For Rishi Sunak, Global Britain might be back on the agenda

The Aukus summit and a meeting to update its Integrated Review present London with a chance to look outward again

HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Irish sea near Anglesey last month. PA
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Invitations have gone out to briefings that will set the tone for the UK’s foreign and security revamp as it is unveiled on Monday afternoon.

The word is that the Integrated Review will be “clear-eyed” about the choices facing the UK, something of a gear change from the “far-reaching” strategy in the first-Gen document that emerged in 2021. Just two years later, much has changed utterly in the threat (and opportunities) landscape facing the UK, necessitating the rewrite in the coming week.

The first issue to get out of the way is how necessary this vision update is at this time. Alistair Burt, the veteran foreign policy expert and a former minister, addressed a conference on the UK’s global positioning in London last month, making the point that events that once took decades to play out are currently turned over in years.

So a new version of the Integrated Review has now been whipped up to take account of the Ukraine war and Russia’s future role in Europe. That seems necessary and right.

Realism triggered the new revision. That means that the UK must show a renewed commitment to European continental security. Putting that basic commitment back in place would restore credibility with the US military and provide new opportunities for defence co-operation with the Europeans. Both these are desperately needed.

It would also mean joining the push to boost rearmament across Nato, where the capacity of the western arms industry has fallen behind in the rush to supply Ukraine. A security review that fails to have an industrial policy is no longer fit for purpose. Only when manufacturing lines are working to replace stocks faster than the rate of depletion will the big military powers be in a position to address the future threats as well as present-day needs.

The return of Global Britain after a hiatus triggered by austerity and Brexit is something tangible for Sunak to build on

The tag Global Britain was in vogue when the Integrated Review was first launched. This revised effort will still make an attempt to capture an ideal that the UK is a global player with a valuable contribution to make.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is in California on Monday to offer a fresh framework for the UK global contribution. His sales pitch is that the UK is an effective operator under his new premiership.

The backdrop of the Aukus meeting with his US and Australian counterparts will give some credence to this claim. The tilt to the Indo-Pacific region that the 2021 Integrated Review set as its core will be made real by announcements on Monday as well. London is overjoyed by the coup of securing submarine contracts for Australia involving a mix of US and UK weaponry. The visual symbol of the Pacific Ocean in the backdrop will also assist Mr Sunak in making the case that the UK has not thrown everything out with its return to the planning tables.

Two days later, the UK will have a budget announcement that looks set to add billions of pounds to its annual budget for defence spending. While the sum will be nowhere near what Defence Secretary Ben Wallace sought for a more capable military, it should show that the military is no longer marginal in public life.

The return of Global Britain after a hiatus triggered by austerity and Brexit is something tangible for Mr Sunak to build on, however short the lifespan of the Conservative government may turn out.

London is back as a stopover on the diplomatic circuit. The first reason is that the UK proved its utility to Washington and other allies in leading international support for Ukraine following the 2022 invasion. Even though it is still tenuous, a subsequent reconciliation with Brussels through this month’s Windsor Framework provides valuable reinforcement to its record in handling Ukraine. Not coincidentally, the phone lines between London and Brussels are once again handling more harmonious messages.

It is also healing of a real rift with Joe Biden’s White House. Looked at objectively, it was absurd that, under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the UK was in a muted cold war with Washington. Despite the good work with Ukraine and standing up to Russia, there was a disregard for UK interests in Mr Biden’s team. While the US leader would not explicitly state his beef with the UK, it was the breakdown of Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements with the EU.

The California trip gives Mr Sunak an opportunity to draw a line under that period. A trip by Mr Biden to Northern Ireland and Dublin a week after Easter can provide some kindling for resolving the tension over the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

For the Integrated Review revision process, the key issue to catalyse is how to capitalise on the improving UK-European ties. The weighting of the UK’s neighbourhood needs a dramatic uplift. Whether London is able to demonstrate that European interests are a priority is its real far-sighted challenge.

The review must also capture the realignment of the UK’s stake in the Middle East. The insidious threat posed by the Iranian regime, in particular, has risen up the government’s political agenda and must now be recast in the security portfolio.

Taking forward the opportunities of the Abraham Accords is a necessary pillar of the new Integrated Review. It would be helpful for a steer from the top to cascade through the official diplomatic and security apparatus, including but not limited to those working on regional policy.

Published: March 13, 2023, 5:00 AM