The UK’s Integrated Review: A Most Timely and Promising Initiative

March 31, 2020


Last month, the UK government announced its commitment to “hold the largest review of the UK’s foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War,” with the review adopting an integrated, whole-of-government perspective. I usually offer praise only sparingly, but I welcomed this announcement. 

When I learned of the Integrated Review’s remit, I was even more hopeful that someone might actually step forward and assume policy leadership in fostering enhanced global peace and security. Two tasks set out in the remit especially caught my attention: (1) the review should “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,” and (2) it should “set out the way in which the UK will be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation.” 

The Integrated Review is just what the UK and the world urgently need, as I explain here in four points. 

1. The Integrated Review could expand the definition of security 

COVID-19, climate change-related floods and storms, excessive financial volatility, cyberattacks, and rising flows of forced international migration—these and other global challenges send a loud and clear message: even if we live in a country where we can enjoy freedom from violent conflict and war, we may never feel—or actually be—partially or fully secure. Today, in addition to conventional military security, we need other types of security, including, first and foremost, climate, water, and health security. If these securities are unavailable, we won’t have much use for even the most modern defence systems, 5G technologies, more stable stock markets, or better schools and shopping centers. Neither humans nor nature can do without water, and water scarcity is a growing risk, not least because of climate change. Moreover, we possess the knowledge, technology, and economic resources to tackle the present threats to climate, water, and health security. If we are prepared to invest in our military security, why are we not prepared to invest in our overall security? 

In brief, we need to rethink our notion of security, foster a debate, and forge consensus on a new expanded concept of security that—in addition to military security—includes climate, water, and health security. Without these three essential non-military securities, not only human life but life on earth in general will be at grave risk.  

According to the UK Prime Minister’s Office, the Integrated Review is “to go beyond the parameters of a traditional review” of foreign policy and security; consider “the totality of global opportunities and challenges the UK faces”; and determine ”how the whole of government can be structured, equipped and mobilized to meet them.” Thus, one output from the review process could well be a new, expanded notion of security that combines global environmental and human security with the security of national borders.  

2. The Integrated Review provides an opportunity to elevate climate, water, and health action through innovations in governance 

In order to make a real difference, the government would need to operationalize this expanded notion of security. This, in turn, calls for innovation in governance. If we expand the definition of security, can we then grant climate, water, and health security similar privileges to those enjoyed by military security? 

At the national level, military security is currently recognized as a policy field in its own right, with its own organizational entity—in the UK, the Department of Defence. With that comes staff and budget allocations, and—critically—public visibility.  

In contrast, myriad governmental units handle one or the other facet of climate, water, and health. In many cases, they may not even have national security in mind, not to mention global human and environmental security. As a result, no one is really in charge or responsible, and security matters often fall by the wayside.  

A rising number of countries are experiencing high-levels of water stress, and the volume of trade in what is known as virtual water (the water embedded in internationally traded goods, including in exports from drought-prone countries) is growing. Bearing in mind that life depends on water, water security, too, deserves to be recognized as a policy field in its own right and as a top policy priority.  

Therefore, in order to meet its stated goals, it would be useful for the review process to explore, among other things, the following governance reform options:  

  • Should there not exist a new, additional department of climate, specifically mandated to mobilize and incentivize all concerned actors, public and private, at home and abroad? Participants could “crowd in” and help do whatever it takes to ensure that global warming stays below the critical threshold of preferably 1.5˚ C or maximum 2.0˚C. Why lump a critical issue such as climate change mitigation and adaptation together with issues such as agriculture, transport, industry, and mining or urbanization? Undoubtedly, these also deserve attention. However, climate security should be at par with defence and treated as a top priority. I would even argue, as the top policy priority. 

  • Alternatively, considering the close relationship between climate and water—as well as that between climate, water, and ocean health—it could perhaps even be more effective and efficient to create a new department of climate and water security composed of three main organizational strands. Each would be headed by a minister acting as the focal point for action to promote climate action—both at home and abroad—and to identify the security implications. In other words, the role of the ministers would be to act as the national platform or network facilitators supporting, in their specific issue area, knowledge and information-sharing among all concerned and interested actors. They would also represent “their” issue in budgetary negotiations in order to ensure that cross-cutting resource requirements (for which no other department might fight) are being met.  

  • Similarly, it could be useful to review whether the Department of Health might need strengthening in order to be better prepared and equipped to respond to global health challenges, notably those that could take on a pandemic scale. Indeed, despite the positive framing of the review above, it appears that health is not as involved in the review as it should be

Certainly, the Department for International Development (DFID) also deals with climate, water, and health issues, but its activities relate primarily to the Global South. However, the past few decades have shown that while developed and developing countries, their state and non-state actors, all address global challenges, they tend to do so only to the extent that their particular (national, private, personal) interests overlap with global interests. As a result, provision gaps arise, problems remain unresolved, and the world becomes more and more caught up in the quagmires of global crises. 

In terms of global governance, a key issue to explore is who would be the counterparts of the national focal points at the international level? Global health has a home in the World Health Organization, which, in view of the COVID-19 experience, we should consider strengthening financially. However, who is the international focal point of climate and water? On the negotiations and policymaking side of climate, there is the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). But, on the operational side of climate, who acts as platform coordinator? As a leader in the multilateral system, the UK could take its integrated approach to the international level and propose that, at the international level, for each of the major human-security issues, a global challenge platform be set up. For example, one could build on the experience with the World Bank Group’s global pilot programs on climate, water, oceans, and health and suggest to its shareholders to assign the role of global platform challenge facilitator to the World Bank Group. The World Bank group would exercise this role in close cooperation with the wider system of multilateral development banks, guided by the principle of subsidiarity, and, of course, in close collaboration with the concerned entities on the political or negotiation side of global governance, such as UNFCCC and WHO.    

Taking an integrated approach to each of the major security issues is one thing. Adopting a holistic perspective on security itself is another. Therefore, a further question needs to be addressed at both the national and global level: How to ensure close consultation and cooperation among those responsible for policymaking and operational activities on, respectively, the military and the non-military side of security? For example, it would perhaps be necessary to review the composition of the present UK National Security Council (an issue that will certainly come up in the Integrated Review). Among the important questions to explore in this context would be: How to bring in the suggested new entities for climate, water, and health (assuming they would be created)? Should they just get chairs at the already relatively large table of the National Security Council? Should they form a sub-committee of the Council?  

Obviously, similar questions arise in respect to the United Nations Security Council. 

3. The Integrated Review provides the rationale for why we need a global system of incentive measures 

Resolving global challenges is not only a matter of aid, of supporting the national development of poorer, fragile, conflict-plagued, and vulnerable countries. It is also a matter of encouraging the best potential providers of inputs that are urgently needed to close existing provision gaps to be willing to deliver those—over and above the contributions they would make if solely by their own individual interests. For this to happen, we need to create what is sorely lacking now: an effective and efficient system of global incentive measures financed out of internationally pooled public resources.  

After all, within the domestic context, most nations have come to recognize that fostering an adequate provision of local or national public goods and services (e.g., streetlights) requires a helping hand from the government. So, why then assume—as we currently often do—that the provision of global public goods such as climate, water, and health security doesn’t need a helping hand? That it can be left to individual state and nonstate actors, notably private business? For many decades we have empirically observed that it cannot. Such a “bottom-up” approach to “all hands on deck” is needed. However, push and pull mechanisms and instruments are also needed to ensure individual actors are willing and able to cross their particular-interest hurdles. 

For example, policymakers have now, fortunately very quickly, recognized that the development of a vaccine to provide protection against the COVID-19 virus requires sizeable public stimulus packages in order to share the risks involved with the private pharma firms. In fact, instead of individual governments transferring huge sums of money to particular firms, an efficient alternative would have been to for governments—and perhaps also foundations—to agree on an advance purchase or market commitment (AMC) pioneered by Michael Kremer, one of winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics. The AMC instruments stimulates productive competition innovation; and, of course, it could also be applied in order to accelerate the availability and affordability of other—green and blue—technologies.  

It is encouraging that the Integrated Review’s remit mentions “problem-solving and burden-sharing.” In this context, the Review could consider whether to grant the new, non-military types of (in)security the financing privilege that military security enjoys, namely, to benefit from “assessed contributions” of the type that exist for United Nations peacebuilding operations. Such contributions would generate a reliable pool of public finance that could be leveraged to mobilize additional public and private investments needed for scaling up and accelerating progress towards climate, water and health security.   

4. The Integrated Review could spur other countries and bodies follow suit 

The Integrated Review and the policy recommendations that will emerge from it could unleash a long-overdue global debate on making the existing governance systems at national and international levels more fit for purpose—for the challenges confronting us in the 21st century. 

Therefore, I hope that the review results will be taken to the international level, including into the Group of 20 (G-20) and the United Nations. The 75th anniversary of the United Nations to be celebrated this year provides an excellent opportunity for that: a summit of world leaders on a new, holistic approach to fostering security in today’s world. I have no doubt that in preparation for and as a follow-up to these high-level debates, several, perhaps even many others, including nations, international thinktanks, and bodies such as the World Economic Forum will feel motivated to emulate the UK example and also initiate their own integrated reviews of how to promote enhanced security in today’s world, at home and abroad, for current and future generations, humankind, and nature.  

It appears a new era of multilateralism might be dawning. The Integrated Review could open our eyes to new, better-fitting ways of addressing—and resolving—today’s global challenges, including the one we are currently attempting to fight: the coronavirus pandemic.  

A final word of caution 

Finally, I must add a note of caution to my praise of the scope and scale of the British government's ambitions for the Integrated Review: words are all very well, but deeds are another matter. The recent UK budget suggested that the review would conclude by July. This would be extremely ambitious, even without a global pandemic. So, I remain curious about what the final recommendations of the review will be and whether they will be implemented.  

Inge can be contacted at [email protected]/ . For references to more in-depth analyses of the issues discussed in this note, see 


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.