Amelia Hadfield / Jan 2022
Liz Truss, UK Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs. Photo: Shutterstock
In March 2021, the Government unveiled its long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the strategy sought to combine Britain’s actions on the global stage, arguing that it was needed in an increasingly competitive world. Indeed, its formal title is Global Britain in a competitive age, and spoke of the need to protect the sovereignty, security and prosperity of the United Kingdom.
Yet, eight months on and the so-called integrated approach appears to be floundering. This has been best exemplified on how best to handle China. The IR itself labelled China a ‘global competitor’, one that Britain would engage with economically but also challenge when it felt it needed to. Yet, the issue within Whitehall and government more broadly is the tension arising from two quite separate camps – those who wish to take a firm line with Beijing, pushing back on its increasing assertiveness, and those who wish to maintain cooperative relations, citing the need to reboot the national economy, still struggling from Covid. As 2021 draws to an end, this disjointed approach has started to spill into the open, with quite separate messages about the potential and problems surrounding British diplomacy emerging.
Espousing perhaps the toughest of these messages, Richard Moore gave his first public speech as Chief of MI6. Moore warned that China constituted his ‘single greatest priority’, in part due to ‘technologies of control and surveillance increasingly exported to other governments by China: expanding the web of authoritarian control around the planet.’ Accordingly, he spoke of a need to work closely with technology companies to address the illiberal actions of the Chinese state, and a need to adapt to this new world. The hawkish elements of his speech were clear throughout.
Moore’s speech drew significantly on the technological challenges of the 21st century, in particular sensitive technologies that are built in China and exported around the world. Reflecting the increasing assertiveness of the USA in preventing these technologies, Moore drew on the Science and Technology aspirations of the Integrated Review, stating the need to work closely with companies to address global threats as well as “shape international norms in collaboration with allies and partners”. It presented a vision of a Britain very much as a key player in building and expanding such coalitions to address what he saw as four primary threats to Britain – China, Russia, Iran, and international terrorism.
The Network of Liberty
Entitled ‘Building the Network of Liberty’, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s 8 December speech to Chatham House echoed much of the tone of Moore’s presentation, arguing that ‘hostile forces are using disinformation to undermine truth… Autocratic regimes are using this maelstrom of militancy, mistrust and misinformation to gain the upper hand.’ Suggesting that Western governments had slid into an ‘age of introspection’ since the end of the Cold War, Truss pointed to the dangers of ‘strategic drift’ and dependences in defence, energy security and technology (but made no mention of normative or value-based drift). To push past global apathy, Truss suggested a number of opportunities in which renewed British leadership could kickstart both individual agency as well as improved strategic partnerships with key countries and regions. Much of this is premised on the formula underwriting the 2021 Integrated Review, including renewed hard power assets via boosted defence spending and improved soft power through science and tech uplift. Unsurprisingly, Truss outlined the opportunity to renew the mission of the Foreign Office, enabling it as a ‘national asset’ to drive ‘UK heft’ abroad, underwriting everything from embassies to multilateral work with partners in the G7, the G20 and the Commonwealth. Echoing the convening strengths propounded by a number of others (including Chatham House itself) within the context of the government’s levelling up agenda, Truss argued that Britain needs to be ‘unashamedly commercial, hosting business delegations from our cities across the UK.. paving the way towards new trade, tech and security arrangements’, and in doing so, playing a key role in ending Western ‘strategic dependency’ through renewed approaches to four key areas: investment, trade, tech and development.
Global Britain needs money, in other words. The UK now needs to demonstrate its commitment by investing in a few vital areas including AI, 6G, biotechnology, and quantum computing, as well as providing financial investment for key infrastructure with nominated partners, and continuing to sign the obligatory post-Brexit trade deals. Truss’s approach suggests that the Integrated Review and the broader Global Britain philosophy heralds an entirely new, ‘unfrozen moment’ for the UK, putting the country ‘in a unique position to lead the charge’. Headline deals here include seeking accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the British International Investment scheme, providing finance for climate-friendly infrastructure. Turning to security and defence, Truss argued that the UK required a balance between its ‘traditional security capabilities’ (including enhanced defence spending) with long-standing NATO, 5 Eyes, and Five Power Defence Arrangement partners on the one hand, and efforts to build ‘a network of security partnerships’ including the. new AUKUS partnership with the US and Australia on the other.
Plotting a Path Forward
In foreign policy terms, Truss’s ‘network of liberty’ is less a call to action, and more an attempt to define the contours of post-Brexit diplomacy and the various domestic drivers that the UK has at its disposal. Rather than suggesting wholly new areas of British leadership, Truss instead has highlighted a range of new (and intriguing) opportunities. However, in order to make good on these various prospects, the UK needs to continue the process of rebuilding international trust in its diplomatic credentials and clarify the overall philosophy behind Global Britain. Doing so requires renewed attention to British ‘tools and techniques’, as recently argued by Lord Peter Rickett’s elegant RUSI essay, ‘Put Diplomacy at the Heart of Conflict Resolution’.
Contrary to Truss, Ricketts argues that ‘there is nothing new in the aspiration set out in the government’s Integrated Review’. This is both a problem in that it suggests the strategy is simply more of same, but also that it allows Britain to simply continue and possibly augment those key areas in which it possesses genuine global influence. Focusing specifically upon the UK’s overall record in conflict reduction, Ricketts widens the scope beyond purely post-Brexit challenges, suggesting that UK and all its allies now face a pressing global challenge, namely:
to find a middle way between large-scale military interventions and retreating into a purely passive role, trying to exercise influence at arm’s length through public statements and diplomacy.
Ricketts highlights internal and external options for Britain in this regard. Domestically, he suggests that the National Security Council (which he established under Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010) needs a reboot, in order to balance both ‘strategic thinking and rapid decision-making’. Monthly meetings chaired by the PM are nowhere near effective, and despite the addition of a new Office for Conflict Stabilisation and Mediation within the FCDO, and improved cross-departmental cooperation, the NSC is at risk of a too-casual approach to both immediate risks and the need to thoughtfully consider longer-term trends. The September 2021 report by the Parliament’s Joint Committee on National Security Strategy (JCNSS) concurs, suggesting the NSC remains worryingly ‘inadequate to the task’. Internationally, Ricketts reiterates the UK’s more positive heritage as a global facilitator, with plenty of scope to continue by ‘convening international meetings, producing creative ideas and building a consensus through effective diplomacy.’
Tools and Techniques
Where then can Britain demonstrate scope for both new and renewed international influence? Ricketts patiently lays out a shopping list of areas that could go beyond the rhetoric of Global Britain and provide both substance and direction.
At home, resolutions for 2022 include improving the quality of decision-making of the NSC, ensuring the objective, non-political nature of development funding arising from the amalgamation of DFID and FCDO, and pressing for increased funding overall. Ensuring the NSC operates more properly as both ‘a forum for crisis-management… and the place where senior ministers think ahead to longer-term threats to set priorities’ is a start. So too is increased attention to the cuts to both the UK’s diplomatic structures (lessening Britain’s ability ‘to persuade at the top level, or to spot early signs of state failure or internal divisions’) and development, cautioning of the risk that overseas funding ‘will be skewed towards political priorities, to the detriment of the UK’s wider interest’ in development). These areas, as well as the role of the British Council (now inexplicably stripped of its ability to manage the global mobility programme Turing) enable Britain to main its position as a genuine ‘soft power superpower’, in Ricketts’ view.
Hard power operations is a different ballgame. Here, the Integrated Review contains a few new areas, or at least new approaches to long-standing challenges, chiefly the use of greater numbers of UK forces deployed overseas, for longer periods. The goal here is to place Britain at the forefront of tackling both state and non-state threats, serving as ally, mentor, and anchor point within various security and diplomatic networks. All well and good, but as Ricketts points out, diplomacy requires trust, and strategic endeavours require genuine commitment. The former has been damaged first by Brexit and then by the precipitate withdrawal in August from Afghanistan, while the latter requires more than just being a member of the right clubs. As evidenced by the tortuously drawn-out conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan, there are two key truisms here. First, in terms of conflict resolution, prevention is the far more efficient course of action than attempting to manage the consequences. Second, conflict prevention itself is far better managed among like-minded allies within the structure of a working international grouping, in which influence can produce real change. For Europe, this means enhanced work with NATO, and rebuilding at least a modicum of the previous diplomatic and defence relations it formerly had with the EU.
Internationally, this requires renewed attention to Britain’s role on the United Nations Security Council, stepping up its hard power commitment by underwriting more UN peacekeeping operations (financially and via personnel), and providing support and leadership on UN sanctions regimes. While the Integrated Review highlights a goodly number of much-needed global priorities (human rights, humanitarian access to conflict zones, gender equality, good governance, the prevention of failed states, etc.), Britain will in practice need to break new ground not only to retain its influence, but more importantly to help fill the gap left by waning US global leadership, and the increasingly aggressive opportunism demonstrated by Russia and China. From sanctions regimes to remaining effectual bilaterally and multilaterally, the UK will have far more impact if its approaches are capably and sustainably ‘coordinated with those of the US and the EU’, alongside other key diplomatic groups and forums.
Global partnerships rely on clear messaging; mixed signals cause contradictory assumptions and muddled decision-making. 2021 has unfortunately witnessed a number of incongruous comms, which in turn has eroded both the range of priorities that the government outlined in the Integrated Review, and the coherence needed to pursue them influentially and impactfully. Boosting the defence budget by £4 billion may – as Ricketts suggests – represent ‘a strong signal of the UK government’s commitment to hard power’. However, the concurrent decision to reduce the aid budget by roughly the same amount not only undermines Britain determination to remain a soft power player but reduces at a stroke its practical ability to tackle the material ‘drivers of conflict and instability’ in fragile and failing states and communities worldwide.
Restoring funds for enhanced diplomatic activities, including the highly-valued work of the British Council would not only underwrite the goal of the Integrated Review to render the UK a soft power super power, but align nicely with the range of research and innovation in hard and soft sciences, as well as more joined-up work improving analysis and strategic decision-making in key government departments (starting with the NSC). Perhaps the clearest message of all ought to be reserved for the UK’s nearest neighbours: Europe, and in particular France. In a year fraught with arguments over the first attempts to implement the practicalities of Brexit, Britain needs to recognise not only that potential risks are just as likely to arise closer to home than far-flung hotspots, but that such hazards can only be tackled by patience and forbearance, rather than through punitive and piqued measures. Here’s to 2022.
 Pg.75, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, March 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/global-britain-in-a-competitive-age-the-integrated-review-of-security-defence-development-and-foreign-policy