The Guardian view on defence and foreign policy: an old-fashioned look at the future | Editorial

A reconsideration of Britain’s place in the world is necessary. But this paper fails to meet the challenges of the 21st century

The integrated review offers a nostalgic – at times, even anachronistic – response to the challenges of the 21st century. Its intent is laudable: acknowledging that attempting to defend the status quo is not enough, and seeking to carve out a path ahead. It recognises the multiple threats that the UK faces – from future pandemics to cyber-attacks – and the need for serious investment in science and technology. But overall, “global Britain” offers a hazy vision of a country that is looking east of Suez once more, wedded to the symbolic power of aircraft carriers, and contemplating a nuclear response to cyberthreats.

The policy paper is in essence a response to three big shifts: the rise of China, the related but broader decline of the existing global order, and Brexit. Two of these confront democracies around the world. But the last is a self-inflicted wound, which the government appears determined to deepen. And the need to deal with the first two is not in itself a solution to the third, as this policy paper sometimes seems to imagine.

The plan essentially recognises the move that is already taking place towards a warier, more critical approach to China, away from the woefully misjudged “golden era” spearheaded by George Osborne, and the fact that parameters will be set for us by the tougher approach of the US, in particular. It accepts that we must engage on issues such as climate change, and that we are not in a new cold war – we live in a globalised economy – albeit that there is likely to be more decoupling than many anticipated.

But it does not try to explain how the UK can square the circle of courting investment while shielding itself from undue Chinese influence and expanding regional alliances. Australia is currently finding out what happens when Beijing is angered by a strategic shift.

The tilt to the Indo-Pacific may – like Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” – fail to live up to its advertising. But it is true that Britain has paid insufficient attention to Asia, and is wise to pursue stronger ties with Five Eyes nations and other democracies in the region. These relationships will sometimes be problematic; India is the world’s largest democracy, but under Narendra Modi is looking ever less democratic. The pursuit of new partnerships could have been “in addition to” rather than “instead of”. Yet Britain is snubbing old, reliable, largely like-minded friends with clear common interests. The review is written almost as if the EU did not exist, preferring to mention individual member states. That seems especially childish when it also identifies Russia as an “active threat”. Nor is it likely – even if the UK joins the Trans-Pacific free-trade pact – that countries thousands of miles away can fully compensate for the collapse in trade with the EU that saw Britain record a £5.6bn slump in exports to the bloc in January. Geography matters.

Behind the rhetoric of the review is a country that has failed to match its words and ambitions to its actions. Britain boasts of its soft power and talks of upholding the rule of law internationally – yet has declared itself happy to break international law when it considers it convenient. Though the paper promises to restore the commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid “when the fiscal situation allows”, slashing the budget is not only undermining the UK’s standing, but global security and stability too.

Most strikingly, after 30 years of gradual disarmament since the end of the Soviet Union, and despite its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty, Britain is raising the cap on its nuclear warheads – a decision met with dismay by the UN Elders and others, and bafflement by analysts. Mr Johnson has not deigned to explain why.

The review has rightly asked difficult questions. While Joe Biden has brought the US back to multilateralism, his predecessor has shown that the longer-term parameters of US policy may not be as predictable as Britain once believed. Old certainties have gone. But the new challenges cannot be met by turning back to nukes and aircraft carriers. The government should have looked closer to home and been bolder in addressing the future.

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Editorial

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