THE SLOGAN “Global Britain” first gained currency in the months after the country’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016. Theresa May deployed the phrase five times when she addressed the Conservative Party conference for the first time as prime minister. Days later it was the title of Boris Johnson’s first policy speech as Mrs May’s foreign secretary. What it meant in practice, beyond an attempt to reassure Britons that Brexit would not mean autarky, remained hazy.
The idea is finally being fleshed out. On March 16th Mr Johnson’s government published “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”, a 114-page “integrated review” of the country’s foreign, security, defence and aid policy, billed as the most radical such review since the end of the cold war. In many ways, it defies expectations. The text is free of the ebullient jingoism beloved of Mr Johnson and his cabinet. Many observers had anticipated a pivot away from Europe, where Britain is locked in diplomatic trench warfare with the EU, towards the rising powers of Asia.
In fact, the vaunted “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific is relatively modest and thus refreshingly realistic, though embroidered by Mr Johnson’s visit to India next month and the imminent dispatch of an aircraft-carrier to the region. The carrier’s deployment is “our most significant peacetime deployment in 25 years”, notes Vice-Admiral Sir Ben Key, Britain’s chief of joint operations. Britain will also seek to become a member of the CPTPP trade pact and a “dialogue partner” of ASEAN, a club of ten South-East Asian nations.
Looming over those efforts, and the review as a whole, is China, whose rise is described as “by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today”. To the disappointment of many Conservative backbench MPs, the document’s language on China is measured. It notes that China poses a “systemic challenge…to our security, prosperity and values” but warns that Britain “must remain open to Chinese trade and investment”. The review is explicit that Britain’s immediate neighbourhood, the Euro-Atlantic region, remains the priority, and “where the bulk of the UK’s security focus will remain”.
The ambitious language of the review is lent credence by a major boost to the defence budget announced in November. The full details of investments (notably, high-tech areas) and cuts (falling heavily on the army) will be published in a separate defence “command paper” due on March 22nd. What is clear is that Britain is overhauling its military posture.
Its armed forces will be spread out more widely across the world, with boosts to military facilities in Oman, Singapore and Kenya and a one-third increase in the number of defence attachés. One or two offshore patrol vessels will be permanently based in Asia, followed by a pair of Britain’s next-generation frigates later in the decade. The idea is also to use these forces more actively and unpredictably in peacetime. “We are doing things at a time and place which we would not normally have done, to see whether it evinces a reaction,” says Admiral Key, pointing to Britain’s dispatch of warships to the Arctic and paratroopers to Ukraine last year.
Yet the review’s unifying theme is neither Britain’s free-trading ambition nor its military prowess, but the government’s aspiration for the country to be recognised as a “science and technology superpower” by 2030. “Technology is going to be the most fundamental metric of national power over the next decade,” says an official involved with the review. To that end, it promises to raise economy-wide investment in research and development (R&D) from the current figure of 1.7% of GDP—well below the average for the OECD—to 2.4% by 2027, backed up with £15bn of funding for the business department.
Technology is woven throughout the review. Efforts to shape the international order will be centred on “regulatory diplomacy” to influence the norms governing “the future frontiers of cyberspace…data and space”, such as behaviour around satellites. On climate change, described as Britain’s “number one international priority”, £1bn will go to carbon capture and hydrogen technology. On security, £6.6bn is set aside for military R&D for “AI and other battle-winning technologies” and almost £700m for the intelligence agencies.
The idea is that in some areas, like 5G and future mobile networks, Britain will aim to “co-create” pivotal technology with allies, not least to push back against Chinese dominance. But in others, like quantum computing, synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, Britain must own sovereign capabilities “from discovery to large-scale manufacture and commercialisation”. That points to a shift in Britain’s political economy, towards a more active and interventionist state—a bit more French, suggests one official.
All of this is tied back to Mr Johnson’s domestic agenda to “level up” deprived areas and firm up the fraught Union: a new defence industrial strategy will promise to build ships in Scotland, armoured vehicles in Wales and satellites in Northern Ireland. A new National Cyber Force will be headquartered in the north of England.
The review has received a warm welcome among Britain’s partners in America, Europe and Asia. It is “comprehensive and well done”, says a Japanese official. “Glad to see the UK back,” remarks a French diplomat. Yet there are “unresolved tensions”, warns Peter Ricketts, a former British national security adviser. Perhaps the starkest contradiction is between Britain’s surprise decision to reverse decades of cuts and expand its stockpile of nuclear weapons, without much in the way of explanation, and its support for non-proliferation and disarmament.
And despite the review’s effusive commitment to European security, its terse treatment of the EU is notable. On March 15th the EU launched legal action against Britain over alleged breaches of the Brexit deal, amid wider acrimony over vaccines and the status of the EU mission in London. “You can’t really portray yourself as the primary mover for European security, shaping the international order, and not have a functioning relationship with the EU”, says Lord Ricketts. On every British priority, from regulation of technology to climate change, it will be hard to ignore the bloc next door.■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “White heat”