Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
The Integrated Review has emerged as two documents in one. Much of it focuses on trying to bring together different types of threat to our security – from hostile states to terrorist groups, hybrid warfare and misinformation, as well as longer term problems like climate change.
It is full of sensible recommendations for “deeper integration across government”, better crisis management, more coherent policy development and so forth. This is as fine as it is not new (remember Tony Blair’s “joined-up government”?). It would be strange policy paper indeed that advocated the promotion of incoherence and the implementation of contradictory policies.
But government always has to do many different things at once, each making compelling (but often contradictory) demands on policy, reflecting different political constituencies and requirements, and promoted by people with the different personal agendas, as is to be expected in a democracy. Addressing this diversity takes time and thought that is always in short supply. The review is part of that process of thought, and worthwhile for that reason alone.
It is also the first serious attempt at developing a new foreign policy doctrine for the UK since Brexit, and the Government has been wise to wait until the end of the Trump Administration before releasing it.
An unstable, corrupt, semi-authoritarian United States would have made an uncomfortable partner indeed in a world otherwise dominated by a resentful European Union and an assertive China. It is Biden’s restoration of sane, boring US leadership that makes a realistic post-Brexit foreign and security policy feasible. The Review is right to worry about China’s rise, and right, too, to recognise that the post-cold war world moment of Atlantic triumph is passing.
This last half decade has seen the return of geopolitics in the assertion of power by an adventurous Russia and an increasingly hardfline China.
Yet if there is cause for concern in this Review it is that the politics has crowded out the geo. Take, for instance, increasing the cap of available nuclear warheads. Perhaps it is useful to have the freedom to have more available, but without more submarines to launch them it is hard to see what practical they could it could have. It’s not as if the new Dreadnought-class submarines would have time, during a nuclear exchange, to swim back up the Clyde to reload. The proposal did, however, managed to nicely provoke the left.
It’s the “geo” that should give more pause for thought. The Review grandly divides the world into “Euro-Atlantic” and “Indo-Pacific” regions, without really acknoweledging that we’re right in the middle of one of them, and 6,000 miles away from the other.
I’m all in favour of standing up to Chinese aggression (and was even involved in this effort to come up with some ideas about how it might be done), and the Government, again, is right to reverse the beggary of the Osborne-Mandelson erea, when Falun Gong flags were removed from protestors lest they offend the Chinese premier, and the unwise and expensive contract for Hinkley Point C was agreed. Yet strategy is the art of applying means to secure ends, and this is where the Review’s “Indo-Pacific tilt” falls short.
It is indeed the case that the most serious threats to democracy and freedom on this planet are likely to emerge from the Chinese Communist Party, but it doesn’t follow from that that Britain’s main role should involve the prepositioning of military equipment in Asia.
Rather, the greater risk of conflict in Asia means that the UK’s aviation and maritime capability would be required to maintain deterrence against Russia in the event of a major conflict in Asia on which US resources had to be concentrated.
That would clearly be much harder achieve if most of the Royal Navy is in the Pacific protecting the Queen Elizabeth from Chinese anti-ship missiles. Such back-filling may not be the most exciting task but, given the facts of geography tilting to Asia, we risk finding ourselves in the position of the 1990s Colombian goalkeeper Higuita, who would pay upfield while leaving his net undefended.
It is in Europe, after all where Russia tries to make inroads, to the alarm of Poland, the Baltic states and the Nordic countries. It is to Europe’s south where the main ungoverned spaces that host terrorist training camps survive, and it is to Europe’s south-east where a difficult Turkey-EU relationship poses problems in the Western Balkans and Aegean.
And as much as the natural impulse of Brexit is to prove Britain’s openness and optimism by striking out to Asia, the Indo-Pacific tilt increases Britain’s security dependence on Europe, and in particular on the EU’s own institutions that are growing in military and policy-coordination capability. The debate in Paris and Berlin as well as the more traditionally integrationalist Brussels Rome, and Madrid now centres around achieving “strategic autonomy” (code for being able to do more without the US) for a more integrated European policy bloc. One of the strongest arguments against it has been that doing so would unnecessarily alienate the UK, whose interests also require it to contribute to European security.
The creation of such a strategically autonomous bloc has not, to put it mildly, been a British foreign policy objective over the last few hundred years, but a British decision to concentrate on projecting power in Asia would leave gaps, in the event that the United States is unable or unwilling to come to Europe’s defence. If the Government is convinved that a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is in the national interest, it needs to give more thought to who will backfill for us, and in particular our Nordic allies, when the next Russian provocation comes.