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15 March 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 6:03am

The four key ideas behind the government’s new foreign policy review

The landmark review will call for the UK to tilt towards the Indo-Pacific as the US has done.

By Harry Lambert

The government’s long-awaited Integrated Review of foreign, defence, development, and security policy – “Global Britain in a Competitive Age” – will be published on Tuesday at noon. It has been more than a year in the making and will be one of the most significant declarations of intent made by Boris Johnson’s government.

It will be structured around four strategic objectives. The first will be a focus on science and technology. I am told that this is the thread that runs through all of the government’s thinking on Britain’s future role in the world. (Incidentally, it is an aim that Dominic Cummings, among others, first outlined for the UK in 2014. Cummings worked closely on the review when in government.)

What will that mean? The report will highlight Britain’s power to lead the world technologically on various fronts; half of the world’s genome sequencing is done from the UK, for instance, which has helped the country lead the detection of new Covid-19 variants. Where Britain cannot lead – as in a sector like telecommunications, where Britain was previously set to rely on China’s Huawei to roll out its 5G network – the report will talk of Britain “co-creating” technology with others.

This focus on science and technology will mean greater investments in cyber and space, two domains that will fight for funding inside the Ministry of Defence alongside the traditional three of land, sea and air. (The size of the army is expected to be cut by 10,000 over the course of the parliament.)

The report’s second strategic objective will be for Britain to play a “shaping” role on the international stage. No 10 has decided that descriptions of Britain as a “global broker” are too egotistical to use. Johnson’s government privately recognises that the UK is a middle power – though the phrase will not be used in the report – and its role is to help shape the open international order of the future. 

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The openness of that international order will be a key proposition. Those inside Downing Street describe openness as both the major opportunity and the major risk that Britain is “punting” on over the next decade. No 10 believes the world’s barriers to trade will be reduced over time. Those behind the report see no great tension between that faith in frictionless trade and the economic pain of Brexit. They describe the EU as a large regulatory bloc prone to protectionism, and instead point to Australia and Japan as countries for Britain to emulate on trade.

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Those two countries are both powers in the Indo-Pacific: a region that the report, as has been widely trailed, will call for Britain to tilt towards, as the US has done in recent years. Downing Street believes that the UK has been notably slow to focus on the region, with France and Germany having long outlined their strategies in the area. I am told that any analysis that No 10 ran suggested that the area would grow in importance over the next decade. 

Some analysts have questioned the move, and the role Britain can play in the region, given it is both relatively under-powered and geographically distant. But those inside government think it would be odd to leave the EU only in order to submit to geographical determinism. As Japan’s ambassador to the UK told the Foreign Affairs select committee last year, “The UK is not in the region, but the world today is not divided by regions.”

The report will also make the case that while Britain may have left the EU, it has not “left Europe”. Insiders point out that Britain will be the largest defence spender in western Europe. The UK will retain its nuclear deterrent and categorically reaffirm its commitment to Nato. The question of the UK’s future role with the EU will, I understand, be left somewhat ambiguous, in an attempt to avoid the toxic debates of Leave vs Remain, and to leave open the possibility of various future relationships.

The third strategic objective noted in the report will be the broader modernisation of the UK’s defence forces. A major increase in spending – £24bn over four years, on an annual budget of just over £40bn, already announced late last year – is no minor achievement, suggest those in No 10.

As part of this, the report will emphasise the importance of strengthening Britain’s military-industrial base. There will be a shift in defence procurement away from prioritising the cheapest bid, if the lowest offer means production happens outside the UK. More detail will be offered on this shift in process next week, with a Defence Command Paper due on 22 March and a Defence Industrial Strategy set for the following day. 

As for the report’s style, it will steer clear of “boosterism”, with little discussion of Britain as being invariably “world class”, as Johnson regularly and futilely described his government last year. The report, which will be sober in tone, will also distinguish between the threat the UK faces from Russia and China. The former – as has been reported – will be identified as the UK’s primary “state-based” threat. That is in contrast to China, where there will be a shift in language but not an overtly hawkish position, as some Conservative MPs would wish.

The fourth and final objective in the report will be resilience, both at home and abroad. As part of that, the government will identify the climate crisis as the UK’s leading international priority. The report will also describe the probability of a future pandemic affecting Britain in the next decade as highly likely. In doing so, the report will offer one of the first insights into what the government believes it has learnt from Covid-19.