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The Integrated Review's concept of Global Britain – is it realistic?

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 2021 Integrated Review sets a high level of ambition for the UK’s place in the world post Covid 19 and post Brexit. Yet some of the accompanying decisions taken, such as the (permanent) reduction in the number of soldiers, the (possibly temporary) reduction in the aid budget and the disregard of the International Court of Justice decision on the Chagos Islands – not to mention the act of EU withdrawal itself – suggest that Britain might have less hard and soft power internationally than before. So how realistic is the Government’s ambitious rhetoric?

As a former UK Ambassador to the UN and National Security Adviser, my view is perhaps surprisingly positive.




Take Brexit – clearly this is a strategic shift for the UK with significant economic implications in particular. But

here was never any reason why Brexit should damage Britain’s national security, or its influence in the world. – Sir Mark Lyall Grant

Why? Because Britain’s security depends not on membership of the EU, but on its own defence, intelligence and law enforcement capabilities, its nuclear capabilities, its membership of NATO and the 5 eyes Intelligence community and the bilateral defence alliances it has with, for example, the US and France.


As for Britain’s international influence, this flows from a blend of the fundamental assets of the country and its ability to impact on global events. Those assets are impressive – including the size of the economy, the history, culture, democratic traditions, the rule of law, the Royal Family, the professionalism of the armed forces, diplomatic network and intelligence agencies, the elite universities, the premier league and the English language. These assets existed before the UK joined the EEC in 1973 and still exist in 2021 after we have left. They are the main reason that the UK is still ranked 3rd in the world when it comes to soft power.


As for the UK’s ability to influence events, the importance of being a permanent member of the UN Security Council cannot be overstated. Even after Brexit, the UK is a member of more international organisations than any other country, from the global (such as NATO, G7, G20, Commonwealth) to the small and specialised (such as Nuclear Suppliers Group and International Whaling Commission). Presiding over the G7 summit in June and the Climate Change conference (COP 26) in November offers a valuable opportunity this year to show leadership on a range of global challenges including tackling Covid, raising the bar in combatting climate change and plotting a coordinated western response to greater Chinese and Russian assertiveness.


As Ambassador to the UN at the time of the Scottish referendum in 2014, it was clear to me that Scottish Independence would have been much more damaging to the UK’s global status than Brexit ever could be. Apart from anything else, the break-up of the Union would have reduced the size of our economy and population, required a change in the name of the country and brought into question our permanent membership of the UN Security Council.


But therein lies the biggest risk. If Brexit leads indirectly to the break-up of the Union or to economic decline, then that will impact negatively on the Global Britain agenda. Which is why the Integrated Review focuses so heavily on the importance of the Union and on building a strong economy based on a turbo-charged Science and Technology sector. If the UK’s fundamentals have not significantly changed, how about recent policy decisions, which some commentators have argued undermines the Global Britain ambition?




A reduction in the overall size of the regular army from an already modest (and historically low) 82,000 to 72,500 certainly looks at odds with the steady increase in Britain’s defence budget (up to 2.2% of GDP in 2020) and has attracted criticism from retired UK and American Generals. But the decision reflects two realities: the first is a pragmatic one. The difficulty of recruitment has meant that the MOD has never been able to reach the 82,000 target of regular troops included in the 2015 strategic defence review that I oversaw as NSA. Indeed, it was the only one of the 89 commitments in that review that was consistently off track. The more strategic reality underpinning the decision is that the changing nature of warfare requires a greater emphasis on Special Forces, drones, ISTAR and other high-tech capability, rather than on infantry numbers.


A more important metric, given the demand for smaller and more varied military operations overseas, is how many soldiers can be deployed overseas at one time. The UK has traditionally been weak in this area, compared to, for example, France. The UK does not need to be able to confront the Russian army, or even, arguably, to mount an operation on the scale of the Falklands task force in the 1980s. But a credible Global Britain, in addition to carrying out the core functions of homeland security and defence diplomacy, does need to be able to station a sizeable force in Eastern Europe as part of deterring Russia, support US counter terrorism operations in the Middle East and French operations in the Sahel and, at the same time, contribute more officers and soldiers to UN peacekeeping missions around the world. That represents a step up from where we are now.


Overseas Aid


From a rather different constituency, there has been much criticism of the Government’s decision to resile, albeit temporarily, from its commitment to spend 0.7% of GNP on overseas development – and of the simultaneous re-merger of DFID and the FCO. Certainly,

the 0.7% aid commitment was a great selling point at the UN, where for the majority of nations, development is the most important of the UN’s three pillars. – Sir Mark Lyall Grant

It was always a pleasure to be able to trumpet that the UK was the only G20 country to meet that commitment.


But I was never in favour of putting the commitment into legislation. The decision to do so in 2015 owed more to domestic politics than to aid policy and did not gain the UK significant benefit internationally. The drawback of such legislation has been demonstrated twice in the last six years- first in 2017 when the UK was unable to divert overseas aid to its Caribbean dependent territories devastated by hurricane Irma, because they were deemed too rich to benefit under the international aid rules: and then in 2020, when the Covid crisis necessitated much higher domestic expenditure than expected.


The Labour Government established DFID in 1997, as a signal of its Internationalist commitment to combatting global poverty. But DFID’s operation under its first Secretary of Sate, Clare Short, was deeply flawed. Acting more as a giant NGO than a department of Government, DFID’s largely anonymous largesse brought little wider credit or benefit to UK plc – to the frustration of many Ambassadors overseas, including myself. An eventual re-merger was therefore inevitable at some point.


Despite criticism from many quarters, I do not see either of these two decisions seriously harming the UK’s interests or reputation overseas. The UK will remain one of the very largest aid donors, the 0.7% target remains for the medium term and the UK’s development expertise is widely respected. There is, however, a short-term difficulty. Because, over the years, the UK has made many long-term multilateral aid commitments, this year’s budget reduction means a much greater cut (up to 80% in some cases) to some key bilateral aid programmes – which will be damaging both in real and reputational terms. This imbalance between multilateral and bilateral contributions needs to be corrected quickly.


The Values Agenda


One of the most interesting aspects of the Integrated Review is how it addresses the wider values agenda and the International order. The Review talks about the UK being ‘a force for good’ in the world, standing up for universal human rights, the rule of law, free speech, fairness and equality. And some policy decisions have been taken in this direction, such as the establishment of the so-called ‘Magnitsky Act’ in 2020 allowing the UK Government to sanction egregious human rights abusers.


But there are some important nuances. The Integrated Review states (rightly in my view) that ‘in most cases, the UK’s interests and values are closely aligned’. But it adds that ‘at the same time, our approach will be realistic and adapted to circumstances’. This signals a welcome recognition that there are always policy tensions to resolve.

In my experience, the most difficult policy discussions in the National Security Council usually involved a trade-off between our Economic, Security and Values interests. – Sir Mark Lyall Grant

These three ‘policy pillars’ were often in tension with each other and sometimes irreconcilable. Huawei’s participation in our 5G rollout, arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the future of the Chagos Islands are three examples of this tension. As Robin Cook quickly discovered in the 1997 Labour Government, a pure ‘ethical foreign policy’ is not sustainable.


Some commentators will argue that such ‘real-politik’ damages Britain’s credibility as a ‘force for good’. But that is the price that any country, which aspires to a regional or global role, has to pay. That reality is accepted, if not applauded, by all UN members.




The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review identified the erosion of the International Rules Based Order as one of the most serious threats facing the UK. That order, fashioned largely by the US and UK after World War 2, is based on a liberal vision of open trade, the rule of law and human rights. It has greatly enhanced Western security and prosperity over the last 75 years.


Since 2015, the challenges to this liberal order have increased, not least as a result of the rise of China, where President Xi is offering an alternative non-democratic approach to global governance; and by four years of a Trump administration that made no effort to defend liberal values. Far from the ‘end of history’ as Francis Fukuyama put it 30 years ago, we have therefore entered a period of considerable uncertainly in which, for the first time since WW2, the ultimate triumph of democratic politics and liberal economics cannot be taken for granted.


As an open, democratic, trading nation, the UK and its European partners have much to lose if a new international order emerges, based more on ‘Chinese characteristics’, as President Xi puts it. But the Integrated Review is right to argue that simply defending the status quo is not realistic. If Global Britain is to mean anything, the UK Government needs to be actively involved in reshaping the international order in a way which takes account of the changing geopolitical environment, whilst preserving the key values of the current liberal order. This cannot be accomplished by force, only by positive example. The good news is that the UK has very considerable assets and alliances that it can bring to bear in this endeavour.


Sir Mark Lyall Grant is a visiting professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Sir Mark was the UK National Security Adviser (2015-17) and before that was a career diplomat whose postings included serving as High Commissioner to Pakistan (2003-06), Political Director in the FCO (2007-09) and UK Permanent Representative to the UN in New York (2009-15).


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Mark Lyall Grant

Mark Lyall Grant

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