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The UK’s Integrated Review: What Global Britain Means for France

ARTICLES - 17 March 2021

After months of delay, the UK government has finally published its long-awaited "Integrated Review", a blueprint for Global Britain in action. Almost five years after the UK voted to leave the EU, it is designed to answer one question: what does Global Britain actually mean?

For Paris, two things matter: a broad convergence of views and continued strong cooperation on foreign and security policy matters. It also wants to make sure that the UK’s international ambitions do not come at the expense of deeper foreign policy cooperation inside the EU.

A shared agenda

The Integrated Review shows that the UK shares much of France’s international outlook. Not that it should come as a complete surprise: the two countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council, nuclear powers, NATO allies, have numerous overseas territories and significant military projection capabilities. Like France, the UK wants to be a global and proactive actor in the world, and sees itself as a guarantor of European security. Of course, London’s strong interest in securing the European mainland is not a surprise, and we know how much events of the past few years (Skripal, Navalny) have pushed the UK towards a tougher line vis-à-vis Moscow. Still, qualifying Russia as "the most acute" threat is a clear reality check for those Europeans who believe we should care less about Moscow than we do about Beijing.

France should welcome and even embrace most of the geopolitical and security-related aspects of the UK’s review. France and Britain agree on the need for increased presence in Asia as well as stronger ties with Africa. Both share a broad definition of threats with the UK identifying "climate change and preserving biodiversity as the UK’s number one international priority in the decade ahead". The manifest interest in the Middle East is not a surprise, but the avowed intention to maintain at least one warship at all times in the region is welcome. Interestingly, France was referenced a total of 11 times, compared to 7 times for Germany - though the UK continues of course to consider the US its most strategic ally

The UK’s quest to accelerate investment in cyber technologies and in outer space also - unsurprisingly - mirrors France’s recent decisions, even though it is understood that the UK’s ambitions for outer space are not of the same level as France’s. The UK’s Defence Command Paper which the UK has said it will publish next week will give us a clearer indication of where defence cuts have been made. Still, the defence budget increase announced in November 2020 and Johnson’s stated ambitions to turn the whole of the UK into a "science and technology superpower" are impressive. The UK knows it must demarcate itself after Brexit and present its new strategic personality with clout.

The UK knows it must demarcate itself after Brexit and present its new strategic personality with clout. 

One question that will attract particular attention in France - as the only other European nuclear power, with which, as the Review acknowledges, the UK has a deep technical cooperation - is the nuclear deterrence domain. Paris will take note of the UK’s decision to revise its planned cap on its nuclear arsenal from "no more than 180" to "no more than 260". By diplomatic standards, this is a bombshell (no pun intended) and was no doubt part of what an anonymous UK official promised to be those "eye-popping" decisions.

As a result, the world may start to see the UK a bit more like it sees… France: an unrepentant and shameless nuclear power who would not hesitate in trumpeting a nuclear arsenal increase just a few weeks after the Nuclear Ban Treaty came into force and just a few weeks before the NPT Review Conference, an event which takes place every five years. But overall, France is always keen to see its allies take more responsibility for the defence of the continent so is likely to welcome this European contribution to the continent’s overall security. In Paris, the UK will have a friend - and France will gain another champion of greater transparency on nuclear weapons arsenals.

A focus on the Indo-Pacific

The most important shift in the UK’s declaratory posture relates with the Indo-pacific region - which was given prominence in the document issued last Tuesday to the point of being referenced more than thirty times. Yet the so-called "tilt" might be an exaggeration or even a misnomer. The tilt focuses on deepening trade ties, notably by seeking membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and observer status in ASEAN. On the security and defence fronts, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s maiden voyage will take the new British aircraft carrier to Asia and in the longer run the UK will have a persistent presence in the region. But it will remain modest (one warship).

The UK’s attempt to deepen partnerships with key friendly countries such as Japan, Korea, Australia and India also mirrors France’s policies. But whether London will manage to have the "broadest and most integrated presence" of any European nation in the Indo-Pacific, notably by deepening relationship with India remains to be seen - indications may come following Prime Ministers Johnson’s first post-lockdown visit to India next month.

On the return of great power competition, the UK has positioned itself strategically: chart its own path rather than be coerced or defined by it, and work with partners when it can. On China specifically, London’s tone is very similar to that of Paris (although the UK has taken a stronger stance on Hong-Kong and on Huawei than most European countries). They both see it - as the EU does - as a "systemic competitor", but also a country that is too big to be ignored and with which channels of communication must remain open. They will need to cooperate with China on global issues, for instance on climate and biodiversity. Paradoxically, this is one of the reasons why many people in Brussels continue to support the Comprehensive Investment Agreement between the EU and China. They see it as a way of sustaining a regular dialogue with Beijing.

Those goals do not include an avowed "containment" of Beijing and British officials insist on the independent nature of the UK’s contribution to security in the region - music to French ears. The reaffirmed British commitment to upholding the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas is also a key French priority. Overall, one would be hard-pressed to find a radically different approach in London and in Paris. 

A complicated relationship with the European Union

The big elephant in the room however is most definitely the absence of structured cooperation with the EU. Ironically, the UK’s vision for Global Britain shares similarities with the EU’s, and by default, France’s foreign policy ambitions. Like the EU, the UK wants to strengthen the power of regulatory diplomacy. Both want to invest more resources into research and development to deal with existing threats of cyberwarfare, climate change and future pandemics. Trade is seen as a tool to promote openness - partly to act as a bulwark against China (although neither the EU or the UK will say so explicitly).

Only one sentence in the 144-page review is devoted to EU-UK security cooperation, though the UK has said that it would actively support closer "EU-NATO cooperation" and work with the EU on tackling climate change, biodiversity threats and organised crime.

Only one sentence in the 144-page review is devoted to EU-UK security cooperation.

But the review is silent on how this cooperation would work in practice, reinforcing the view that the UK will privilege individual ties with EU countries or groups of countries, over formal foreign policy cooperation with the EU. Still, one may surmise that the mere mention of EU-UK cooperation was perhaps not a given in Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit Review

But the UK could soon find out the limits of this strategy. The EU too enjoys close partnerships. It has a dialogue with Japan and US on China, as well as a separate dialogue on strengthening the multilateral system. These are all conversations the UK could make a contribution to. Similarly, the EU should treat the Review as a baseline, rather than a final product. The EU, and France, should use it to think more strategically about where and how the EU might like to work with the UK. If it has an attractive model of cooperation to propose, and UK still rejects it, at least it can claim it tried.

Franco-British cooperation going forward

After four years of empty Global Britain slogans, the UK government has finally published its long-term strategy for British foreign policy. As Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson was mostly remembered for his gaffes. This review is by far the most ambitious reassessment of the UK’s security, defence, development and foreign policy since the Cold War. But it is also best understood as a work in progress: one that can be moulded and shaped by external events and partnerships.

It is an important contribution ahead of the UK’s hosting of the G7 economic grouping and COP-26 climate conference with Italy later this year. It is also the first time that the UK has linked its foreign policy to its domestic agenda to such an extent. The government will work closely with universities and industry across the country, and set up new centres, including one specialising in cybersecurity in Northern England. At the very least, the 114-page document should be applauded for both its whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach.

What happens next will be crucial for the Franco-British relationship. The two countries will have to discuss how they cooperate together on joint priorities: whether bilaterally, with other European countries, or through other formats like the "Quad" (which includes the United States, India, Japan and Australia). This is more easily said that done. While France did turn a sympathetic ear to the UK-promoted idea of creating new groupings of democratic countries, it would not necessarily applaud an initiative to formally enlarge the G7 to new Indo-Pacific members.

We will have to wait and see how the UK’s ambitions play out in practice before judging whether the Prime Minister is true to his word. But at the very least, this review will assuage France that the UK is not turning westwards or worse, inwards.

 

Copyright: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP

 

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