We now know the international and strategic priorities of Boris Johnson’s government

On Wednesday 16th March, the UK government released a 120-page document titled Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Billed as the “biggest review since the end of the Cold War”, it set out to define the UK’s priorities for foreign, defence, security and development policy for the next decade. Yet you do not need to read the full document to understand where this government’s commitments lie in the years ahead. The 1,336-word foreword from Boris Johnson himself does just that, containing 25 bolded phrases. These provide the greatest indicators of the international and strategic priorities of Boris Johnson’s government in the long- and short-term. They cover a range of topics, from the post-pandemic recovery aims to focusing on security, science and technology, the environment, and international development. This blog post sets out to examine each one in more detail.

THE UK’S POST-PANDEMIC RECOVERY AIMS

Boris Johnson starts his foreword by addressing the impact of coronavirus on the past year, arguing that this pandemic “has reminded us that security threats and tests of national resilience can take many forms”. Yet its mention is not framed in a negative tone. Instead, Johnson highlights that “the UK is emerging from the pandemic with renewed determination and optimism”. Central to the UK’s post-pandemic recovery are two interconnected aims, which contain the first two phrases highlighted in bold:

“We are resolved to build back better, ensuring that we are stronger, safer and more prosperous than before.”

BORIS JOHNSON

His statement makes it clear that to achieve one of these aims, you have to achieve both. Thus, in the minds of this government, there is a strong link between their domestic policy to level up society and their international policy set out in the Integrated Review. To them, both are rooted in making Britain stronger, safer and more prosperous.

THE UK’S STRENGTHS

Next, Boris sets out three inherent strengths that the UK now possesses to make these aims a reality. These are: (1) agility and speed of action; (2) the Union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and (3) our unique soft power. All three were highlighted in bold in the text.

He firstly claims that the UK now possesses agility and speed of action thanks to leaving the European Union in January. Boris argues that Brexit means “we will be open to the world, free to tread our own path”, and that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU gives the UK “the freedom to do things differently and better, both economically and politically”. In practice, this manifests in the ability to be agile and quick (if the UK chooses), which “will enable us to deliver for our citizens, enhancing our prosperity and security”.

Secondly, Boris states that “the Union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has proved its worth time and again, including in this pandemic. It is our greatest source of strength at home and abroad”. Its inclusion in the foreword seems deliberate, given that the issue of Scottish independence looks set to dominate the national discourse between Westminster and Holyrood for the next three years. Yet the Prime Minister does not expand on how the Union does this.

Finally, Boris highlights the UK’s soft power advantage. He proudly states that “our country overflows with creativity in the arts and sciences: the wellsprings of unique soft power that spans the globe”.           

DEMOCRACY AND THE INTERNATIONAL ORDER

After outlining the UK’s strengths, Boris offers some musings on the place of democratic societies in what he hopes is an emerging open and resilient international order. Though “few nations are better placed to navigate the challenges ahead, we must be willing to change our approach and adapt to the new world emerging around us”. Central to this adaption is demonstrating that we are match-fit for a more competitive world. He argues that “we must show that the freedom we speak, think and choose – and therefore to innovate – offers an inherent advantage; and that liberal democracy and free market remain the best model for the social and economic advancement of humankind”. This reaffirms the UK’s commitment to democracy and liberalism, though it does seem likely from his tone that this will take a slightly different form than in years previous.

It is clear though that Boris wants the world to be an open and resilient international order, “in which global institutions prove their ability to protect human rights, manage tensions between great powers, address conflict, instability and climate change, share prosperity through trade and investment”. To him, an open and resilient international order is “the best guarantor of security for our own citizens”. Without the added benefit of being in the European Union, the third largest global power, it seems the UK government see their ability to shape global developments through multilateral organisations, signalling an intention for this to become a higher priority.

FOCUS ON SECURITY

After the first page, Boris finally moves onto focusing on specific areas of policy, such as security, science and technology, the environment and international development. Security appears to be the most salient of the four, however, spanning three paragraphs instead of just one. He spends time talking about security generally, highlighting two policy aims, before focusing on terrorism specifically.

He argues that “protecting our people, our homeland and our democracy is the first duty of any government”, which provides the justification for beginning “the biggest programme of investment in defence since the end of the Cold War”. Boris believes that “this will demonstrate to our allies, in Europe and beyond, that they can always count on the UK when it really matters”. The UK will achieve this aim by exceeding manifesto and NATO spending commitments, expanding defence’s GDP quota to 2.2% (an extra £16.5bn of funding over the next four years), and driving forward “a modernisation programme that embraces the newer domains of cyber and space, equipping armed forces with cutting-edge technology”.

Alongside protecting our people, homeland and democracy, Boris postures that the second aim of security policy is to “continue to defend the integrity of our nation against state threats”. This covers illicit finance or coercive economic measures, disinformation, cyber-attacks, electoral interference and the use of chemical or other weapons of mass destruction.

Yet it is terrorism that the Prime Minister decides to explore in more detail. He states that “the terrorist threat in the UK remains all too real – whether Islamist-inspired, Northern Ireland-related or driven by other motivations”. Boris reaffirms his commitment to “continuing to invest in this essential work through increased funding for the intelligence agencies and Counter Terrorism Policing in 2021-22 and our drive to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers”.

Nonetheless, there will be major organisational changes for UK security over the next four years. Boris highlights the implementation of a Counter Terrorism Operations Centre and a National Cyber Force, alongside bolstering “our national resilience with a new Situation Centre at the heart of government, improving our use of data and our ability to anticipate and respond to future crises”. This appears to be a key priority for government, as well as delivering the goal of “having the most effective border in the world by 2025”, which will embrace innovation, simplifying the process for traders and travellers, and improve the security and biosecurity of the UK.

It is clear from the foreword that Boris Johnson and his government see security as the most important international and strategic priority over the next few years. It will be interesting to see whether this fits with public opinion in a constrained post-pandemic environment, however, as increased expenditure on outward policies could be viewed as not providing value for money in comparison to improving socioeconomic security at home.   

FOCUS ON OTHER AREAS

Security is not the only topic that is touched upon in Boris Johnson’s foreword though. The Prime Minister seems keen to cement the UK’s place at the leading edge of science and technology, reaffirming his aim to have secured the country’s status as a Science and Tech Superpower by 2030. He considers this “essential to our prosperity and competitiveness in the digital age”. This is linked by the government’s desire to become more digital- and data-focused. Boris wants to “lay the foundations for long-term prosperity” by “establishing the UK as a global services, digital and data hub by drawing on our nation’s strengths in digital technologies, and attracting inward investment”.

Alongside science, digital technologies and data, the environment will be prioritised. Boris states that “in 2021 and beyond, [the] government will make tackling climate change and biodiversity loss its number one international priority”. The UK has an opportune place to become one of the frontrunners on environmental issues thanks to its Presidency of the G7 and co-hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November. It looks like Johnson and co. are keen to seize this advantage.

Finally, Boris focuses on the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as “the springboard for all [of the UK’s] international efforts, integrating diplomacy and development to achieve greater impact and address the links between climate change and extreme poverty”.  The merger of the two departments has caused scepticism among commentators, yet the Prime Minister reaffirms that “the UK will remain a world leader in international development” and “will maintain its other vital instruments of overseas influence, such as its global diplomatic network and the British Council, driving forward campaigns for girls’ education and religious and media freedom”.

CONCLUSION

There is a lot to unpack from the Integrated Review document. The government makes countless grand ambitions and aims within it relating to foreign, defence, security and development policy. Whether they can make many of these claims a reality remains to be seen, as well as whether they really align with what the public want from a post-pandemic Britain. If Boris Johnson and his ministers fail to deliver their pledge to build back better, then this outward expansion will be looked upon as a waste of money. It ultimately hinges on the UK posting a strong economic recovery from coronavirus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: