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The Integrated Review: Innovative Thinking But Still Some Blind Spots

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?

The UK’s Integrated Review is the latest attempt to answer Dean Acheson’s famous challenge: for Britain to find a suitable role for itself in the World. There are three particular drivers of the Review: the rise of China, Brexit, and the technology revolution. The report puts some intellectual structure around the bumper sticker of Global Britain that Boris Johnson’s government has adopted. Overall, the Review is a creditable effort to chart a way forward for the UK in the new, more contested geopolitical environment.

Strikingly, the Review announces a move away from defending the post Cold War ‘rules based international order’. It recognises that a more dynamic approach is needed as that order fragments under greater challenge, above all from China.

The Review also succeeds in linking foreign policy to the UK’s domestic priorities, much in the way that the Biden Administration aspires to produce a ‘foreign policy for the middle classes’. – Sir John Sawers

Perhaps predictably, the main shortfall relates to Europe. But more of that later.




The language on China has attracted close attention. It is measured rather than combative, striking a balance between China as a ‘systemic challenge’ to the UK’s security, prosperity and values while also pursuing ‘a positive trade and investment relationship’. To that extent it echoes the language used by the European Commission in its China policy paper in 2019, rather than the more aggressive posture favoured by some backbench Conservative MPs.


But it would be a mistake to focus only on the specific references to China. The upheaval in the international system caused by China’s dramatic and impressive rise permeates the whole Review.

Every mention of technology competition, of cyber defence and of our values as a liberal democracy is an oblique reference to the challenge posed by China. – Sir John Sawers

one and the same time, China is a player at the table and the ghost at the feast.




Nowhere is this more true than on technology. This is perhaps the most refreshing part of the Review. It rightly identifies mastery of technology as the key to future economic prosperity and to strategic power. To that extent, the Review is an oblique pushback against Xi Jinping’s Made in China 2025 policy paper, recognising that the new technologies are the vital battleground for the strategic rivalry between the West and China and accepting the challenge.


Britain has real strengths to bring to the tech competition, not least our top universities. I have been struck when talking to leading international figures in technology that, after the US and China, the UK is mentioned the most frequently as a source of tech innovation. One sector where Britain stands to benefit from leaving the EU is technology as the EU’s prescriptive regulation has acted as a brake on innovation.


To succeed in this domain, the UK needs stronger defences against foreign predators. Most focus has rightly been placed on China and there is now a lower threshold of national security interests to clear before the government can intervene to obstruct a foreign takeover. But in the hot competition for new tech firms, we need to have better protection against all comers. American buyers are just as keen on buying UK start-ups as Chinese ones are. We need to be more robust in stopping buyers from friendly countries as well, especially when the buyers are private equity firms with no interest beyond making money. The financial markets need to operate, but within constraints that recognise the strategic importance of nurturing our home grown technology firms. In this sector, Britain needs more of a French style approach than we have adopted since the free market days of Margaret Thatcher.




Cyber is one of the most obvious links between technology and security and is a tool in the hybrid warfare that the Russians in particular like to fight. Britain has been prominent in creating standards of cyber defence for the private sector as well as government agencies but these are mainly to defend against criminal groups.


The Review announces a significant step forward in dealing with State-led cyber attacks - the creation of a National Cyber Force to plan and execute offensive cyber operations. I see this as mainly a step towards better deterrence in the cyber domain. There are risks in responding to the recent intelligence gathering operation against Solar Winds, widely attributed to Russia, with a disruptive attack ourselves. But if the Russians and Chinese know we are geared up to respond like-for-like, they will have to factor that into their calculations when they launch attacks against us. We are all dependent on our IT systems for everyday life and business. Those who live in glasshouses must beware getting into a stone throwing fight. But we need those stones to hand.




The Review defends the cut to the aid budget, reasonably so in terms of the other pressures on the UK’s public finances.

To my mind, the real damage to the UK’s reputation on aid is the dismantling of DfID (the Department for International Development) which was a respected thought leader with much independent expertise. – Sir John Sawers

I struggle to see how the new FCDO will match that, but we shall see.




In its determination to paint Britain as having a global perspective and global reach, the Review conveniently ignores the biggest player in our own neighbourhood – the EU. The UK’s commitment to NATO and to the relationships with the United States and leading European countries like France and Germany are all underlined. But the European Union is largely ignored.


Perhaps this is understandable: the EU-UK relationship is scratchy and negative, with genuine issues over vaccines and over Northern Ireland aggravated by a zero sum mindset and a determination on each side to out-do the other. But this Brexit hangover is damaging to both parties, especially in a world where European countries, whether in or out of the EU, have shared values as liberal democracies and those values are coming under severe challenge – until recently from the United States as well as from more predictable hostile sources like Russia.


The UK also needs the EU. Much attention in the Review is paid to the importance of setting standards and regulations in areas such as data and technology. This is precisely the EU’s strong suit where it is on a par with the US and China, and an issue where the UK has no independent power. To achieve the Review’s stated goal of the UK becoming a global services and data hub, the UK will have to follow the standards on data security and privacy set by the World’s main regulatory powers, above all the EU.


Unstated, but running through the review, is the trade off that the UK has made through Brexit. The country has sacrificed the power and protection that comes from being part of a major bloc and has acquired instead greater agility and speed of response. Brexiteers point to the highly successful vaccine programme as their first piece of evidence, and with some valid reason. But outside the EU, Britain is exposed as a more vulnerable target for hostile powers. The threats to the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be a tempting target for those who want to weaken Britain further.


Concluding Thought


The Integrated Review makes a good fist of defining how the UK can best operate in the World in our new position. Outside the EU, we Brits will need friends and partners more than ever. Perhaps I’m old fashioned but to my mind geography remains important. Britain is still a European nation and our security and prosperity will depend above all on friendly ties and deep cooperation with our closest neighbours on both sides of the Atlantic. Of course, Asia is the growth continent and Britain needs a close engagement there. But not at the expense of our backyard.


Sir John Sawers is a visiting professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He is a former Chief of the UK Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) (2009-2014). Prior to leading SIS, Sir John was the UK’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Political Director of the Foreign Office, Special Representative in Iraq, Ambassador to Cairo and Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. Sir John is Executive Chairman of Newbridge Advisory, a firm he founded in 2019 to advise corporate leaders on geopolitics and political risk.


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