Alexander Downer is the Chairman of Policy Exchange, a former Australian High Commissioner to the UK and a former Australian Foreign Minister.
The publication of the Government’s Integrated Review yesterday should lay to rest the notion that Conservative governments are incapable of grand strategic thought. For decades, the left-leaning foreign policy establishment has argued that Britain is in terminal decline, a mid-ranking power at best, and that all the right has to offer is imperial nostalgia. This fatalism has only increased since Brexit: the UK at least had a role as the gateway to Europe for investors, ran the argument, but now even that has been lost.
Viewed from abroad, this always looked wide of the mark and the UK’s departure from the EU hasn’t changed that. As Australia’s foreign minister, then as High Commissioner in London, I was always aware not just of Britain’s historic role but its current status as a major global player with a bright future.
The UK remains the fifth largest economy in the world, a member of the UN Security Council, the fourth biggest spender on defence, one of the biggest spenders on overseas aid – and is respected around the world as a flagbearer of the rules-based international order. If anyone thinks Brexit has changed the last of those, consider that the UK – as the Integrated Review underlines – is in the process of giving millions of Hong Kong residents the right to come and live in the UK, and eventually become citizens.
Far from abdicating its global role, under Boris Johnson Britain is embracing and even expanding it. In the Review, we have the first real glimpse of what he means by “Global Britain”: it is a country that is assertive, knows what it believes but picks its battles carefully.
The wider Indo-Pacific is one of three notable areas that the Review gets spot on. It recognises that here is the great engine of global growth in the coming decade and beyond. China’s “increasing power and international assertiveness is likely to be the most significant geopolitical factor of the 2020s”, it notes, arguing that the UK will need to remain open to Chinese investment and trade. On China the theme is engagement, but not at any price. It wisely observes that we and other open trading economies will have to be on guard against practices that adversely affect our prosperity and security.
But the booming Indo-Pacific is about much more than China and this is recognised by the Review, which notes the importance of UK relations with other powers in the region including India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines.
It is these countries that would welcome the UK stepping up its military, diplomatic and trading engagement in the region, as Policy Exchange found through its recent Indo-Pacific Commission – chaired by Stephen Harper, the former Canadian Prime Minister, and backed by another former Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe of Japan, one of the biggest figures of the post-war era in the Indo-Pacific, and who popularised the term “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.
As we found, there is absolutely zero sense from these countries that Britain is overestimating its future global role in what used to be called “east of Suez” in a past era. It has hard and soft power capabilities and can demonstrate both in the region. The deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the two largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy, to the Indo-Pacific will be a symbolic complement to putting “diplomacy first”, which the Review ultimately recommends.
Notably, it also backs the UK joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership – as recommended by Policy Exchange over the past two years. No one is arguing that this will replace the UK’s trading relationship with the EU; but until now this new world of opportunity has been badly overlooked.
The phrase “world-class” can be overused by politicians and mandarins. Justifiably, it is only used by the Integrated Review in the area of science and technology, where it is observed that Britain is ranked fourth in the Global Innovation Index, has won the second most Nobel Prizes of any nation, is third in the world for tech “unicorns” – with 77 tech companies valued at over $1billion, and is home to some of the most cutting edge medical and science research, which of course produced the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine and leads the world in genome sequencing.
With this in mind, the aim for Britain to cement its position as a science and tech superpower by 2030 is not just laudable but realistic. The creation of the £800 million Advanced Research and Invention Agency will help here. Ministers must only bear in mind, as Policy Exchange has observed, that high-risk, high-reward research inevitably involves more than the usual amount of failure along the way. The destination is worth the turbulence on the way.
The context of this report is vitally important. It was already a tall order producing an integrated strategy as the UK exited the EU. The Covid-19 pandemic – a once in a century hit to the global economy – made Brexit seem almost a second order issue. So perhaps the most important section of the Review is on resilience. The aim here is to establish a “whole of society” approach to resilience, so that it involves individuals, businesses and organisations. A national endeavour, rather than a subject for a secretive Cabinet subcommittee. We have to ensure together that we are prepared for the next crisis, whatever it might be.
This reflects a broader truth that runs throughout the Review: there is no such thing as pure foreign policy any more. It’s more obvious in an area like resilience or security. We are all familiar with the idea of threats abroad that quickly lead to risks on the home front.
What the Integrated Review puts forward – and expresses better than any UK Government policy paper I have seen before – is an argument that in a more interconnected world and multipolar world, prosperity at home is more than ever the result of how Britain deals with the world. The UK, as the Review recognises, needs an integrated approach that ensures it is more agile in shaping the international order, in taking advantage of opportunities that further its prosperity, and better prepared for the shocks that will come.