The UK’s new defense review reveals globe-spanning ambition, but little to back it up

The UK's new defense review reveals globe-spanning ambition, but little to back it up

British military planners are waking up to the new multipolar world, but still cling to imperialist wishful thinking

In March 2021, the UK published a “comprehensive articulation” of London’s “national security and international policy” for decades to come, which would “[shape]the open international order of the future,” known as the ‘Integrated Review’.

Its vision was amazingly bold, and foresaw the UK becoming a pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific, expanding its presence via overseas military bases, and increasing its nuclear weapon stockpile.

There is little sign of London making even mild progress on any of its grandiose objectives two years later, But what’s more, it has now published a comprehensive ‘refresh’ of these plans, “responding to a more contested and volatile world.”

As the new report’s introduction explains, the original Integrated Review “identified four trends that would shape the international environment to 2030: shifts in the distribution of global power; inter-state, ‘systemic’ competition over the nature of the international order; rapid technological change; and worsening transnational challenges.”

The ‘refresh’ reflects “the pace at which these trends have accelerated over the past two years,” but also how “the transition into a multipolar, fragmented and contested world has happened more quickly and definitively than anticipated.” Changes resulting from this seismic shift mean it’s necessary to update UK’s “priorities and core tasks to reflect the resulting changes in the global context.”

Thus, London’s reformed Integrated Review is the first major public recognition by a Western government that Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has heralded the arrival of multipolarity, and thrown the US-dominated world order, which has reigned unchallenged since the Cold War’s conclusion, into chaos. Underlining this, the introduction explicitly states the “collective security” of the UK and NATO is “now intrinsically linked to the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine.”

There are major problems elsewhere too. The ‘refresh’ notes that there has been an “intensification of systemic competition” in recent years, and this is “now the dominant geopolitical trend and the main driver of the deteriorating security environment” in the world.

By “deteriorating security environment,” it means a global milieu in which the US is no longer the uncontested hegemon, able to dictate political and economic terms to the rest of the world, which translates to “vassals in Europe and North America cannot profit to the same degree as a result.” This is clear from a section lamenting the “growing convergence” of non-Western states that are “working together to undermine the international system or remake it in their image” and continues:

“China’s deepening partnership with Russia and Russia’s growing cooperation with Iran in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine are two developments of particular concern…Tensions in the Indo-Pacific are increasing and conflict there could have global consequences greater than the conflict in Ukraine.”

However, in terms of countering these perceived threats, the new Integrated Review offers little in its 63 pages. To counter the “highly complex phenomenon” of “systemic competition” internationally, it is proposed that the UK “must navigate with an understanding that not everyone’s values or interests consistently align with our own.”

“Today’s international system cannot simply be reduced to ‘democracy versus autocracy’, or divided into binary, Cold War-style blocs…An expanding group of ‘middle-ground powers’…do not want to be drawn into zero-sum competition any more than the UK does,” the Review records. “We will need to work with these countries to protect our shared higher interest in an open and stable international order, accepting that we may not share all of the same values and national interest.”

In other words, the UK at long last comprehends the need to depoliticize its foreign relationships in order to maintain favorable economic ties abroad. By contrast, Beijing has long understood that self-righteously imposing its own ideological and ethical standards on other countries is counterproductive – so the Review is effectively conceding that the world’s playing field is now being dictated by Beijing to a large degree, and less powerful countries are forced to adapt to this reality.

China has quite a head start in this regard – two decades of ever-deepening, constructive ties with virtually the entire Global South – and infinitely greater wealth with which to pursue diplomatic, political and trade ties with Africa, Asia, and Latin America on the basis of mutual benefit. Whether London has the ability to effectively play catch up, and its newfound cognisance that overseas governments and publics won’t be lectured to and will be viewed as sincere, remains to be seen.

A similar lack of vision and solution is evident in the Review’s updated “Russia strategy.” It notes that the Ukraine conflict “has brought large-scale, high intensity land warfare back to our home region, with implications for the UK and NATO’s approach to deterrence and defence,” and speaks of an urgent need to “contain and challenge Russia’s ability and intent to disrupt the security of the UK, the Euro-Atlantic and the wider international order.”

Again, concrete proposals for achieving these ends are almost completely unforthcoming, but it also seems that London is in a state of denial about its lack of power to do so in any event. The Review boasts of having “weakened the Russian war machine with hundreds of targeted sanctions, coordinated with our allies,” and provided £2.3 billion “in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine” which will be maintained by “at least the same level” in 2023/24.

As Western journalists, think tanks, and politicians have begrudgingly begun to admit, those sanctions have fallen far short of achieving their goal of destroying the Russian economy. In truth, Moscow’s trade, budget surplus, current account, and currency value are all at higher levels now than before the Ukraine offensive started – while the countries imposing the sanctions are feeling the pain caused by them.

The Review even acknowledges this inconvenient reality – again, a rare if not wholly unique development for a Western government. It refers to “the growing impact of global volatility on the daily lives of the British people,” and the “far-reaching” consequences from pursuing a proxy war with Moscow rather than diplomatic settlement:

“[The conflict] has contributed to a huge rise in energy prices and serious burdens on families, leading to unprecedented government intervention. More widely, geopolitical instability is manifesting itself in interrupted supply chains and rising prices for basic goods. Consequently, the UK’s ability to shape the global environment – and to identify, address and confront threats – is of growing importance to domestic policy, and to our national wellbeing.”

To address this, the Review simply advocates more weapons for Ukraine, and the maintenance of the sanctions. Where these arms will come from isn’t clear. Government ministers admit that London has sent Kiev so much that it risks running out of weapons, and it will take several years for stocks to be replenished, even if there were money to do so, which there reportedly is not.

Following the publication of the original Integrated Review two years ago, US State Department journal Foreign Affairs was scathing in its assessment of London’s superpower ambitions. In an article titled ‘The Delusions of Global Britain’, the magazine suggested the UK approach foreign policy “with a little more humility,” and “reconcile itself to the role of middle power”:

“Instead of indulging in Commonwealth or Indo-Pacific fantasies, London should seek its strengths closer to home – where it can use its new status as the EU’s main external partner to magnify its global influence.”

Clearly, that caution failed to resonate in London’s halls of power, and now the UK finds itself in a transformed multipolar world. It still clings to wishful thinking, while offering no new ideas for addressing its waning significance and clout.

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