A Vital Cog in a Global Machine: UK International Relations Policy for the Twenty First Century

The UK government is conducting what it is calling the largest review of the country’s foreign, defense, security, and development policy since the end of the Cold War⁠—the Integrated Review, discussed by CGD’s Ian Mitchell last week.  So, how does the world and the UK’s place in it look different from thirty years ago, and what does this imply for Britain’s architecture of international relations?

Defense and security: the global picture

Regarding the threat of war, the planet has remained comparatively free of violence. There was concern that the end of the Cold War would lead to a period of considerable instability. At a global scale, that has not occurred, and the world is now in the longest period absent a great power war since the Peace of Westphalia. Since 1990, the highest toll of global battle deaths was 105,000 in 2014, at the height of the war in Syria. This compares to a peak of 237,000 in the 1980s and 547,000 in 1950.

The nature of war has also changed over the past seventy years: it is increasingly focused in resource-dependent, mostly poor countries in a belt from Sahel through to Pakistan. And (with grim exceptions including the tragedy in Syria and the US-UK invasion of Iraq that have led to spiking refugee flows) it is largely low-grade conflict involving irregular militias —the “remnants of war” in John Mueller’s phrase.

Looking at other violent threats, contrary to confident predictions by security experts in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in the US, terrorism has had a minor impact on global security (if a terrible burden to countries in the center of the “global war on terror,” with 95 percent of terror-related deaths in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia). Terror deaths in western Europe have remained well below their levels in the 1980s. (The threat of cyber-terror is also exaggerated: Thomas Rid explored a global database of disruptive attacks against critical infrastructure systems. It lists 1,182 caused by squirrels, 13 by jellyfish, and only three by humans).

Is comparative peace the result of US global military hegemony? There are a number of reasons to doubt that. Not least, the major inter-state conflict of the past two decades (the Iraq war) was launched by the US, with knock-on effects throughout the region. US involvement in that conflict and in Afghanistan has also shown the limits to battlefield supremacy when it comes to war fought by irregular means. The “war on terror” has cost the US around $2.8 trillion, but since 9/11, global terror attacks have been concentrated in the countries that the US invaded. In addition, available empirical analysis suggests the limited role of US global military presence on preventing the outbreak of conflict. A study by the Rand Corporation, “Estimating the Value of Overseas Security Commitments,” funded and reviewed by the US Air Force, finds no relationship between US military presence or security agreements and the subsequent risk of that country falling into civil conflict or the severity of conflict.

The reason for a declining UK share of the global total is that the rest of the world has been growing more rapidly than the UK.

Other factors appear to have played a greater role: United Nations Peacekeeping, although far from perfect, is reliably associated with the maintenance of peace. Norms around territorial conquest and the role of war in international relations have changed decisively. This is linked with the (sadly stuttering) spread of democracy, economic growth, and international economic relations: war simply doesn’t pay (even) for the victor any more. And the problem of “failed states” is, thankfully, declining. In 1990 countries home to 28 percent of the global population had a GDP per capita of below $1,500 a year. By 2011, that had dropped to countries home to just four percent of the world’s people.

Finally, regarding global geopolitics, the rise of China is widely viewed in Washington as heralding the start of a new Cold War. China poses considerable risks to its own population, denying basic human rights to all, removing autonomy from Hong Kong, and violently oppressing its Uyghur minority. But the so-called “Thucydides trap” (the inevitably of war between old hegemon and new upstart) lacks considerably in terms of empirical certitude (see the UK and US in the early 1900s). And, as formulated, it is about the US making a bad choice, not China. Furthermore, China today has simply insignificant military reach compared to the US in 2020 or the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and spends a smaller proportion of its GDP on the military than does the US.

Defense and security: The UK role

Since 1990, Britain’s ability to impose military solutions alone has continued its century-long decline. UK defense expenditure as a share of global military spending since 1990 has dropped from 6 percent to 3 percent. Although spending as a share of domestic GDP has fallen in the UK over that time, global spending as a proportion of global GDP has fallen by a similar amount. The reason for a declining UK share of the global total is that the rest of the world has been growing more rapidly than the UK.

The lesson for UK security policy is apparent: the most powerful tools to reduce the threat of violent confrontation are cooperative: supporting UN peacekeeping (both financially as well as with the considerable expertise and capacity of UK armed forces), working to strengthen global institutions including the International Criminal Court, and supporting development and democratization especially in the world’s poorest countries through trade, development, and migration links (on which more below). In addition, for all the “tail risk” threats of terrorism involving biological and nuclear weapons have not materialized yet, preventing those threats through global cooperation amongst law enforcement agencies is surely worth greater focus.

The global underpinnings of UK economic wellbeing and sustainability

Regarding global sustainable development, the period since 1990 has been one of significant international income convergence, reflecting a longer-term convergence in other measures of wellbeing including education and health. This has been a force behind rapidly declining global poverty (sadly, if hopefully briefly, reversed  this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and a considerably greater share of developing countries in global (market) GDP–from 16 percent in 1990 to 37 percent today.

Globalization has also continued apace. For example, trade as a percentage of global GDP has climbed from 39 to 59 percent since 1990. And the global economy is increasingly driven by technology and ideas rather than natural and physical resources. The World Bank suggests 64 percent of global wealth is accounted for by “weightless” wealth: institutions, technologies, education.

Greater connectivity has been a powerful force for global progress, but both connectivity and weightless wealth mean that quality of life in the UK and worldwide is increasingly dependent on global public goods and spillovers: from research and development and migration through strong banking regulation to pandemic preparedness and greenhouse gas controls.

The UK share of global patent applications by residents has fallen from 3.6 percent in 1990 to 0.6 percent in 2018. This is an imperfect (and excessively pessimistic) measure of the UK’s contribution to the global stock of useful knowledge, but nonetheless emphasizes that Britain’s continued progress in terms of quality of life is increasingly dependent on technological advances developed elsewhere. The UK has a significant interest in global intellectual property arrangements that balance incentives to innovators with the benefits of limited artificial monopolies being placed on the exploitation of innovation.  In turn that suggests the need to step back from excessive protections being agreed in US and EU-backed trade regimes (with the EU perhaps the worst offender according to the forthcoming Commitment to Development Index).  

Meanwhile, Britain is aging. In 1990, 16 percent of the UK population was 65 or older. Today, that proportion is 19 percent. By 2050, 25 percent of the population will be retirement age. That has significant implications for economic growth and productivity. When combined with the strong evidence that immigration is a powerful force for economic dynamism, this suggests that an important part of UK foreign economic policy going forward will be attracting migrants to fill the jobs that older citizens have retired from.

With regard to negative spillovers, the World Bank estimated that a serious global flu pandemic would reduce global GDP by $500 billion because of death, illness, and absenteeism. Reduced travel and connectivity would cut a further $1 trillion. Predicted costs for COVID-19 already dwarf that at closer to $9 trillion. Closer global economic integration makes for considerably larger international transmission of economic shocks, as well. The last global financial crisis cost the US alone about $23 trillion. Estimates for the OECD as a whole suggest the group’s economies were still 3 percent smaller than they would have been without the crisis in 2008. World CO2 emissions have climbed from 22 million kt to 36 million kt in 2014.

At the same time, UK GDP as a share of global (market) GDP has fallen from 4.8 percent to 3.3 percent since 1990. And by leaving the European Union, which accounts for about 22 percent of GDP, Britain has become significantly more reliant on the quality of global institutions of economic, health and environmental collaboration, including the World Trade Organization and the IMF, the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO).

But the period since the Cold War has seen stagnation in many of those global institutions. The IMF’s quota resources measured as a percentage of global external liabilities (debt and equity countries owe to overseas creditors) fell from about 1.5 percent in 1992 to less than 0.5 percent in 2017. In 2000, outstanding loans from the World Bank Group to governments were worth more than 3 percent of the total GDP of developing countries; today it is closer to 1 percent. The WTO Doha development round has been effectively stalled since 2001. From Kyoto to Paris we went from (ultimately ignored) binding to nonbinding climate commitments. The WHO has seen its budget flat-lined since the 1990s, and it still lacks the capacity to independently verify information on outbreaks and potential pandemics as became painfully evident earlier this year.

When combined with the strong evidence that immigration is a powerful force for economic dynamism, this suggests that an important part of UK foreign economic policy going forward will be attracting migrants to fill the jobs that older citizens have retired from.

The growing importance of (peaceful) global interaction to the quality of life in the UK has implications for the distribution of resources across foreign policy tools. In the US, it has become orthodoxy for national security professionals including hundreds of ex-generals to complain that underfunding of civilian tools has fueled an over-militarized foreign policy that cannot deal with the most pressing global challenges. The UK is considerably less skewed towards military over civilian expenditure, but the same lesson still applies: when it comes to the national security threats of the new millennium, armed force has a diminishing role compared to peaceful cooperation.

The UK and Global Institutions

At the same time, the UK can build on what is already an outsized influence in a number of international organizations to act as a force for a renewed multilateralism. For example, the UK has the third most staff at the World Bank after India and the US and made the largest grant contribution to IDA-19 replenishment. More broadly, UK aid has climbed from 4 percent of total ODA from DAC countries in 1990 to 12 percent today.

The UK could use a considerable proportion of its large ODA resources to strengthen the provision of global public goods that are of significant and specific concern to developing countries through multilateral channels. It could also take a financial leadership position in a number of international organizations where US leadership is flagging or absent including the UN FPA and the WHO. UK armed forces alongside financial resources could strengthen UN peacekeeping operations. And as a relatively small economy compared to the EU block or the US, but still a high income economy, the UK could act as an honest broker in global trade agreements–recognizing the value of reasonable compromise in intellectual property regimes, for example.

Even despite the toll of COVID-19, the world is a more peaceful, more secure, more prosperous, and healthier place than it was in 1990. The UK is a smaller part of the global economy, but benefits ever more from the wealth, health, and wellbeing of the whole. Especially in its new position outside of the European Union, the UK relies on global institutions to preserve that wellbeing. Britain should actively engage in international organizations to strengthen the exchange of goods, services, ideas and people for mutual benefit, and to preserve the UK’s national security through cooperation.  In short, the Integrated Review should focus on global integration.


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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