Foreign policy going forward: Five takeaways from the UK Integrated Review

IMAGE: UK and Europe from Space

It has been a few weeks since the Prime Minister published the widely anticipated UK Integrated Review, and now that the initial clamour from pundits and commentators has died down, analysts are beginning to look at the long term impact the review might have on how the UK operates on an international level.

At 114 pages, Global Britain in a competitive age – The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, is a longer strategic review than any similar document published by any UK Government over the last two decades. The comprehensive nature of the review covers not only an assessment of the opportunities and threats facing Britain today but also the approaches that the country wants to pursue in dealing with the wider international community.

Here’s our view on some of the key takeaways from the Review, the UK Government’s view of the country’s future, and the challenges and opportunities for companies and organisations both in the UK and across the world: 

The UK is reinventing itself as a science and technology superpower: For Britain to keep its seat at the international table, it must be part of the defining conversations of our time. This means that in addition to championing democratic values and openness, the UK wants to be involved in the discussions that will shape global governance in areas such as technology, space, cyberspace, FinTech, agriculture and many others. The Review recognises that for the UK to do this, it must create an environment that encourages investment and growth in the science and technology sectors, and the Government will be eager to showcase industry pioneers and partner with sector-leading companies and start-ups.

Tackling climate change and biodiversity loss is the number one international priority: The UK was the first advanced economy to set a net-zero target for 2050, and the Review detailed a ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution. Businesses engaging with research and development in green technologies, climate finance, and sustainable practices could access parts of the £12 billion investment pledged by the government to driving innovation in these fields. On climate change, collaboration is key, and with the Government determined to reduce national emissions, businesses should be mindful that the investment carrot could be followed by the legislative stick. The UK will use its position as host of the G7 and COP26 this year to boost its climate agenda, and as companies engaging with FleishmanHillard’s COP26 Unit will know, is eager to secure net zero commitments from businesses. The UK also understands that tackling climate change can serve as a useful policy area for building its international profile, so expect to see a greater emphasis on climate action in Government foreign policy going forwards.

China has been portrayed as a systemic competitor with which the UK will have to engage: While Russia was branded enemy number one for its security risk and disinformation activities, China presents a greater challenge overall for the UK. It is here where some of the elements of the Review are most conflicting, as the Government sets out how it will try to balance the championing of democratic freedoms and openness and its desire for trade and cooperation with China and other authoritarian regimes. Given that the Government’s tightrope strategy has evoked strong responses from political and public spheres, multinational businesses will need to manage operational and reputational risks concerning trade, supply chains and intellectual property that are likely to increase under greater government scrutiny and more complicated relations with China.

The United States is reaffirmed as Britain’s most important bilateral relationship: For the UK, the special relationship takes centre-stage, as the Review calls for greater cooperation in traditional policy areas. While there is also an emphasis on solidifying the U.S.-UK relationship with a free trade agreement, current signals from the Biden administration indicate it is not a priority and will take longer than the UK hopes. Recent trade disputes suggest that the Biden administration favours a piecemeal approach to the trade relationship between the two countries, in which the resolution of outstanding issues takes precedence over securing a new trade deal. American businesses should be mindful of British optimism towards a trade deal but should be able to capitalise on political goodwill in the UK towards improving the transatlantic relationship.

European Union has become European: With the UK eager to stress its distinct foreign policy and freedom of action following the end of the Brexit transition period, it is unsurprising that references to the European Union are limited in the Review. Instead, the strategy refers to the UK’s broader commitments to defence and security in Europe primarily through NATO. It also notes that Britain will work with the EU where mutual aims exist, such as on joint research ventures and climate action, suggesting that cooperation will be more closely determined by British interests. The UK is however eager to strengthen bilateral relations with key partners such as France and Germany, and companies operating across borders could benefit from forging closer relationships with the Government.

Ambitious in scope and sensible in its assessments, the UK Integrated Review captures the UK’s competing priorities in a changing international landscape and communicates the Government’s desire to consolidate the nation’s political autonomy post-Brexit. Ultimately, the success of the Review will depend on action, and as the Government begins implementing its strategy over the coming decade, we shall see if Britain can deliver on its commitments to global governance, scientific innovation, sustainable trade and climate action.

Alexander Baker is a member of FleishmanHillard UK’s Public Affairs team. He has a background in international affairs and government communications

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