The review of the UK’s foreign, defense, development and security policy was published this week after a year of consideration. It was the most apt time to do so. The combination of a fresh administration after the election of 2019, the UK’s exit from the EU and coping with a pandemic is surely a unique collection of circumstances in which to consider where a state may be going internationally.
The review is certainly bold and, to a degree, unconventional. If readers are searching for an index, in which to look up chapters devoted to familiar regions and geopolitical issues, they will look in vain. The whole point of integration is to engage both the population of the UK and those friendly and less friendly to us overseas in awareness that old boundaries are breaking down and that the speed of technological and scientific change has consequences for the old order. Friends, as in those in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), need to absorb all the messages to appreciate that the UK will still be reaching out to them in old and new ways.
Conventional issues are covered, but not in endless pages. The UK government says that it “will build on existing partnerships across the MENA region, strengthening them and taking them to new places through deeper engagement on science, technology, health, climate and biodiversity.” Do not miss the personal intent behind these examples. As at the UN Security Council during the UK’s presidency last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson clearly sees his legacy as depending on engaging multilateral efforts to combat climate change and the threat to biodiversity loss, which he describes as the UK’s “No. 1 international priority.” This is some claim. He has led the review and it was he, not the foreign secretary, who launched it in Parliament. This is important to note. These examples matter deeply to him, and the country.
The review is alive to regular policy messages, mentioning the need to work with partners in relation to Iran, the importance of the UK’s historic partners in the Gulf on maritime security, threats to Europe and the need for NATO, and combating terror.
I think the overall message should be reassuring. Despite the recognition of the growing importance of the East and the “tilt to the Indo-Pacific,” in which, of course, the UK is far from alone, familiar alliances get a boost. A US back in the international arena, the E3 of the UK,
France and Germany, and the UK’s many friends in the MENA region remain as foundations of global security but, as part of this new collective relationship, that security is increasingly to be built around smart technology and science.
The hub of the paper and policy is in four overarching principles. The first of these is not, as would have been expected a generation ago, the UK’s commitment to NATO and increased defense spending, but rather “sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology.” The second is to ensure that “open societies and open economies can flourish.” Importantly, these key objectives are not focused on any triumphal “Make Britain Great Again” claim of world-leading exceptionalism. Instead they are rooted in a paragraph recognizing that the UK cannot achieve its objectives alone — it must rely on collective action and co-creation with others, leading by example where it can but identifying “where we are better placed to support others.” It is a big country that recognizes the need to work with others.
If the policy is influenced by a fast-changing technological world, where there are many threats from those who would make use of cyber and advanced scientific innovation for illicit purposes, it is also influenced by the recognition that security abroad is now intimately linked to domestic security. The targeting of states in cyberattacks are not victimless crimes because the perpetrators are truly aiming at our citizens accessing services or being protected by their critical infrastructure, from Abu Dhabi to Aberdeen. Just as in a pandemic, no one is safe unless all are safe.
There will be challenges, and questions to be asked. Modernizing a nuclear arsenal is one thing, but increasing the number of warheads while maintaining the mutual disarmament element of the Non-Proliferation Treaty will take some explaining. And the effort to square the circle on the UK’s exceptional development contribution in recent years by being reassuring about a return to the high standard of 0.7 percent of gross national income “when the fiscal situation allows,” while currently reducing it to 0.5 percent because of the pandemic, will not convince all in Parliament.
However, no set of foreign policy principles will be universally accepted, least of all in a free society that is open to questions. I doubt if this one will gather much dust, as it is set to be a topic of discussion in many capitals for quite some time.
• Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019.