The Infinite Review: Global Britain and its Competitive Priorities

The UK Government’s Integrated Review sets an ambitious agenda to be a contender in an era of global competition. Unshackled from Europe, everything seems to be a priority. Richard Reeve argues that, for all the talk of its soft and scientific superpowers, the opportunity to save the world and protect and serve its people has been wasted.

The UK Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (‘Integrated Review’) was finally released by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 16 March. Reactions to its report, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, seem more polarised than to previous national security reviews. Perhaps this reflects its significantly broader scope. The Review had also courted controversy through prime ministerial bombast (“the largest, most radical since the Cold War”), the obsessively tech-focused inputs of his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, and the PM’s practice of delivering on its assumed conclusions months before these had been formally reached. Thus, DFID was merged into the Foreign Office, aid spending slashed, military spending boosted and a radical new ‘Integrated Operating Concept’ for the armed forces announced while the Review was under way.

Much of the mainstream media –drip-fed the outcomes via government leaks over the previous week – focused on the Review’s long-expected strategic ‘tilt’ to China and the ‘Indo-Pacific’. For The Times and Telegraph, the question was whether the Review had gone far enough to confront China. In fact, the ‘tilt’ only gets three pages, and much of that is about greater UK trade and diplomatic engagement. China is depicted as challenging rather than overtly threatening.

Civil society’s reaction has been loudest and most outraged in response to the announcement of a 44% increase in the UK’s stockpile of nuclear warheads after decades of reductions. More informed and eloquent commentators have lamented this appalling and unexplained decision so I will not revisit it here other than to say it is the nadir of this and all recent security reviews.

Between these reactions to two of the few surprises in the Review lies a long and dense document in whose 50,000 or so words lurks something for almost everyone but little of detail, coherence or what might reasonably be called strategy. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it reflects the populist nature of contemporary politics, promising much more than it can deliver, without providing the detail to be held accountable for it.

Written in the midst of the gravest human security crisis in a century, and on the cusp of irreversible ecological breakdown, it is a frustrating missed opportunity to set a course to a sustainable future. For all its talk of long-termism, cooperation and futuristic technology, it is deeply rooted in the old logic of existential competition. This initial commentary sets out some thoughts on where the Integrated Review has gone wrong and right, and how the next review must build from it towards existential cooperation.

If not a strategy…

Perhaps the most confounding aspect of the Integrated Review is that, despite taking twice as long as previous reviews, it has not produced a National Security Strategy in the way that Number 10 had billed, or that previous reviews had. Instead, the Review is a long (114 pages) vision statement of what the authors would like the UK’s role and status to be in 2030 and a list of 77 ‘priority actions’ that will help to get there. On its own terms, it presents a strategic framework for a particular conception of British greatness that essentially involves being taken seriously by the bits of the world that it thinks matter: the US, China and India. The focus countries have shifted but this need to matter – to see itself as a force for good – remains the UK’s true foreign policy baseline.

Checking against its initial remit announced by the PM in February last year the Integrated Review has broadly delivered. It does define the government’s ambition and strategic aims. It sets out many ways and means that it will use to achieve them. It determines some of the capabilities it needs, though few are elaborated. And it identifies some reforms to government systems and structures, again in no detail. But it does not bring these together into a credible plan with any sense of priorities, trade-offs or timescale.

One of its most notable features is its referencing of other strategies that need to be developed to deliver results: cyber; space; defence and security industrial; international development; digital; investment; defence AI; media literacy; comprehensive national resilience; net zero; biosecurity; and a strategic conflict agenda to list just those overtly named. Plus all the non-nuclear military stuff will be put into a separate ‘Defence Command Paper’ next week. This is not necessarily a bad thing; the whole of government ought to be involved in implementing a national strategy. The problem is that there still is not a coherent national strategy for them to fit into, let alone a realistic or sustainable one.

And if not security…

Rethinking Security’s leading ask of the Review was that it should define what ‘security’ means and for whom it is provided. Unlike its predecessors, it does do that, albeit in a rather narrow sense: “the protection of our people, territory, [critical national infrastructure], democratic institutions and way of life.” (p.13) Unusually, Security is described as one of three “interests of the British people”, alongside their Sovereignty (democratic and individual rights and liberties) and Prosperity (economic and social well-being). The government’s role is to protect and promote these interests.

This is progress of sorts. We have a definition and the people (albeit only British people) are right in there, not just the state’s own interests. A nod has been given to their well-being. But it is a shame that this centring of people’s interests is rarely evident in the rest of the document. 

The phrase that recurs instead is delivering and sustaining “strategic advantage” and the big idea (very much from Cummings) is that the UK can only achieve this by becoming a ‘science and technology superpower’. Certainly, this has a militarised sci-fi dimension that has all too terrifying parallels across the world – robotics and AI, directed energy beams, hypersonic missiles, pervasive surveillance, space and cyber warfare – but it runs much beyond this towards the promises of clean energy and medical breakthroughs. This is the double-edged lightsabre, if you will, that cuts right through the Integrated Review and its possibilities of being a force for good.

It is not inconceivable that Science and Technology (S&T) could yet capture the national imagining of Global Britain. It fits well with the Conservative’s domestic ‘levelling up’ agenda and efforts to strengthen a crumbling Union via state industrial investment. Visionary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the Briton who came closest to Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill in the BBC’s public polling on Greatest Britons. Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton weren’t far behind. The Review makes strong points about the UK’s incredible scientific base and its achievements, most recently including the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine.

S&T is certainly part of the answer to so many of the global challenges that we face. Yet it is clear from the funding allocations listed in the Review’s annex that the majority of nearly £15 billion in pledged new research and development funding is already earmarked for weapons, surveillance and cyber warfare. And that is not including the £10 billion estimated cost of developing and building a new nuclear warhead this decade. The balance of UK scientific R&D actually looks likely to be weighted further against human progress just as we need it most.

Reality checks

Moreover, is it realistic that the UK can will (or subsidise) into being a trillion dollar tech firm to rival Apple, Amazon, Microsoft or Huawei? Does the developing world really want the UK, rather than China, India or Korea, to build its infrastructure? Is the knowledge economy on which S&T thrives really compatible with the government’s obsession with sovereignty and migration controls?

The Integrated Review is riven with contradictions that reflect its failure to clearly or consistently set priorities. Sure, pandemics, climate change, transformative new technologies, the rise of China, diminishing democracy and human rights are all massive challenges ahead. But how do we prioritise and reconcile tackling them? Unlike its predecessors, the Integrated Review eschews the National Security Risk Assessment methodology so we have no idea which risks it evaluates as the greatest and thus no way of evaluating whether it has allocated its resources rationally.

The Review acknowledges that “inevitable tensions and trade-offs” will have to be managed (p.17) but gives no real guidance on how this will happen, helping Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to immediately tie himself in knots justifying promoting trade with countries identified by the UK as human rights abusers. Other illustrative examples are not hard to find.

The government will make “tackling climate change and biodiversity loss its number one international priority” says the Review at several points – also describing it (on p.87) as the second goal of its fourth objective – but only gets to climate change on page 89, having convinced us that its priorities are becoming a S&T superpower and being taken seriously by the rest of the world. In fact, the eventual wording suggests that this is actually the top diplomatic priority while the UK is hosting COP26 this year, not its top strategic priority overall. And the funding annex helps to clarify that military spending will absolutely dwarf climate spending over the planned period. This is a colossal problem. Tackling the sustainability of our ailing planet should be the central feature that informs all else in the national strategy, not tucked away at its tail end.

A significant part of the Review is devoted to how the UK will seek to “shape the open international order of the future” and make the promotion of human rights, open societies and democracies one of its top priorities. In the abstract: fantastic! But promotion of greater trade with China, the Gulf States and other autocracies clearly sits in tension with this. Moreover, the government has trashed its reputation for international law of late through its Overseas Operations Bill, its bad faith dealings with the EU, its flouting of the UN and ICJ on decolonising the Chagos Archipelago, and now its decision to undo its nuclear disarmament commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has abrogated our own constitution and pursued a sustained agenda of restricting the UK’s traditionally open society. Strategies have to make assumptions but they are useless if their professed priorities are merely abstract articulations of ideal values openly ignored. No international strategy has credibility unless it is reflected in domestic norms.

And for the least convenient things, the Review avoids contradictions by simply not mentioning them. There is no mention at all of arms exports. There is nothing on the complexities of UK involvement with Gulf States or Yemen, nor of massive cuts to aid for the most vulnerable, conflict-affected countries. The UK’s world-leading role in facilitating tax evasion is omitted. And there is next to nothing on far-right extremism or the insecurity, injustice and scarcities that ordinary people experience in their daily lives within the UK. Resilience, as the Review (p.11) reminds us, starts at home. But the Review is silent on redressing the insecurities that the British people are beginning to challenge, from hunger and homelessness to the safety of our streets and our right to roam.

Getting it right

For all its inconsistencies and omissions, there are intimations within the Integrated Review that a more constructive approach might be beginning to take root somewhere in the national security secretariat’s thinking.

The Review’s scope is encouraging, though often hard to follow. It is right to see a broad range of global challenges as well as a broad range of responses that the UK and others can make use of. Downplaying the use of military force and power projection (a term used only once) is welcome, though perhaps disingenuous given the vastly disproportionate resources devoted to them. The Defence Command Paper may yet set a more familiar course.

Talk of cooperation, convening, multilateralism and burden-sharing is also welcome and quite different to the last National Security Strategy. The buccaneering jingoism usually associated with Global Britain is largely absent. There is a recognition throughout the document that, for all the talk of its latent superpowers, the UK cannot go it alone and needs to work constructively with others. There is perhaps a hint of humility in the text around working with others to reshape a new international order rather than arrogantly upholding a “rules-based international order” devised by the UK and its closest allies. The word ‘shared’ appears often: shared problems, challenges, interests, values, resources, prosperity, security even.

For me, the lurking ‘something’ of appeal comes early on, in the Overview’s framing paragraphs:

“Yet the international order is only as robust, resilient and legitimate as the states that comprise it. Liberal democracies must do more to prove the benefits of openness – free and fair trade, the flow of capital and knowledge – to populations that have grown sceptical about its merits or been inadequately protected in the past from the downsides of globalisation. This means tackling the priority issues – health, security, economic well-being and the environment – that matter most to our citizens in their everyday lives. In the years ahead, our national security and international policy must do a better job of putting the interests and values of the British people at the heart of everything we do.”

Global Britain in a competitive age, p.12.

If only this sentiment were reflected in the document that follows! Here is the kernel of a human security approach genuinely concerned with the wellbeing and freedoms of the people and the planet. Had the Reviewers had the confidence to consult with the people of the country they might have produced a humane and cooperative strategy that understood and met their needs rather than sustaining their strategic advantage over those they have never met.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image CreditPage 8 of Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, Crown Copyright 2021.

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