The government’s Integrated Review of Foreign, Development, Security and Defence Policy – delayed and now due to be published next month – was supposed to provide a new map for a brave new Britain. Having stepped away from a continental club, naked but for the slogan “Global Britain”, we need more than a quip if we’re to navigate the current turmoil.
Chinese empowerment and American retrenchment are changing the nature of our alliances and the international organisations we depend on, from those closest to home to those in the Pacific. Add that on top of the biggest pandemic in a century and it is clear we need more than a point on the horizon to aim for. We need a plan.
But it now looks like it won’t happen soon. Economic uncertainty has convinced some in government that this is no time to make commitments in foreign policy and no time to pledge spending on defence. The opposite is true. This is the time.
If Britain is going to help shape the world when it is at its most malleable, we need to invest now, and demonstrate the commitment and confidence to lead the transformation. If we don’t, others will mould it in their own interests and we will emerge from the crisis into a world no longer in our image.
This isn’t about an immediate military threat: an emboldened Beijing, content to tear up the rules, isn’t threatening us, though possibly Taiwan is in its sights. This is about a deeper change.
There are three things we must do now. One at home, one abroad, and one in the ether.
First, we need to bring together the range of state action into a coordinated whole. That may sound obvious but the reality is that Whitehall pressures can be obstacles to cooperation. The government has started by bringing DFID into the Foreign Office, but we must go further.
China’s General Secretary Xi sets the example. By subduing rivals with economic leverage and coalitions, he’s winning wars without conflict. The Chinese Communist Party is using industrialisation to push money to countries in need – and now in debt – and extracting concessions as a result.
Beijing’s mandarins now head four UN agencies, up from just one a few years ago. The Communist Party is using multilateral organisations that defended the rules of the past to write a new value code into the global operating system. Our influence is slipping, as theirs grows.
We could do the same. There is no need for us to be weak, not when our alliances are stronger than others and our history and reputation on providing aid is such a strength.
Here, at home, we need to look again at how we combine economic, industrial, educational and cultural levers to achieve a coordinated result. We need an integrated review, integrated action and a Foreign Secretary empowered to deliver it.
Defence should be shaped by this too. The decision to invest in the technological upgrade our forces need should be made in the context of the alliances we need to build. Of course Britain deserves the best, but if we put defence spending first it’s like buying the kitchen for a house we’ve never seen. You’ve no idea if it will work.
Second, we need to think again about our partners. Gone are the days of the General Assembly of the UN dominating global debates, and the WTO guarding every aspect of trade. Multilateral institutions are being challenged by nation states who are looking to take back control of their economies and societies.
For Britain, that’s a bigger problem than most countries. From our services and export-driven economy, to our finance and legal sectors, not to mention our role in the Commonwealth and NATO, Britain’s success depends heavily on a well-functioning international system. Our brand is built on trust, cooperation and a willingness to do business. We have a bigger stake than anyone in defending that, so we need to find a new way of working.
Bringing together like minded nations is a core skill for British diplomats. More than ever we need to build dynamic relationships rather than bureaucratic structures. We need partnerships more at home on Zoom than in palaces, to coordinate flexible new alliances on urgent issues. The question of coordinating Covid vaccinations will require international partnership too.
On the environment, COP26 – the UN climate change conference – presents a challenge for us too. Can we build a group of nations to influence others and commit themselves to change? If we can, could we do the same in a democratic partnership to support our values in the UN and other groups?
A new Venn model of interlocking and sometimes overlapping partnerships, a varilateral system, could help established and emerging powers unpick the global gridlock.
This doesn’t need to be branded with a Union Jack. Countries like us – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, France, Germany – find themselves in the situation of having much to offer the world and being dependent on a system of rules to enable their prosperity, but we are all struggling with the erosion of multilateral cooperation. We should aim to support others, acting as the enablers and conveners.
Third, we need to look hard into the ether, from cyber to space, so the UK can start drafting regulation. As the Royal Navy established the code of conduct at sea and fought piracy and slavery, today our nation must look at the modern equivalent of sea-lanes – cyber. That means pulling together partners to shape rules to ensure the predictability necessary for growth.
Our leaders haven’t always grasped this. They’ve failed to see how short-term cooperation with China – bagging cheaper contracts for telecommunications services, for example – can have grave consequences down the line.
Several decades on from the boom era of democracy and liberal capitalism, we’re witnessing a steady decline in the willingness of countries across the world to defend the very values that made them rich and prosperous in the first place.
Free trade and fair process are falling out of fashion; protectionism and parochialism are on the march again. Rather than working together to fight back against the bullies, we’ve even seen some countries happy to do their bidding.
Those are the big strategic threats. But our future won’t just be shaped by state actors. New technologies, which will continue to change our societies beyond recognition, will play just as big a role. Automation and artificial intelligence are changing the nature of power and the role of the state.
Some corporations, even individuals, have more power than ever. Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, is now more powerful than any ruler – ever – when misinformation is used to sow distrust in institutions and communities that help keep the peace.
That’s why the government’s delayed integrated review matters. If it becomes merely part of an annual spending round then the pressures of Covid will have pushed us into a strategic dead end just at the moment we need to engage. The world will only remain malleable for a short time before it hardens into a new form that will decide a generation’s prosperity and freedom.
This is about the long term. By 2030, Britain could, once again, be the enabler of the global order, what makes the system run in the first place. Or we could be an island, off a continent, shaped by rules written by others hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.
Tom Tugendhat MP is chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The Committee today publishes publishes its report “A brave new Britain? The future of the UK’s international policy”.