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The UK’s Integrated Review: Seeing Through a Glass Darkly

Paul O'Neill
Commentary, 18 March 2021
Military Sciences, UK Integrated Review 2021, UK
The UK looks at itself and sees only what it wants to see.

The UK’s much anticipated Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was announced by the prime minister on 16 March. Trailed as being the most radical assessment of the UK’s place in the world since the end of the Cold War, expectations that this would give substance to the notion of ‘Global Britain’ were high. It is certainly full of confidence about the UK’s role in the world, entirely consistent with the prime minister’s view of the UK as a superman ready to assume global leadership. 

Overall, the authors have done a pretty good job balancing themes and plotting a direction that reflects the current range of threats and opportunities while remaining coherent with existing directions of travel. The review manages to name check most of the important things in its 114 pages. Inevitably, though, such documents reflect bureaucratic compromise and reveal competing interests, inconsistencies and gaps in what is known. The ambiguity in the tilt to the Indo-Pacific is one example of this process of compromise. Given the (understandable) delays to this review, it is striking how many other strategies and decisions still need to follow. 

The Defence Command Paper follows next week, and there will be new cyber, space, resilience, defence and security industry, investment, media literacy and international development strategies. Decisions are also needed on other ideas, including whether to create a College for National Security as part of a new Curriculum and Campus for Government Skills. How different this is to the creation of a virtual National Security Academy that was a commitment in 2015’s Strategic Defence and Security Review is unclear. Indeed, there are numerous instances where priorities from 2015’s review are rolled over into this year’s, which suggests changes did not go far or fast enough, most specifically in relation to tools to improve strategy-making.

The commitments to science and technology, climate action and improving societal resilience are all welcome, but arguably highlight a lack of integration despite the review’s title. The investment in science and technology, as well as being late and limited compared to adversaries, does not seem to engage the broader issue of higher education, save for applied research. Even if all future technology needs were known, this would be short-sighted, but the fact they are not makes it more concerning. A truly integrated review would have taken a broader perspective and been more tolerant of pure research. It would also have focused on improving UK education more generally, not just in relation to attracting global talent. 

Societal resilience is also a topic demanding broad integration. The review describes an unspecified ‘new approach to preparedness and response to risks’, which would do well to engage society broadly – including education, industry, supply chains and civil society – in a genuinely national endeavour. The idea of creating civilian reserves in addition to greater use of military reserves is certainly worthy, building on the volunteering schemes run throughout the coronavirus pandemic. As thinking on this matures, it needs to go beyond a whole-of-government approach to protecting democratic processes and building resilience. 

Even within the review itself, a lack of integration is clear in the incongruity between a passionate commitment to the environment and the decision to expand the UK’s nuclear arsenal.  

While there is much in the review that is positive, there are some significant challenges. There are many instances where the priorities are not clear, and the strategic framework does not help to guide prioritisation between its elements. We must hope that the further work that is promised helps reconcile the ‘ends, ways and means’.  


Even if a destination is largely sensible, good journeys need to be clear about the starting position so a sensible path can be plotted between the two. The flaw at the review’s heart is a failure to describe accurately the UK’s current situation. 

For many, the UK is not viewed as a hero the world looks to for global leadership and for whom honour, respect and reliability are paramount. The willingness to break international agreements in respect of the EU, allegedly now in relation to Northern Ireland trade, breaches of manifesto commitments in relation to cutting development aid (even if temporary), ignoring (admittedly non-binding) International Court of Justice opinions and General Assembly resolutions (such as in relation to the Chagos Islands), and increasing the nuclear arsenal in a breach of the spirit (at least) of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which follows hot on the heels of the Nuclear Ban Treaty, send messages about the kind of state the UK has become and how reliable it is as a partner. Its knightly armour is more tarnished than the Integrated Review suggests. This is important because, as the review itself acknowledges, the majority of threats are not amenable to independent action.  

Understandably, sovereignty is a key plank of this review given the proximity to Brexit, but the government must avoid its ideological position from diminishing the UK’s ability to overcome its threats. The review implies the UK is a ‘middle power’, so working with others is essential. Adopting a purely transactional approach to other countries will not forge the relationships needed to address transnational threats. The UK’s behaviour towards allies and partners must go beyond case-by-case cooperation where the value stream flows only to the UK.  

While the review perpetuates the careful formulation that sees NATO and the EU as separate, the reality is that much of the membership is the same and it is unrealistic to expect behaviour in one club not to spill over into the other. Perceptions of the UK by European NATO allies will be shaped by behaviour towards them as EU members, and other potential partners will also judge the UK by how it treats its existing partners. This review might have been more compelling as a map had it been blessed with the power Robert Burns wished for: to see ourselves as others see us.

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

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of assetseller/Adobe Stock.


Paul O’Neill
Senior Research Fellow

Paul O’Neill is a Senior Research Fellow in Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute. His research interests cover... read more

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