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The Integrated Review and the View from Small States: Time to Think Smaller?

This essay was first published in July 2021, in the first volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: A Strategy Fit for the 2020s?

There was a famous Aesop’s fable in which a lion captured a small mouse, who, begging for his freedom, promised to return the favour someday. The lion, bemused by the prospect of such a tiny creature ever assisting the king of the jungle, magnanimously released him into the wild; the next day, hunters laid a trap, in which the lion became entangled. Fortuitously, the mouse, hearing his roaring pleas, gnawed through the ropes, and released the struggling beast. There is much to this story, because it proves that

even a mouse can assist a lion.– Dr Hillary Briffa

Yet, when the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, was released in March 2021 – described by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the ‘biggest review of our foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War’ – eager readers flocked to understand its position almost exclusively in relation to international behemoths China (explicitly referred to 27 times in the document) and Russia (mentioned 14 times). Despite far less attention, the purpose of this essay is therefore to demonstrate how an examination of the Review through the lens of the contributions, assistance and innovations of much smaller players can illuminate a surprising amount about both UK strategic priorities, and areas where it still stands to learn and progress further in turn.

Shining a light on small states and their relationship with the United Kingdom may seem like an unusual exercise. After all, in 1964 UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson had famously stated that: ‘We are a world power, and a world influence, or we are nothing’ – a statement telling of both British ambitions, and the prevailing perception of the lack of importance or utility ascribed to those actors who do not necessarily set the international agenda. And yet, today, small states (defined, for the purpose of this essay, in accordance with the membership threshold of the United Nations Forum of Small States as those countries having populations of fewer than 10 million people) make up the majority membership of the United Nations and are found in every region of the world.

The desire to act as ‘Global Britain’ cannot be realized solely in relation to rising or great powers, – Dr Hillary Briffa

and when digging deeper into the Review, this understanding becomes more pronounced.

This essay therefore undertakes three tasks. First, it presents two case studies of the UK relationship with small states explicitly mentioned in the Review (the Netherlands and Norway) to highlight the way these actors support or challenge the declared defence and security priorities. Second, it widens the scope to consider the broader strategic implications of two of the most prominent emergent themes in the document; namely, nuclear proliferation and sustainable development. Finally, it identifies areas where the UK can afford to be even more ambitious in pursuit of its goals by learning lessons from innovative small state proposals that, contrary to Wilson’s misperception, will bolster its efforts to be a world power and world influence today.

UK-Netherlands Relations: Close Partnership with a Small State

To begin by considering small states that have been afforded explicit attention in the Review, the Netherlands is notably mentioned twice, and with good reason. Its trade relationship with the UK spans 400 years, and today it is both the UK’s fourth largest trading partner and its largest importer of UK oil (accounting for 41% of all exports in the first half of 2020). However, it is not only economics that drive the close ties between the countries. Former Dutch Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Simon Smit, poignantly explained that, ‘Culture plays a pivotal role in bridging the narrow sea that divides us’. There is much in common between the two ‘North-Sea Neighbours’, both of which are constitutional monarchies, liberal democracies (albeit with a long and contentious history of imperialism), founding members of NATO, naval powers with overseas territories in the Caribbean, and proponents of common values. The latter were encapsulated by former Dutch European Commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, as, ‘long-standing and deeply-rooted democratic tradition, the Atlantic outlook, the free market orientation, and two large multinationals, Shell and Unilever, with a common Dutch-British origin’.

Given the close relationship between the two countries, bilateral cooperation remains important for both economies, as well as their defence and security interests. Exemplifying this fact, in 2017, the UK and the Netherlands signed a joint vision statement pledging enhanced cooperation on security and defence policy, including addressing hybrid threats, cyber security and counter-terrorism efforts. To enable tactical and operational effectiveness at the joint level, the armed forces continue to work closely together. For instance, the Royal Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy are continually involved in joint exercises, training and professional exchange programmes, share and standardise equipment, and align doctrine to enable interoperability. This is not only set to continue, but the importance of the Netherlands to future UK ambitions, particularly the Review’s ‘tilt to the Indo-Pacific’ (p.60), has gained greater prominence with the integration of a Dutch Frigate into the UK Carrier Strike Group’s first deployment, which embarked from the North Atlantic in May 2021, and is currently on route through the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans, then onwards to the Indo-Pacific. The inclusion of the Dutch – the only foreign ally, apart from the United States – is a testament to the close defence relationship between the two countries. As articulated by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace: ‘Our NATO, JEF and European Ally’s commitment signals the Carrier Strike Group’s contribution to collective defence and credible deterrence. This joint deployment will offer a unique opportunity for our forces to integrate and operate together in support of truly shared global defence and security challenges’, thereby signalling the importance of smaller partners to realise the ambitions of ‘Global Britain’.

At the same time, the picture is not entirely rosy. Whilst the Integrated Review’s references to improving interoperability with Euro-Atlantic allies through multilateral groupings such as the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, to which the Netherlands contributes actively, and the reaffirmation of UK commitment to leadership in NATO (p.72), are welcome signals of commitment to the collective security that small states champion, this has not wholly cushioned the sore blow dealt by Brexit, the long-term repercussions of which are yet to play out. The Netherlands was particularly disappointed by the Brexit referendum outcome, given that the first Vice-President of the European Commission, Dutch politician Frans Timmermans, had fought hard to prevent the departure of a European Union member state whom the Dutch relied on to counterbalance the federalist and integrationist inclinations of the French and Germans.

In the aftermath of Brexit, public opinion in the Netherlands has increasingly turned to favouring closer cooperation with France and Germany, viewing them as more reliable security partners. – Dr Hillary Briffa

Indeed, a 2020 survey of over 23,000 people by Clingendael (Netherlands Institute of International Relations) revealed that 72% of respondents favoured closer cooperation with Germany and France following the UK departure from the EU.

Concurrently, Brexit has galvanised deeper and closer security cooperation among the European Union member states, epitomised by the establishment of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in 2017, which involves structural integration of 25 EU member states, including the Netherlands. Consequently, whilst the Netherlands is expected to continue its close security relationship with the UK, cooperation should not be automatically assumed. When the US and the UK launched the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) in July 2019 to respond to increasing threats to the freedom of navigation in international waters in the Middle East, many European states were reluctant to join the venture owing to a reticence towards Trump’s hard-line rhetoric. Instead, eight European countries (Denmark, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, France, Greece, and the Netherlands) formed a similar coalition called the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH), raising questions about several assumptions underpinning the ‘Global Britain’ outlook of the Review.

Foremost, the cooperation of European small states in UK-led initiatives should not be taken for granted; as geopolitical challenges – ranging from the relationship with China, to how to contend with a revanchist Russia or volatile Iran, to governance of the global commons, and so forth – place pressure on national security interests and foreign policy priorities, the Dutch have reiterated their commitment to closer EU cooperation post-Brexit. ‘If the chaos of Brexit teaches us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as splendid isolation’, explained Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Whilst scope for bilateral cooperation endures,

the UK may increasingly find in the future that the European majority decision taking precedence will not always align with its own preferences.– Dr Hillary Briffa

UK-Norway Relations: Securing the Arctic

A similar understanding of broader UK strategic interests emerges when homing in on another partner mentioned explicitly twice in the review. The Review talks of working with European partners such as Norway ‘bilaterally, and through NATO and the Joint Expeditionary Force…in support of our common objectives’ (p.61). As another founding member, the inclusion of Norway in the collective security organisation created the ‘Northern Flank’ of NATO, directly on the northern border with the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War. The Norwegian military continues to play a critical role in monitoring activity and protecting sea lines of communication in the North Atlantic, particularly deterring hostile passage through the naval chokepoint known as the Greenland–Iceland–United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap. However, the combined challenges of climate change – melting Artic ice and opening up new trade routes – and the recent and ongoing expansion of Russian nuclear and conventional capabilities (such as submarines) are of growing concern. 

As a non-Arctic nation, the UK interest in the region has typically focused on scientific research and commercial interests; the Arctic was absent from the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, only mentioned in passing with reference to Royal Marines training and equipment in the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, and again missing from the 2018 National Security Capability Review. The first UK White Paper on the Arctic, Adapting To Change: UK policy towards the Arctic, was released in 2013, focusing predominantly on environmental and developmental issues and the impact of climate change. The Integrated Review reiterates the UK commitment to maintaining a ‘significant contribution to Arctic science, focused on understanding the implications of climate change’ (p.64), but remains surprisingly vague on broader regional security concerns. Pledging solely to maintain the region as one of ‘high cooperation and low tension’, this aspiration may be increasingly challenged by Russian and Chinese strategic ambitions.

In March 2021, Norwegian Minister of Defence, Frank Bakke-Jensen, summed up the security implications of increasing militarisation of the Arctic in an address to the Atlantic Council: ‘Russian armed forces have significantly modernised during the last ten to twelve years. Its capabilities are increasingly integrated, giving Russia more flexibility…the Russians have modernised their underwater capabilities. They’ve improved their ability to deploy troops rapidly over great distances. Russia is now also more capable in terms of conventional long-range precision weapons. Together, this reduces the warning time for NATO countries to hours and days.’ Given that Angus Lapsley, Director General Strategy and International at the UK Ministry of Defence, has described Russia as the ‘most acute security threat to the UK’, the significant Russian activity and capabilities in the High North, coupled with increasing Chinese presence in the Arctic, are drawing more attention and

close cooperation with Norway – ranging from joint training to sharing equipment – is expected to be crucial to safeguarding NATO interests in the region over the coming years.– Dr Hillary Briffa

Evidence of enhanced cooperation in this area has been exemplified by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Norwegian Air Force pushing to work together with their maritime patrol aircraft. With both countries procuring the Boeing-made P-8A for this task, statements of intent for bilateral cooperation between the two, and a trilateral partnership with the United States (which also uses the aircraft), point to increased operational synergy between the two nations in identifying and tracking submarines in the North Atlantic. Multilaterally, NATO exercises have increased in the High North, with Norway hosting Exercise Trident Juncture – its largest exercise since the Cold War – in 2018. However, the subsequent Exercise Cold Response in March 2020 intended to test Allied warfighting capabilities in the harsh Arctic conditions, was cancelled as a result of COVID-19 fears, demonstrating the broader security implications of the global pandemic.

On the commercial front, Brexit has been less troubling for the Norwegians, who are no part of the EU, but who do regret the loss of free movement of goods and services through the EEA agreement, given that they are Britain’s largest non-EU trading partner. Still, in June 2021 a promising, ambitious free trade agreement was announced between the UK, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. Although it will not provide the same level of access to the UK markets as the EEA agreement allowed for, it is a win-win for both the UK (politically, able to present a quick trade deal to its electorate) and its three partners, who will all benefit from the growth in trade. For this reason, small states outside of the EU may increasingly benefit from UK interests in securing new trade deals to meet its stated ambition in the Review of ‘enabling 80% of UK trade to be covered by trade agreements by the end of 2022’ (p.101).

Small States and Nuclear Policy

Whilst it is impossible to address every small state mentioned explicitly in the Review individually, it is evident that a closer look at those mentioned reveals much larger strategic priorities and sources of assistance for the UK than may be immediately apparent from a first reading of the document. At the same time, broader themes of the Review also raise important questions for small states that warrant closer examination. In this regard, the issues of nuclear proliferation and sustainability stand out prominently.

In a change of direction that has prompted vociferous public debate, the Integrated Review reversed the decision of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s administration to reduce the UK’s nuclear warhead stockpile to 180. Instead, ‘the UK will move to an overall nuclear weapon stockpile of no more than 260 warheads’ (p.76), representing an increase of approximately 15%. Despite the fact that this still leaves the UK with the smallest nuclear capability of the five states with the largest publicly-declared nuclear arsenals (the UK, USA, France, China and Russia), the move has called into question the UK commitment to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which they are all signatory to. The decision was also communicated in the Review a mere two months after the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)– ‘the first legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination’ – finally entered into force. This will prove a hard pill to swallow for the (predominantly small) states who have been spearheading it and awaiting its ratification for the past four years. The TPNW has been boycotted by all five nuclear powers under the NPT regime, as well as their military allies, including the NATO member states. In view of the UK increasing its own stockpile, it is clear that primacy given to deterrent capability is therefore likely to persist, and

the many Pacific islands whose homelands have been subject to weapons testing in the past will be waiting a very long time – perhaps forever – before any nuclear power concedes to ratify their Treaty.– Dr Hillary Briffa

Small States, the Environment and Development

Although the increase in nuclear capability is unlikely to curry favour with many small islanders, the Review does demonstrate a more promising track record for small states on softer security issues. Both the Sustainable Development Goals and a commitment to ‘sustained international action to accelerate progress towards net zero emissions by 2050 an build global climate resilience’ (p.21) featured prominently when outlining the principles of the UK Strategic Framework in the Review. In this effort, the UK, as President of COP26, stands to leverage considerable development expertise and is aligning all of its official development assistance (ODA) to the Paris Agreement; yet, cuts to this budget will hamper the implementation of these lofty goals in practice, as assessed by Devanny and Berry elsewhere in this essay series. Still, perhaps one of the most meaningful statements in the Review – relatively easy to overlook, hidden in the middle of page 90 – is the recognition that ‘the shift to a green global economy requires action from everyone – from the largest and most advanced economies to developing countries and small island developing states, across governments, businesses and individual citizens.’ Although this is the only explicit mention of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), it is an important one.

Whilst remoteness has insulated many SIDS from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are facing an acute economic crisis owing to the economic shock induced by the global tourism shutdown. Moreover, their development is consistently hampered by adverse weather events, ranging from cyclones to flooding, as a result of climate change. On the basis of GDP alone, many SIDS are considered too well-off to qualify for sufficient concessional finance, which stymies their capacity to enact adaptation and mitigation measures to offset the impact of the climate emergency; with limited resources and funds so vital for development consistently being rediverted to rebuilding infrastructure and safeguarding the welfare of populations, development is consistently hindered, perpetuating poverty and trapping SIDS with unsustainable levels of debt. The UK has recognised that GDP does not provide an accurate reflection of the distinct vulnerabilities of small islands, and that a radical re-envisioning of global financing mechanisms is necessary to enable them to build resilience.

To address the ‘perfect socio-economic storm’ brought about by COVID-19 and the climate emergency, the UK flexed its ‘convening power’ (p.14) by partnering with Fiji and Belize to host a joint roundtable on financing for SIDS at the United Nations in October 2020. During the virtual gathering, participants discussed a suite of proposals intended to offer debt relief, provide liquidity, and target more appropriate development finance instruments to the particular vulnerabilities of SIDS (including a proposed Vulnerability Index and other capacity building mechanisms). This was followed by another roundtable – the Pacific SIDS Dialogue on Access to Finance – hosted by the UK, Fiji, and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in June 2021. The meeting produced an outcomes document seeking to ‘identify, discuss and prioritise Pacific SIDS’ recommendations to improve access to concessional finance’, such as debt for climate swaps. These findings will be discussed at the Pacific Islands Forum Economic Ministers Meeting in July 2021, followed by the UK hosting another high-level global meeting in September. In this activity,

the UK is demonstrating its capacity for global leadership and is playing an instrumental role as a voice and champion of small states. – Dr Hillary Briffa

By continuing to throw its weight behind proposals for a radical overhaul of ineffectual global financial systems, the UK is proving that ‘action from everyone’ means leaving no small islands behind.

At the same time, whilst the UK vision to realise effective ocean governance by 2030 (p.92) is a commendable one, and the importance of biodiversity conservation is well-addressed, the issue of sea level rise – expected to rise by 20 to 40 cm globally by 2050, affecting every part of the world – is conspicuously absent from the consideration of building resilience. Close to home, Dutch oceanographers have gone so far as to propose the building of two huge North Sea dams (between the north of Scotland and the west of Norway, and between the west of France and southwest of England) to insure populations against rising sea levels as a result of climate change. Whilst the proposal is exorbitantly expensive and would likely have too far-reaching an ecological impact to be actively considered, the proposal does serve to foreground the fact that

rising sea levels are a real challenge, on the doorstep of the UK, and not just an existential challenge for islanders in remote locations.– Dr Hillary Briffa

Of course, the calls of these far-flung islanders, sounding the alarm about rising sea levels, should be heeded as well. References to rules, norms and standards abound throughout the Integrated Review, yet whilst the UK has committed to seeking good governance and creating ‘shared rules in frontiers such as cyberspace and space’ (p.12), it is important to understand that the socially constructed nature of the existing rules and norms that constitute the international maritime order are not fixed and can be changed over time. Most notably, climate change induced sea-level rise might cause changes in land features which are used to determine maritime boundaries (namely, if rising sea levels make islands uninhabitable and populations are forced to be relocated, these territories will be downgraded to the status of “rocks”). This prospect threatens the Exclusive Economic Zone (and, therefore, access to marine resources) of many Pacific island states. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was agreed in 1982, before sea level rise was recognised as an issue, there is still no provision on how to contend with this problem.

This is why discussion of UK climate leadership ambitions, ocean governance, and resilience cannot be limited to biodiversity conversation or to combatting blatant disregard for international law in the global commons but must also recognise the insufficiency of the law itself. Small states, which have been among the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases, are paying the highest costs for climate adaptation and are acutely vulnerable to the existential threat of climate change. Today, states from the Marshall Islands to Kiribati are mapping their dispersed, remote ocean islands, in order to claim permanent EEZs, irrespective of future sea level rise, and are advocating for a solution where there will be no loss in jurisdiction due to climate change. It is imperative that the UK recognises and supports these efforts.

It is not enough for Pacific island governments, alone, to recognise each other’s existing maritime limits – if countries like the UK, US and Japan do not do so as well, there is nothing to stop other state actors from rejecting these spaces as EEZs and seeking to mine or fish in the region, further compounding the vulnerability and insecurity problems of these Small Island Developing States. The Integrated Review recognises ‘China’s increasing international assertiveness and the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific’ (p.17) and expresses the commitment of the UK to ‘cooperate with China in tackling transnational challenges such as climate change’ (p. 22). Therefore, supporting the SIDS’ claims to permanent EEZs at the United Nations would be a prime opportunity to act on these promises and to demonstrate the UK’s values of fairness, equality and rule of law. 

Wales: a Small Nation Within a Larger State

And speaking of the law, when it comes to addressing the transnational challenge that ‘unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, population growth and technological developments will cause further biodiversity loss’ (p.31), the UK should be looking to its own legislation to scale up visionary solutions. Even though the Review foresees unprecedented environmental degradation and disease outbreaks over the coming decades, politics has become increasingly short term, and decisions are consistently being made within the timetable of an election. Decisions are made on one day, that are then overturned the next; nobody is looking after the interest of the future. So, how does one offer hope and opportunity to people who have no vote? Who might not yet be born? And who have no say in how decisions are made at a time where we have not achieved, anywhere in the world, the biodiversity targets set by the UN? At home in the UK, Wales offers an answer.

Through the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015,

Wales is still the only country in the world that has taken the step to protect both current and future generations in law; – Dr Hillary Briffa

and the only country in the world to put the UN Brundtland Report definition of sustainable development – ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ – into law, despite being the most popular definition of sustainability, used millions of times since 1987. The Welsh National Assembly members who voted for the Act held their own feet to the fire, whilst presenting a ground-breaking model that the UK government should be following to truly place sustainability at the heart of every aspect of policymaking – from transport, to housing, to education to health – and thereby eschew the short term approach so endemic to electoral politics, and only exacerbated by the crisis of the global pandemic.

Notably, the UK’s constitutional structure, as a multi-nation state, gives it the opportunity to learn from the norm entrepreneurship pursued by this small nation. Unfortunately, historically, the UK has struggled to realise this potential, given the unitary, Whitehall-centric and Anglo-centric nature of UK government. However, it is never too late to learn, and the UK can yet succeed in scaling up such tried-and-tested devolved policy experiments. Doing so may even become increasingly important as the UK potentially stands to become a ‘smaller’ state itself, depending on how Scottish independence movements and the growing discussions of Irish unification, post-Brexit, play out.

Conclusion: Think ‘Smaller’ to make ‘Global Britain’ a Success?

It is clear that there is much to understand about UK defence and security interests when. digging beneath the surface and paying heed to the mischief of mice, and not just the great lions whose roars dominate global attention. For instance, the relationship with the Netherlands will continue to be buoyed by close defence cooperation and features prominently as part of the so-called ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, but there may be rockier waters ahead if EU interests subsequently diverge from British policy priorities. Similarly, deepening defence engagement with Norway is indicative of growing concerns about the increasing militarisation of the Arctic, whilst the fresh free trade agreement signed by the two countries could bode well for UK trade ambitions.

Although it was not possible to examine every case in detail here, the cases discussed highlight the need for UK strategy to take small states seriously. Similar insights may be gleaned by paying closer attention to other small countries named explicitly, including Sweden in the High North, Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, Baltic Estonia as part of the Joint Expeditionary Force, and Middle Eastern partners, such as the United Arab Emirates, whose inward investment will be an important factor in UK ambitions to become a ‘Science and Tech Superpower by 2030’ (p.4). Similarly, lessons could be learned when considering states that have been left out. This includes Commonwealth member and former colony Malta, which was recently green listed for UK travel, but grey-listed by the Financial Action Task Force over deficiencies in its anti-money laundering and funding of terrorism framework, thereby potentially challenging UK diplomatic ambitions to work with partners along key migration routes ‘from Africa via the Mediterranean’ (p.95).

More broadly, some prominent themes of the review – to the fore, the expansion of the UK nuclear arsenal – will likely engender a cold reception from many non-NATO small states. Conversely, the emphasis on sustainability is hitting many of the right notes as the global community confronts the climate emergency, and small island developing states on the frontlines stand to benefit from UK assistance in their efforts to radically alter the prevailing international financial systems to enable an equitable and green pandemic recovery and truly sustainable development thereafter. At the same time, the UK still has further to go – be that in supporting SIDS’ fight to claim permanent EEZs, or scaling-up at UK-level the pioneering Welsh legislation to safeguard the rights of future generations.

When seeking to become more flexible, adaptable and innovative, it is to the approaches of small countries that the UK should be looking in the face of an uncertain future. Perhaps it is time for this aspiring ‘superpower’ to think a little smaller.– Dr Hillary Briffa

Dr Hillary Briffa is a Lecturer in Defence Studies and founding member of the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London, where she read for her PhD in War Studies (specialising in small state security). After running peace-building projects in Eastern Europe, in 2016 she received the U.S. State Department’s Emerging Young Leaders award, and as of 2020, is one of the inaugural Hans J. Morgenthau Fellows at the Notre Dame International Security Center.

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Hillary  Briffa

Hillary Briffa

Lecturer in National Security Studies

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