Skip to content

Building on the Integrated Review

Article by Adam Hug

March 16, 2021

Building on the Integrated Review

The publication of the long awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, entitled ‘Global Britain in a competitive age’, should finally help give greater clarity  to the UK’s foreign policy and global strategy after the dislocation of the pandemic, organisational restructuring and budget cuts. This very initial response to a 112 page document released a few hours ago does not seek to capture the full complexity of a review that will shape the UK’s policy for years to come. However, it seeks to briefly address some of the key themes, particularly those that were addressed by the Foreign Policy Centre’s Finding Britain’s role in a changing world programme in 2020.[1]


There is much to welcome in the text of the Integrated Review (IR). Whether you agree or not with the priorities the Government has chosen, it is very helpful to have them articulated through the IR’s formal statement of what it sees as ‘Our interests and our values’, the articulation of the Prime Minister’s ‘vision for the UK in 2030’ and the four priorities of the ‘Strategic Framework’, between them it gives a consolidated list of the objectives the UK is seeking to pursue, which can help anchor future policy.[2]


The IR recognises that the UK’s departure from the EU necessitates a swifter moving, more agile approach to its international action. However, it rightly states that this depends on being able to retain ‘a consistent level of international influence, maintaining the soft and hard power capabilities required to support this’ and that this needs ‘new ways to cooperate through creative diplomacy and multilateralism’ as well as developing an increased competitive edge.


The Prime Minister’s vision of the UK being ‘a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective’ is a both a welcome recommitment to this longstanding principle but also a declaration of a notable policy shift. What is clear is that the IR envisages a revised approach to multilateralism that is less focused on post-Cold War institutions (though NATO is mentioned multiple times) and the ‘rules based international system’, but that seeks to respond to a more fragmented and contested world order by being more proactive and adaptive. This approach carries both high risks and high rewards as it is imperative that the UK does still meet its commitment to ‘do more to reinforce parts of the international architecture that are under threat’ (i.e. not leaving existing structures to be dominated by revisionist powers such as China and Russia) while executing its pivot into increased global leadership in regulatory and norm setting institutions, particularly in the technology and data space (and on Space!).


It will be essential that a long-term view is taken when assessing what the UK wants to achieve through multilateral systems to avoid perceptions of opportunism and to build trust amongst traditional allies in such forums who recognise the enduring importance of having rules based systems for middle powers, and who may still hold reservations over the UK’s intentions in the wake of Brexit. The UK Government may not be sentimental about multilateralism but many of its partners are more so, not least the Biden administration’s rhetorical commitment to rebuilding traditional alliances (though in practice both recognise the need for urgent institutional reform).


The IR rightly addresses the central role of what it calls ‘Systemic Competition’, with a recognition of the challenges of rising authoritarianism creates for the cause of liberal democracy and the stability of existing institutions. The review hardens the UK’s formal posture towards both China and Russia, while recognising that without the ability to retain some space for dialogue, particularly with the former, there will be little prospect of meaningfully addressing global challenges such as climate change. In relation to Russia, the recommitment to the central importance of the Euro-Atlantic region to the UK is welcome to show European partners that despite Brexit the UK still has a lot to offer and that it is still ‘a European country’ albeit one ‘with global interests’. The second strand of the IR’s Strategic Framework, entitled ‘Shaping the open international order of the future’, should help shape the priorities and assist in the UK’s response to this moral and strategic challenge, most notably through the first goal under this strategic priority, which ‘is to support open societies and defend human rights’ as part of the UK’s stated commitment to be ‘a force for good’.


The addition of the term ‘sovereignty’ to the IR’s statement of values and interests clearly has echoes of the Brexit debates and will be seen in that light by many. However, it is also being used to reframe the Government’s focus on building domestic legitimacy and accountability for its policies, creating a through line between the national and international in its language on the importance of democracy. The international perceptions of such as statement will need to be managed carefully to prevent the UK from being seen as aligning itself with illiberal powers that use sovereignty rhetoric to ignore international rules and human rights standards. This sovereignty framing helps shape the language contained in the ‘Strengthening security and defence at home and overseas’ section on the resilience of the UK’s democracy.  Much of the language around ‘protecting democracy in the UK, supporting a democratic system that is fair, secure and transparent’ is welcome. However, it contains within it a deeply troubling confirmation that the ‘work programme will include: introducing voter ID at polling stations’. Attempts to mirror US style voter suppression techniques would not only create a threat to the UK’s democratic legitimacy and detract from the other important steps outlined here on disinformation and other issues, it also risks undermining the UK’s ability to promote strengthening electoral systems and access to democratic rights around the world.


The IR rightly recognises the UK’s fundamental strengths as a cultural leader, which it dubs as being a ‘Soft Power Super Power’. It also has helpfully shown a greater focus on trade (and its integration with foreign policy and national strategy) than might have been envisaged at the start of the consultation process, nonetheless there is a missed opportunity to make clear the role trade policy can play in encouraging the UK’s support for open societies and incentivising human rights in addition to the Government’s focus in this area on open economies. Tackling illicit finance, as well as serious and organised crime, is also a welcome component of the IR’s approach, with the commitment to bring in new Magnitsky sanctions focused on corruption as well as a recognition of the need to tackle money laundering facilitated by the UK.


So while there are a number of areas of concern in the document that fall beyond the remit of the FPC’s ‘Finding Britain’s role in a changing world’ project, such as the proposals to increase the UK’s nuclear stockpiles, the overall balance of the text is a positive one that can help shape government policy going forwards. However, it is a review of significant scope and one that will only achieve its goals, particularly the objective of being truly integrated, if it is able to be effectively implemented.


Central to that implementation challenge is the level of resource available to deliver its objectives and manage the process of change. Much has already rightly been said about the Government’s decision to cut UK aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of a falling national income.[3] The impact of this is being seen in the public debate over the cuts to UK assistance in Yemen, the future of VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and other longstanding UK priorities. There is understandable concern, particularly within the development sector, about the shift away from having discrete aid and development priorities and commitments to the UK’s aid spending being more instrumentalised to achieve integrated policy goals.  More debate will take place over the coming weeks and months as the reality of some of the shifts in geographical and policy priorities outlined in the IR begin to align with the scale of the budget reductions to significantly reduce the capacity of the UK and its partners in areas of previous strength. For example, on the day of launch, openDemocracy reported that the FCDO’s Open Societies and Human Rights Directorate  was facing a 80% budget cut and the National Crime Agency’s ODA funded work on anti-corruption was also to be significantly cut.[4] Such practical pressures clearly do not align with the strategic vision outlined in the IR. This capacity crunch is brought into even more stark relief by the Government’s new commitment to an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’, seeking to rebuild its presence East of Suez across the full spectrum of government activity.[5]


The IR is clearly a strategy document designed to drive culture change across Whitehall and, as recommended in the FPC’s research, the Government says that it is looking to beef up mechanisms to ensure its implementation. These include ‘a new Performance and Planning Framework and is establishing an Evaluation Taskforce’ as well as departmental ‘Outcome Delivery Plans, against which ministers will receive regular performance reports’. The Integrated Review itself is conspicuously light on detailed policy commitments. The Government has argued that this is by design, allowing the review to be more flexible and adaptive over time, ‘a living document’ in official parlance. However, this reduces the number of measurable objectives against which government performance can be measured, potentially undermining the Government’s stated objective of using the process to build public trust and legitimacy amongst a domestic audience. More thought should be given towards how information from the performance and planning framework and top line information from each department’s Outcome Delivery Plans can be made available to the public and relevant stakeholders to ensure they are able to hold the Government to account on its commitments.


Image by FCO under (CC).


[1] This comprised five publications and a number of events that sought to inform the public debate around the Integrated Review, The views expressed here represent the personal views of FPC Director Adam Hug based on the ‘Finding Britain’s role in changing world’ research in 2020.

[2] There may still be some benefit in combining these three strands in the IR document into one integrated list. FPC, The principles for Global Britain, September 2020,

[3] Addressed in the FPC’s project in 2020.

[4] Peter Geoghegan, UK government plans 80% cuts to world-leading anti-corruption work, openDemocracy, March 2021,

[5] The cost and benefits of such a tilt are addressed in the FPC previous work.

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre