The “Integrated Review”⁠—Re-Defining the UK’s Role In The World

June 10, 2020


In late February, the UK confirmed it would undertake an “Integrated Review” of its foreign policy, defence, security, and international development which the Prime Minister has hailed the biggest review “since the end of the Cold War.” Since that announcement, attention has rightly shifted to the COVID-19 pandemic, both at home and abroad—but with Parliament offering interim input yesterday, the UK will soon restart work to “overhaul its approach to foreign policy” and “define Britain’s place in the world.”

At CGD, we will be using our research to inform the review. In this blog—the first in a series we plan to publish—we look at the context of the review and highlight some of the issues we think will be central to the process.

Promising scope, unrealistic timetable

The scope of the review is promising. Typically, the UK Government undertakes periodic Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) focused mainly on defence policy. But the explicit inclusion of foreign policy and development suggests a better integrated approach.

Box: UK Integrated Review Objectives

The Integrated Review will:

i) Define the Government's ambition for the UK's role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy.

ii) Set out the way in which the UK will be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation, examining how we work more effectively with our allies.

iii) Determine the capabilities we need for the next decade and beyond to pursue our objectives and address the risks and threats we face.

iv) Identify the necessary reforms to Government systems and structures to achieve these goals.

v) Outline a clear approach to implementation over the next decade and set out how we will evaluate delivery of our aims.

Source: Integrated review, Written Ministerial Statement, 26 February 2020

In his statement to Parliament the Prime Minister confirms the government is taking a “long-term strategic perspective,” and announces up front that the UK will be a “problem-solving and burden-sharing nation” that will work with its allies. The breadth of the review suggested it will take a “whole of government” approach of using all its levers (in line with the Fusion Doctrine that promotes this approach)—although, as our CGD colleagues point out, global health is a glaring omission.

Before the review was put on hold, the government had suggested the process would take four months⁠—which we think is too short. It will run in parallel to the government’s spending review, which has also been postponed, and could conclude in early 2021 (though at least a one-year budget would be needed in the interim).

Covid-19 and its security implications

The global pandemic will pose both immediate and far-reaching implications. The UK death-toll is approaching or over 50,000, and the knock on economic impacts in the country will form part of a synchronised global recession which seems likely to be the deepest seen in modern times. The government has already recognised the need to act globally, pledging over half a billion pounds of support and, as a major shareholder in the IMF and World Bank, it should enable the same economic stimulus overseas as it has boldly implemented at home.

Given that the review had originally omitted global health, the lessons on security and from COVID-19 are timely and important. Recent projections suggest that up to 100,000 Brits will die from COVID-19, and 1.8 to 10 million will lose their lives globally. The economic impact could be comfortably double that of the global financial crisis. Contrast this to the threat of terrorism, where 21,000 die annually⁠—but with fewer than 2 percent in Europe, the Americas, and Oceania combined. Terrorism or war may take younger lives than COVID-19 has–but the next pandemic could too.

A clear starting point for the integrated review is that the definition of defence and security must be broadened. It needs to systematically consider risks, opportunities, and impacts; and the UK’s ability to affect them.

Three immediate lessons from the current crises that should be considered in the review are:

  • the UK’s fate is tied to that of the globe;

  • global public goods like global health security (but also climate, refugees, and peacekeeping) are under-resourced;

  • large-scale national and international public intervention is not only feasible, but economically important.

The UK’s role between three super-powers

Beyond COVID-19, the UK will find a role alongside the major economic blocs of China, the EU, and the US; whilst seeing the potential of partners and rising economic powers, including in India and parts of Africa. The UK retains major advantages with its seat at the UN security council, in the Commonwealth, in Europe, and as the only major nation that meets the UN target on aid, and the NATO target on defence. But with its previous “aid” (not development) strategy, the UK has stepped back from its leadership role.

Evaluating Osborne’s 2015 aid strategy

Former Chancellor George Osborne’s spending review and aid strategy “in the national interest” left the Foreign Office short of diplomats; and arbitrarily aimed for 30 percent of the aid budget to compensate departments for wider austerity. The results included eighty percent of Foreign Office-administered aid receiving amber-red from the aid watchdog. More generally, with multiple departments spending substantial amounts of aid, the National Audit Office concluded no-one was responsible for evaluating this strategy which, contrary to popular perception, saw DFID’s budget flat in real terms for the past 5 years. In terms of policies beyond aid, the strategy has catalysed little progress.

Subsequent efforts

Since then, previous Prime Minister Theresa May wanted the UK to be the G7’s largest investor in Africa, and Rory Stewart announced his ambition to double aid funding for climate ⁠—perhaps before realising mitigation might not align with poverty-reduction. Johnson’s manifesto as he assumed office made excellent commitments to end preventable deaths, and stand up for girls education, but it was light on detail. His first reshuffle made clear he wants a single strategy with partner countries with a shared junior ministerial team across DFID and the Foreign Office.

Coming up

It is clear the UK requires a new direction for its commitment to development. In the coming months, we will be looking at many of the key issues that will be raised in the review. This will include Charles Kenny looking at the defense and security challenges; and learning from China and elsewhere. We’ll be evaluating the current strategy’s flagship commitment to fragile states, and looking at opportunities for the UK to deepen particular bilateral partnerships. On aid spend, we’ll assess the major increases on climate; R&D; and expenditure through the UK’s development finance institution, the CDC. And we’ll have new analysis on the post-Brexit and post-COVID financial resources for the UK’s foreign policy; as well as new tools like its sanctions policy.

Conclusions: The UK’s role in the world

Despite fears that the UK would  fall into nationalism post-Brexit, the UK and the “Global Britain” strategy has so far meant a more liberal approach to agriculture and trade, an ongoing openness to migration, genuine progress on climate mitigation at home, and a commitment to the multilateral system.

The Integrated Review will need to broaden its perspective and COVID-19 should ensure the UK understands the real challenges for its future policy and security. Look out for our work in the coming months and let us know if there are key issues we’re missing.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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