Lord Risby is Chairman of the Advisory Council of the Council on Geostrategy, and a former Conservative MP.
The international order is dysfunctional and under threat. If left unaddressed, what the Integrated Review – the Government’s appraisal of the United Kingdom’s global position – calls ‘intensifying geopolitical competition’ has the potential to engulf our world and finally put paid to our post-Cold War hopes and ambitions.
As we saw in the 20th Century, even a small skirmish in a region seemingly peripheral to the United Kingdom and other major powers can get out of hand, particularly when those with great power and ambition are not resisted.
One of the key strategic threats in this century is the changing balance of power between free and open nations and large authoritarian states, with the latter group seeking to reshape the open international order that countries like our own have done so much to construct. Both the People’s Republic of China and Russia are now actively engaged in a bid to enhance their own standing. They see a world order stacked against them and they have been using their growing power to change it.
As the Integrated Review made clear, of the two, China is the most serious challenge – a genuine ‘systemic competitor’ – while Russia’s threat is less severe but more direct and acute. Russia has used military force to redraw the borders of Georgia and Ukraine, showing the extent to which Vladimir Putin is prepared to go to secure his objectives.
Meanwhile, Xi Jinping has demonstrated his ambitions as he has set about boosting his own power and using the strength of the Chinese economy – buoyed for years by the ‘offshoring’ of Western manufacturing and British investment – to make the world more amenable to his interests. The Chinese Communist Party’s recent 6th Plenum was used as a vehicle to consolidate his position and his vision for China. His clear aim is to make his country the world’s foremost industrial, economic and military power.
In part because of China’s Western-accelerated industrialisation, we are also waking up to the scale of the threat that environmental degradation poses to our way of life and the potential it has to alter our physical environment, as well as the strategic landscape. China is the world’s largest polluter. Xi’s claims of a greener tomorrow for his country are in place, but there is no short term fix.
At the same time, it has been clear that Britain has been too complacent. We have allowed our country to become uneven in terms of national development, with wealthy regions dominated by big cities existing alongside less prosperous and often peripheral coastal and hard-to-reach areas.
Undoubtedly, this is why many British people from across the realm realised that the prevailing national order was no longer working for them and why they voted to leave the European Union. This set off a once-in-a-lifetime process of change, and potential opportunity, for the country to re-establish itself in a more competitive age. It provided some breathing space to take advantage of Britain’s strengths and concentrate on overcoming national weaknesses, to ensure national success well into the future.
In these unprecedented times, it is paramount to recognise how the threats facing our country and its allies and partners intersect with our weaknesses as a nation. Only by acknowledging their depth can we be prepared to deal successfully with them. And in order to be prepared, we first of all need to know how.
The British think tank scene benefits from many well-established and internationally recognised and respected research organisations and think tanks which contribute much to the discourse on geopolitical issues. But for its critics, it for some time has lacked a fresh perspective overall on the issues that matter, and are prone to consensus thinking; few, if any, predicted Brexit, or the election of Donald Trump, and many recent seismic events. Some organisations have diluted their British identity.
This is why we think there is a gap in the market for a new organisation, which we established a week before the publication of the Integrated Review in March. The Council on Geostrategy aims to promote new ideas to enhance our country’s unity and resilience, bolster our industrial and technological base, and boost our diplomatic and military power, not least our nation’s most powerful instrument: the Royal Navy.
We also advocate for realistic geostrategies in the regions that matter to Britain, such as the Euro-Atlantic, the Indo-Pacific, and the Polar regions, to uphold a free and open international order. While we have a tight national focus, we also work with important allies and partners. We are also working on how we can enhance relations with emerging economies and strategically-located countries, such as Australia, Chile, Vietnam, India, Japan and Ukraine, among many others.
And in the year that the United Kingdom hosted COP26, the Council on Geostrategy has been pioneering new work to connect the need to overcome the environmental crises with the broader requirement to make our economy more prosperous and sustainable. If Britain can spend more on research and development, enhance its autonomy in relation to critical minerals, and move away from fossil fuels to cleaner and more sovereign forms of energy, it will be well placed to take advantage of the next phase of economic modernisation.
Indeed, ‘levelling up’ our country and enhancing our sovereignty and security all go hand-in-hand in a more geopolitically volatile era.
The Council on Geostrategy does not aim to offer all the answers to many of the most pressing questions of this era. Although limited in size, we stand ready to generate a new generation of geostrategic thinking for a more competitive age. We have been amazed by how well we have been received. As such, we welcome those who share our agenda, or those who would like to find out more about it.