Global Britain sets new foreign policy frontiers in fields such as science, technology, space and cyber
A tilt to the Indo-Pacific region is among the bold promises to navigate a competitive global scene
Britain is betting its future security strategy on carving out a role as a leading force in science and technology and to operate as a country sharing its expertise as the basis of international diplomacy.
In a 114-page Integrated Review written by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's foreign affairs adviser John Bew, the UK set out four objectives for foreign, defence, security and development policies through the rest of the decade to 2030. These are to establish a strategic advantage in science and technology; shaping the international order for the future; boosting security and defence; as well as resilience at home and abroad.
London remains committed to European defence and is increasing the resources it devotes to Nato. It regards the security of the Arabian Gulf and wider Middle East as important and will not downgrade ties, although it does not envisage the activism of recent decades in the region.
Titled Global Britain in a Competitive Age, there is a welter of new thinking about what constitutes defence and the future of battlefields. New priorities include cyber threats, outer space developments and the disruption of the digital economy.
Some of the thinking in the review was presaged by research at the think tank Policy Exchange, where Mr Bew was formerly a policy fellow. Gabriel Elefteriu, the Policy Exchange director of research, said the government had embarked on an ambitious effort to create new networks and alliances to make real the Global Britain policy.
"This is a review that understands there are other big things in play at the systemic level in terms of new rules for global data flows, cyber, governance of space, perhaps autonomous weapons," he told The National.
"It combines this with a prudent outlook that says we should look to what works in the current system and shape the new international order.
"Science and technology has been identified as being this theme that drives the entire Global Britain story forward," he said. "Certain technologies have matured to the point where they're having a material effect on the character of warfare."
An outline of the implications for the military in the new framework will be revealed on Monday when the government is expected to detail cuts to some parts of the armed forces. Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, voiced his concern that the reductions will mean Britain will be unable to deliver on its new commitments.
"I worry the pendulum has swung too far," he said.
While observing the jury is out on the resources questions, Mr Elefteriu sees the need for radical changes. "The last revolution we had was the revolution in military affairs in the 1980s-1990s – introducing precision strikes and so on – which shaped warfighting to this day and secured western dominance of the battlefield.
"I think we're kind of in the same situation today. The real question is not whether this is the right way to go but whether it goes far enough."
The report sets its sights on the countries of the Indian and Pacific Oceans for vital potential alliances. The UK already has a dialogue partner role in the regional bloc Asean and is keen to secure membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific.
It also prizes closer ties with the so-called Quad – the US, Japan, India and Australia.
A report from Policy Exchange in 2020 outlined support in the region for the idea. “Policy Exchange set up an Indo-Pacific Commission and they all said they wanted a more global Britain in the region – a very marked contrast with some of the narrative you hear in this country around Brexit Britain that suggests it is now so diminished that no one abroad cares about it," Mr Elefteriu said.
Those countries would look at what Britain had to offer beyond its focus on the Euro-Atlantic area. "What can we offer to our partners in the region, how can we enable them to strengthen their societies, their capabilities and create these new networks of alliances?" he said.
While the US had the interest and the scope to pivot its foreign policy away from Europe to the Pacific, the British shift is a more constrained tilt in that direction.
While the review describes Russia as an "acute threat", the authors are more open to co-operation with China, which is described as a "systemic competitor".
The nuance is important for countries that deal with China as a neighbour and economic partner.
"Britain needs to tread carefully so it does not take a neutral approach between the US and China but that at the same time it does not become confrontational," said Mr Elefteriu said.
"One of our selling points with prospective partners is that it can bring the same capabilities in certain areas but that it is not simply moving in the slipstream of American policy."
New frontiers explored in the review offer most for countries, including those in the Middle East that have developed in artificial intelligence and space programmes.
"Space power today is really becoming an element of national power – space is not just a branch of science policy, it is not just about business or thriving industry," Mr Elefteriu said. "It's about capabilities that have a material effect on your position in the world, on your geopolitical posture. It's very good that this review puts space front and centre along with cyber.
"It's time for a new iteration of the international system that's up for grabs. Other reviews were set down in terms of defending the liberal international order that was inherited after the Cold War."
Updated: March 17, 2021 09:04 PM