The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy published by the British government at the end of March is a most remarkable document: innovative, forward-looking, and comprehensive. Alongside a strong emphasis on nonmilitary tools of foreign policy, the UK is planning the biggest investment in defense since the end of the Cold War and the substantial growth of its nuclear deterrent arsenal. As a template for modern strategizing, it is a useful model for structuring a country’s interactions within the globalized world.

The general impression of the Integrated Review is that the important changes in the document do little to alter the principal foreign policy orientation of the United Kingdom. The review describes the UK first and foremost as a trading nation, which, of course, it always has been. There is a clear emphasis on science and technology, which is a sign of the times. British soft power, always impressive, is duly highlighted. Newly divorced from the European Union, Britain is far from alone: its vital relationship with the United States—bilaterally and through NATO—has become even stronger.

In the realm of geopolitics, the UK is distancing itself from the EU, while at the same time identifying itself as a European power. In that capacity, it is drawing even closer to the community of English-speaking nations built around the United States, together with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand: the Five Eyes. Within that tightly knit global community, Britain is the European component. Under the present circumstances, the Five Eyes is becoming much more than an intelligence-sharing mechanism. It should now be regarded as the core element of the U.S.-led global system, its inner circle.

In this context, the UK Integrated Review should be rightly understood as fully integrated with the U.S. global strategy as outlined in the recently released U.S. National Security Strategic Guidance. The Joe Biden administration’s motto of “building back better” has been fully adopted by the authors of the British review. There is also a strong ideological component to the UK paper, as there is to the U.S. guidance, pointing to the ongoing offensive/counteroffensive against China and Russia as authoritarian regimes. It is aimed at creating an international order based on the ideas, norms, rules, and standards shared by members of the current U.S.-led Western system.

Indeed, preserving the status quo in the world is not considered an option; the goal is expanding democracy, open societies, and human rights, which means recovering the West’s dominant position. The way to achieve this, the review seems to suggest, is to mount a collective Western effort under U.S. leadership, with the UK as America’s closest ally. Despite the professed realist(ic) approach to foreign policy and stated willingness to compromise, both realism and compromise can only be tactical in nature as London pursues its reinvigorated foreign policy. In the systemic competition against authoritarians and their allies, there does not appear to be a substitute for victory.

The Integrated Review’s geopolitical focus tilts toward the Indo-Pacific, where the UK seeks to be the European player. While standing by the United States and its regional allies, the UK also aspires to promote its economic interests in the fastest-growing region of the world. It hopes to revive and rethink the links dating back to the days of the empire, particularly with India. Interestingly, the UK is trying to balance the basic approach to China as the main challenger to the U.S.-led system with its own willingness and readiness to collaborate with Beijing on a range of issues, all the while doing profitable business with the huge and growing economic power. This looks like a complex juggling act.

The Integrated Review names the “state threats” as the most relevant ones, and though it calls China the principal systemic challenger, it reserves for Russia the position of “the most acute threat to our security.” Russia is placed in the same category as Iran and North Korea as a most hostile nation. The UK pledges to its NATO allies a more robust defense posture vis-à-vis Russia; it reaffirms its support for Eastern European countries; and it plans to continue military assistance to Ukraine. The decision to increase the UK’s nuclear weapons arsenal is also clearly aimed at Russia.

The Integrated Review mentions the Salisbury poisonings and Russian interference many times. Nowhere in the paper is there a word about possible cooperation with Russia on any issue—unlike with China, not to speak of many other countries. This has prompted the Russian ambassador to London, Andrei Kelin, to conclude that the political relationship between the UK and Russia is now de facto nonexistent. The Integrated Review implies that there can be no cooperation with Moscow until the Russian government either changes its policies in a fundamental way or is replaced by a government with a very different policy agenda.

Moscow is probably taking these statements and proposed actions seriously, but without much alarm: relations have been going from bad to worse for years. It acknowledges that the UK government has been pursuing a hostile policy toward Russia in close coordination and cooperation with the United States. This means that Russia-UK relations are essentially as confrontational as those between Russia and the United States. In practical terms, Moscow will have to keep a closer eye on British actions in Russia’s post-Soviet neighborhoods, from Belarus and Ukraine to the Caucasus and Central Asia.

This state of affairs is here for the long term, and is hardly new. In some ways, the situation is vaguely reminiscent of both the Great Game and the Cold War—with an important caveat: there seems to be almost no ground for civil intercourse between the governments in Moscow and London, and no chance for the UK to play a facilitating role between Washington and Moscow as it did during parts of the Cold War. It is fair to add, of course, that the UK is hardly looking now for such a role.

Yet though bilateral political contacts are unlikely to be frequent or productive, Russia and the UK could and even should engage each other in bilateral and multilateral settings on a range of global issues, in particular climate change, in view of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this fall; public health; nonproliferation (the fate of the Iran nuclear agreement); strategic stability (the Russia-proposed summit of the five permanent UN Security Council members); and other. There is potential room for discussing some regional issues, including in the Middle East. Other nonpolitical, nongovernmental contacts, whether in business, science and technology, education, or other fields should be allowed to proceed, albeit within the constraints of the ongoing confrontation.

By:
  • Dmitri Trenin