh attempts to paint an honest picture of the multiple – and complex – challenges facing the UK and how it could try to address them, its call for a more pragmatic and grounded foreign policy approach is vital.

Post-Brexit diplomatic resets, and the urgency of tackling the increasingly complex and attritional war in Ukraine means that the UK needs not only to inject a restorative to its contemporary circle of allies, but play a far more active part in supporting ‘an open and stable international order’.

The stakes could not be higher. 2023 is likely to see a serious heightening of symmetrical ‘strategic rivalries in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions’ which could well tip over into a destructive geopolitical struggle. Whether IR23 represents a document capable of mapping the UK’s response to such challenges remains to be seen.

By Amelia Hadfield, Professor in European and International Affairs, University of Surrey, Georgina Wright, Senior Fellow, Institut Montaigne, and Tea Zyberaj, Centre for Britain and Europe, University of Surrey. 


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