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The UK Integrated Review, or the Unconditional Optimism of Political Leadership

Trevor Taylor
Commentary, 31 March 2021
UK Integrated Review 2021, UK, Defence Policy
Well-written and brimming with confidence, the recently released Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is short on detail about its implementation.

Addressing multiple audiences

The articulation and subsequent assessment of policy reviews is always challenging because the documents involved have two different roles and three different audiences. In terms of functionality, they are high-level documents serving to direct and constrain the decisions of civil servants and the military so that they follow a cohesive course. For Defence, they are a key element needed for political direction of the military. They must also present the UK Parliament and taxpayers with explanations of how funds are to be used and the rationale behind the chosen priorities. Hence, they play a crucial role in maintaining public support for defence and the wider accountability and transparency agenda.

But they are also announcements to external players, particularly potential adversaries as well as allies and friendly governments, informing them of the UK’s concerns and intentions. At well over 100 pages of moderately dense print, the overwhelming majority of citizens (and Members of Parliament) are likely to rely on summaries of the Integrated Review in the mass media for information, rather than reading the document itself. That major newspapers failed to report on the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy, probably on the grounds that it was one defence story too many, means that analysis will remain invisible to many in the UK public.

The publicising of the decision to raise the cap on UK nuclear warheads from 180 to 260 and other more assertive words in the document were seemingly directed at potential adversaries. However, this is also the section that domestic audiences, including this author, find most baffling, not least because there was no pressing need to say anything much about the topic at all.

Shaping the Review

There appear to have been at least three separate influences shaping the wording of the Review. First, it clearly had to be written to support the prime minister’s vision of a post-Brexit UK and the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. This has yielded a paper which is permeated with confidence and optimism, and which makes minimal reference to the EU, despite four of the UK’s leading defence businesses being controlled from the continent (Airbus, Leonardo, MBDA and Thales). As such, the Review is fully compatible with the ‘Global Britain’ concept.

Second, particularly on China, the Review reflects the separate departmental interests associated on the one hand with the economy and on the other with the security challenges that China presents. And finally, there are the specific concerns of defence and security professionals, who may wish to ensure that East Asia does not divert UK resources from more immediate and direct threats from Russia. In this light, and for those who do not want to rule out a closer long-term relationship with the EU, there are a couple of sentences that at least leave the door unlocked:

Russia is the most acute threat in the region and we will work with NATO Allies to ensure a united Western response, combining military, intelligence and diplomatic efforts. We will continue to support closer practical cooperation between NATO and the EU in pursuit of this goal. We will cooperate with the EU on matters of security and defence as independent partners, where this is in our interest.

One might even conclude that, in its more than 100 pages of print, advocates for almost any policy line will find something in the Review to endorse their viewpoint.

Confidence (or over-confidence) permeates the Review

Government confidence that it can control the future is reflected in simple content analysis of the wording. Anyone reading the paper should be struck by how often the phrase ‘we will’ appears. Even considering the broad scope of the Review, it is extraordinary that it contains around 350 firm governmental commitments with virtually no recognition of what others might want or how they may behave. For example:

We will strengthen bilateral relationships – particularly, but not solely, with our key allies the United States, France (via the Lancaster House treaties and the CJEF) and Germany – as well as multilateral groupings such as the Joint Expeditionary Force.

There is no recognition that these things are not solely a matter of the UK’s choice, a standpoint that may cause some irritation among French or German readers of the document. Elsewhere, it reads:

The United States will remain our most important bilateral relationship, essential to key alliances and groups such as NATO and the Five Eyes, and our largest bilateral trading partner and inward investor. We will reinforce our cooperation in traditional policy areas such as security and intelligence…

The United States will remain the UK’s most important strategic ally and partner…

Reading this, the next iteration of a President Trump might be muttering ‘perhaps’, but the possibility of a future US president who does not take relations with either Europe or the UK seriously is not formally included in the Review. The nearest the government comes to recognising the impact of the actions of the last US president is on page 11 of the Defence Command Paper. Here, the description of the US–UK alliance as ‘enduring’ could be interpreted to mean that the alliance withstood even Trump’s presidency.

Perhaps the most obvious area of reluctance to admit risk lies in the forecast that the UK will be a science superpower, a declared objective which does not address the lack of digital skills among many leaving full-time education or the long-acknowledged shortage of UK STEM graduates. Instead, there is only an emphasis on the drive to attract overseas experts to the UK through the Global Talent Visa scheme.

Despite the extensive list of things that ‘will’ happen (covering around 100 pages), the Review devotes just two and a half pages to their implementation. The capacity of the National Security Adviser and the National Security Council to deliver security, foreign policy, defence and foreign aid coherence across the activities of multiple departments – each with their own agenda – and of the MoD to integrate single service priorities seems to be taken for granted.

An achievement for public servants

However, there should be no doubting that the Review is a major organisational and even intellectual achievement. It required a significant effort on the part of officials to generate a coherent picture covering the large number of topics, organisations, policies and processes that fall under the umbrella of security. Their work also involved trawling through a large number of submissions from external stakeholders and interested parties so that adequate external consultation could be asserted. They should be congratulated, and the extra demands placed on them are a reminder that such reviews should not be undertaken too often if day jobs are not to be neglected and work-life balance problems for those at the centre of the process are to be avoided.

Conclusion

One final question is whether the multiple Parliamentary Committees interested in the Review will coordinate their activities to list the various commitments made, divide items appropriately between them, and hold the government to account on progress on an annual basis. Alternatively, will many items prove unworthy of prioritisation – or too difficult to pursue – and subsequently be allowed to slip from the collective consciousness, like the plans for Joint Force 2025 that were promised in 2015 and those for Army 2020 before that?

Just as reviews serve different audiences, they can also be viewed as the basis for sustained implementation and change, or as efforts to deliver politically appealing messages for the short term. Reaching over 280 pages of text altogether, only time will reveal the outcomes of the many hours of work that went into drafting the Integrated Review and its associated documents.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: The North Door of the Ministry of Defence Main Building Headquarters in London. Courtesy of Harland Quarrington/defenceimages.mod.uk

Author

Trevor Taylor
Professorial Research Fellow, Defence, Industries and Society

Trevor Taylor is Professorial Research Fellow in Defence Management at RUSI, where he heads up a research programme in Defence,... read more

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