‘Sound priorities, undermined by a narrow view of security and aid cuts’: assessing the integrated review

The government’s landmark foreign and defence policy review arrived at many of the right conclusions, but UK security could be undermined by a focus on competition when the UK’s leadership could make a bigger difference through cooperation, says Ian Mitchell, the co-director, Europe for the Center for Global Development
Simon Cooper/PA Wire/PA Images

By Ian Mitchell

26 Mar 2021

Last week, the government published its long-awaited Integrated Review, which the prime minister hailed as “the biggest review into the UK’s  “since the end of the Cold War.”

The review into the UK’s security, defence, development and foreign policy was preceded by several major policy developments including a significant increase in defence spending; a merger to create the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; and the decision to reduce the aid budget by a quarter for at least 2021.

So, how does the review do in its aim “to make the United Kingdom stronger, safer and more prosperous while standing up for our values”? We assess the four objectives in turn:

Sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology

This objective includes the signature ambition: “to firmly establish the UK as a global science and technology superpower”, with goals on pursuing a strategic advantage, and to be a responsible cyber power.

The UK has long-lagged its rich country peers on R&D efforts, to the detriment of its own economic growth; and the government, to its credit, has been stepping up its spend. Ensuring our defence programmes are up to date is hard to argue with.

Where the review falls short is seeing science and technology as mainly a means to gain economic, political and security advantages over others. It recognises the need for collaboration, but by focusing on “power for strategic advantage” overlooks the opportunity of a coordination role. The pledge to make the UK the “best place in the world to be a researcher, inventor or innovator” is promising but will depend on implementation and on enabling international access to conferences and workshops.

Technology – and the intellectual property laws that govern it – is also a fundamental issue in the global economic system, and one of the major tensions between China and the US. The UK will need to add intellectual property to its list with digital and cyber where a new global approach is needed.

Shaping the open international order of the future

The review promises “a more active part in sustaining an international order in which open societies and economies continue to flourish and the benefits of prosperity are shared through free trade and global growth”.

This could be the most important objective – outside the EU, the UK now has an even stronger stake in the success of the functioning of the international system. Ensuring well-resourced and effective teams at the World Trade Organisation, IMF, UN, G7 and G20 – and the technical policy capacity to support them – would make a big difference to the UK’s ability to achieve positive changes.

In terms of supporting an open international order, the focus on India makes good sense. With more than a sixth (1.3bn) of the global population, widely recognised as a democracy with flaws but with income at under half the level of China, its development could be pivotal in global openness. The government will need to bring substance on migration and trade alongside much bigger actors like the EU and US. The India-UK “Enhanced Trade Partnership” is a start though to date India has only struck one full trade deal outside of Asia.

Strengthening security and defence at home and overseas,

Here, the Government is marrying a major expansion of its resources on defence – increasing annual spend £7bn by 2024/25 along with a “tilt to the Asia-Pacific” mainly in response to China’s more assertive international position. But the review is light on the UK’s contribution; and how this will contribute to an improved outcome. Former national security advisor Lord Peter Ricketts notes that risks are not prioritised, and resources are not aligned with them.

The review emphasises China’s increased power and assertiveness and highlights Russia as the most acute risk. But it doesn’t mention that the wider trend has been for country-to-country conflict to reduce, with global battle deaths exceeding 100,000 in just one year since 1990 in contrast to over 200,00 in the 1980s, and over 500,000 in 1950.

Building resilience at home and overseas

This objective aims to improve our ability to anticipate, prevent, prepare for and respond to risks ranging from extreme weather to cyber-attacks… climate change and biodiversity loss”.  

The inclusion of climate as the “foremost international priority” is a clear positive and the UK is half-way towards net zero (aided by the pandemic); and the UK deserves credit for prioritising it (alongside biodiversity).

From the start, the Integrated Review has taken too narrow a view of security. Global health was not in its terms of reference even as the pandemic got underway. The review does flag that global deaths related to antimicrobial resistance could rise beyond ten million per year by 2050 (contrast with the 2.7m Covid deaths to date) but does not articulate a response. It barely mentions UN peacekeeping; does not explain the UK’s five-point plan for pandemic preparedness; and has very little on transparency, tax and tackling illicit finance where the UK should have an outsized role given its own fiscal challenges and role as a major finance centre. The Sustainable Development Goals – the blueprint for addressing global challenges – are mentioned just three times.

A broader approach undermined by aid cuts

The UK’s overall international spending will fall despite the increase in defence spend. The review follows a £4bn in-year cut to aid and won’t return to the UN target of 0.7% of GNI until “fiscal circumstances allow”. Policies are important but so are resources and it’s clear the international system –  from humanitarian relief to the WHO, to climate –  is under-funded. The UK is no longer contributing £8bn (net) per year to the EU, so even with the £7bn defence increase, overall international spending will fall. The UK is damaging its bilateral and multilateral relationships with an aid cut that is short-sighted.

Overall then, the Integrated Review gets many things right – the importance of shaping an open international order; prioritising climate, and science and technology. Still, the most powerful tools to reduce the threat of violent confrontation are cooperative ones. As the government implements the review it should focus more on science and tech coordination, broaden the scope of its international cooperation, and returning aid spend to 0.7%.

Ian Mitchell is the the co-director for Europe at the Center for Global Development

Share this page