The Refresh of the British Integrated Review: European Aspects

Strategic Insight 017/2023

Paddy McGuinness

15 June 2023

The Refresh of the British Integrated Review: European Aspects

In March this year, the British Government published a somewhat delayed Refresh of its 2021 Integrated Review of Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy. How should European partners and especially Ireland usefully read this?

Preparation of this Refresh bridged three rather different Prime Ministers and, with another National Security Strategy or Review due after a now palpable general election, this is more an indicator of current direction of travel than the longer term Grand Strategy for which partners might hope.  Current British politics does not allow that longer term view to a Prime Minister: too much is unresolved within the ruling Conservative Party and, as yet, unaddressed by the opposition who are understandably focused on issues with greater electoral resonance.

In his introduction to the ‘Refresh’, Rishi Sunak writes of what could not be fully foreseen when the original Integrated Review was conceived – a global pandemic which revealed domestic fragility and international interdependence, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and over Taiwan, and Russia prepared to intensify to the point of war its 20 year campaign in Ukraine and run up its escalation ladder even to nuclear rhetoric. Rishi Sunak stresses the pace of change and the heightened risk and volatility well into the 2030s. He is warmer about the partnership with Europe than his two predecessors might have been and notes that it needs “reinvigorating”.

In response, the Refresh advocates a “sustained campaigning approach” with commensurate governance to brigade the British system with a mantra “Think long term, Act now”. Four overarching objectives of 2021 become “campaign pillars”. This is more than just copyediting.

Priority is given to the pillar “Shape the International Environment” which replaces “Shaping the Rules-based International Order”. Implicitly the conditions for that order need to be reestablished. “Strengthening our Security at Home and Overseas” is replaced by the more activist and assertive “Deter, Defend and Compete across All Domains”. Whereas “Address Vulnerabilities through Resilience” is more than just learn the lessons of the Covid19 Pandemic and Russia’s weaponisation of energy. Avoidance of vulnerability to coercion requires structural economic change. And finally “Generate Strategic Advantage” is rather more realistic than the previous “Sustaining Strategic Advantage through Science and Technology’. Overall, there is less boosterism in the language.

There is a helpful set of headline conclusions on pages 12-15 of the Refresh which are worth reading. The most significant for our purposes are:

  • The reinvigoration of relations with Europe is now an explicit goal. Existing structures and settings are referred to from a British perspective, such as the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the Windsor Framework, the Quad and Quint, the Calais Group and Northern Seas Energy Group, but there is also an interest in new forms of cooperation including through the EU’s PESCO mechanism.
  • Euro-Atlantic is defined as the UK’s primary “home” focus including for its military capabilities. The Indo-Pacific is of secondary importance. The Arabian Gulf and Africa are a wider neighbourhood of home defence. Whilst Counter Terrorism and vulnerable states feature, they are less of a driver for capabilities or deployments than in 2015.
  • Defence is emphatically about all domains – drawing in Cyber and Space – with additional funding for the Nuclear capability and the munitions’ stockpile and an aspiration to stretch to 2.5% of GDP “as fiscal and economic circumstances allow” (the same test as for returning to 0.7% for International Development)
  • A commitment to pursue Structural Resilience to address vulnerabilities related to energy, climate, environment, health, society and cyber.
  • China is now described as an “epoch-defining challenge” to international order. The response is to Protect Britain and British interests; and Align with Allies but Engage with China. The role of the Chinese Communist Party is distinguished from that of the Chinese people.
  • The language on Economic Security and Deterrence suggests both a more instrumental approach to Supply Chains, semiconductors, Quantum, AI, and critical minerals but also a tuning up of sanctions mechanisms and enforcement.
  • Moves to strengthen the position of International Development within government and set seven specific initiatives. There is no move on a restoration of funding to 0.7% of GDP.

The detail reads as a mid-term adjustment of a whole range of National Security related activities, mainly tactical and about the workings of British Securocracy. The operational impact remains to be seen.

Certainly on China, there is a sense that Sunak’s preference for engagement is masked by this language. Development of a strategy for which there is broad consent will have to wait. Whereas US pressure for a harder line is bipartisan and only likely to increase after their 2024 election. More generally, expect a discontinuity in the next, post-election strategy or review. The 2010 Strategy was avowedly political in its criticism of the New Labour approach which preceded it. That in 2015 saw the Conservatives break free from their Liberal Democrat former coalition partners with a marked investment in equipment.

Four elements do bear reflection though.

First, the Review was prepared in 2022. Whilst it stresses an intention to learn the lessons of Ukraine, those are not yet in. One that stands out is that the Ukrainians are managing to do more with less through the very rapid digitalisation of their war and optimal use of the platforms available to them. The Defence focus in the British Review is on generating new platforms which are many years off rather than realising the capability of existing assets. Another is the challenge of how to increase Western defence supply given the rate of contribution to Ukraine and the growing challenge on Europe’s eastern flank. A strategy for supply is not immediately evident. The uplift in resources looks limited and falls short of the potential transformational effect of something like the German Zeitenwende.

Second, the hardening of language creates difficulty for those Europeans inclined to neutrality, or who are economically exposed to China or historically sympathetic to Russia. A telling change from the first overarching British National Security Strategy in 2010 and that in 2015 is that now references to conflict prevention and resolution have all but disappeared. British diplomacy is to be strengthened but with an emphasis on the strategic challenges. There is not an uplift in soft power effort commensurate with the hard power advocated here. There is not much to attract the majority of nation States who are inclined to Non-Alignment. India’s and indeed China’s diplomacy may well benefit.

Third, Structural Resilience in the face of coercion by a hostile state requires a partnership with Europe beyond even that which existed when the UK was an EU Member State. The infrastructure that the UK depends upon for energy, transport and especially for data storage and cloud computing crosses borders. Addressing the Cyber Domain within national borders is a nonsense. Ireland is disproportionately important in this regard. Russia’s ongoing cyber and electronic warfare campaign in Ukraine illustrates what to expect even if Ukraine, supported by US Big Tech and satellite providers, have held it off so far.

Finally, there is inevitably a risk being taken on the issues and geographies that have absorbed European and British security capability over the last decade or more: instability in the Near East including the potential for a further Palestinian Intifada; terrorist groups gaining the space to operate in North Africa and the Levant, especially with the substantial and precariously contained Islamic State population in Northern Syria and Iraq; and the potential for even greater population movement in the Eastern Mediterranean, not least if any of the promises of the Turkish election campaign are seen through. Collective European security capability to address these challenges has not matured so we are in a state of equilibrium rather than stability.

To conclude, perhaps the most useful way to think about this Refresh is not as a model for strategies and longer term approaches in the national security and resilience context, but as a look at 2022 in the rear view mirror. Quite a lot is likely to be recast in 2025 if Rishi Sunak is right about the scale of volatility. Much then will draw the UK even closer to European partners.

Paddy McGuinness is a Senior Advisor at the Brunswick Group and Former UK Deputy National Security Advisor for Intelligence, Security and Resilience. He sits on the Advisory Council of the Azure Forum.  

The Azure Forum is a nonpartisan, independent research organisation. In all instances, the Azure Forum retains independence over its research and editorial discretion with respect to outputs, reports, and recommendations. The Azure Forum does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all author views should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy is Ireland’s first and only independent think tank dedicated to providing recommendations on peace, security and defence. As Ireland’s first national security research institute, the Forum aims to contribute to national and international security analysis and strategic studies for a more peaceful, secure, resilient and prosperous future nationally and globally at a time of emerging global risk.