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The direction of Britain’s future foreign strategy, as outlined in the Integrated Review, is all about balancing values with pragmatism. It should be commended for its surprisingly candid nature about wanting to be a force for good that nonetheless has limits to its own ability. In it, there is an acknowledgement that achieving many of its goals will require international partnerships, even with nations considered less palatable than others.
The Review is not without criticism, however, and given that it largely addresses contradictory narratives without much in the way of apology, this is perhaps inevitable. In particular, the emphasis on the incompatibility between autocracy (noting prominent human rights abuses) and democratic freedoms is questionably sincere when at the same time there is an obvious scramble for a piece of the Indo-Pacific (read: Chinese) economic pie. It begs the question of how earnest the claims to defend liberty really are and whether the UK simply wants to have its cake and eat it. Similar attacks have also been aimed at perceived cuts to military capabilities which seem to contradict proposals to use increased overseas deployments as a method to defend liberalism through partnership.
The aim of this article is to highlight the nuances of a key aspect of the UK’s strategy which, at face value, appears paradoxical, i.e. stopping the spread of Chinese Communist Party-style (CPC) governance whilst still supporting the source economically. This piece is broken down into four parts. The first addresses recent debates about how to perceive the Integrated Review. The next two deal with the context of Britain having no choice but to live in the world that exists: principally that of regressive Chinese global influence. The final part argues the overall conclusion: that Britain can still gain competitive advantage by benefiting from Chinese growth and using gains to promote, without pretence, liberal values. In doing so, persistent overseas engagement coupled with earnest development of infrastructure and institutions (in that order) would reignite the flame of democratic legitimacy in an era of snowballing decline.
A tagline should be ‘providing the means to trust in our values’. This is often the opposite of what actually takes place: Britain telling other countries what to believe or how to behave without providing the means or support to allow them to make the requisite changes. Ultimately, the Review has successfully updated British foreign strategy and deserves credit for setting out a rational approach which lends itself to flexible policymaking in the future.
Different Perspectives on an Integrated Approach
A recent piece on the Wavell Room by Michael Shurkin has suggested Britain take a look at Italian defence posture as a model to emulate. Shurkin suggests Britain’s approach is flawed because of its scale and a reliance on Edwardian theatre. He argues Italy’s narrower area of operations (Europe) is more becoming of the similar military strength between the two and that Britain should consider the example on offer. He also suggests that distracting ‘neo-Victorian’ strategies are detrimental to European defence, since small-but-powerful assets that could be fixed toward Russia are instead stretched and weakened by a global agenda.
This article offers a different outlook which does not deny the need for a focus on European security, but argues that an exclusive one resigns defence strategy to a status quo. It offers that Russia will only be emboldened to do exactly what NATO fears most by an increasingly autocratic international community more permitting of such action. Pointing assets in their direction and hoping for inaction is like putting a bandage on a wound that refuses to clot. An intergovernmental approach making good use of military deployment in defence of liberalism, however, is like chemotherapy to autocracy’s cancer: there is a known goal (to be cured) even when it is understood to likely be a painful but worthwhile process, accepting that it may still fail to stop the spread.
Notwithstanding Shurkin’s fair examples comparing and contrasting defence expenditure (even if conveniently overlooking the cost of being a nuclear power), it seems to take Britain’s Command Paper in isolation of the Integrated Review’s overall message: promoting British values in striving to be a ‘force for good’. This is not an attempt to promote British exceptionalism; it is just a straightforward observation that Italy and the United Kingdom have separate histories and different social values shaped over time by very different geography and politics. Critics may call this hubristic or arrogant rhetoric from a military officer, and no one can reasonably claim that the UK has a spotless ethical history, but it cannot be denied that the nation has a proven track record for moral growth. For those who take aim at a British strategy to defend against the spread of autocracy just because it cannot offer a platinum solution through military capability misses the point of a review that by definition is demanding an integrated governmental approach.
A government’s prime objective is to protect its people against threats and seek opportunities for growth. This principle is amoral and must be achieved within an international system that has no recognised leader and so zero-sum thinking, paranoia and distrust are unavoidable within Great Power Competition (GPC). The arduous diplomatic game required to maintain even some semblance of balance demands compromise and conviction in equal measure. To put all of one’s strategic eggs in a single basket heightens the risk of failed foreign policy around those left empty. Far from deserving criticism, the Review has highlighted the wicked nature of having to live in the world that exists whilst promoting the one that it wants.
Living in the real world
Competition in an interdependent world requires interdependent strategies that cannot fit smoothly into a single narrative. These strategies will also only work when supported by (cross-ministerial) policymaking, matched to the means of the nation. The Integrated Review’s pragmatic outlook refuses to provide succour to single agenda politicians, lobbyists, or stakeholders. It is very welcome then, that the Review and its Defence companion present Britain’s position as one where success means mixing ambition with pragmatism.
Like it or not, as the decade unfolds, the nation will face increased challenges to its constitutional integrity, a desire for greater economic growth, and pressures to maintain its existing alliances. All of these have to be checked against temptations to exploit new geopolitical and geoeconomic opportunities. All of this is compounded by the numerous unknowns of a post-pandemic world and a future outside of the European Union. Overcoming these challenges will not always align with the notion that Britain must only work with partners seen as either acceptable or like-minded.
Unsurprisingly then, in addressing all of these issues, the Review has been criticised as being too idealistic, hypocritical, too aggressive and too appeasing. This criticism is wholly predictable, given that the Review offers little in the way of specific direction. However, since it is a strategy and not a policy document much of the criticism is misplaced and unconstructive. It must be seen as a tool for future policy and not a bible to derive immediate answers.
The uncomfortable suggestion of this article is that Britain must (not should) pursue engagement with China, even if it ultimately means the hard and soft deterrence against autocracy is made that much harder. This is a wicked problem which the UK is at least being honest about. Put simply, it accepts the circumstance that the UK should keep China in reach whilst at the same time combatting the very threats of the democratic decline it is awkwardly helping through trade.
This strategy is not as inconsistent as some will argue because much of the impact on democracy is a second order effect of Chinese growth. It can be tackled without direct confrontation with China (see below). On one hand, it is troubling that any link with the CPC (which by virtue of China’s economic model is inescapable) equates to supporting a government whose methods breach nearly every social norm of a liberal democracy. The notion of a unilateral boycott of China out of principal is naïve and, frankly, bad foreign policy. What is even more brutal is the reality that cutting ties only harms Britain and does very little to damage China in the grand scheme of things:
- First, any trade deficit would be quickly filled by those with fewer moral inhibitions and would only empower the very ideology intended to be wounded by such action.
- Second, diplomatic or economic isolation would remove any influence British presence could otherwise have as a force for good, whether directly or in coalition.
- Third, there are significant issues such as climate change that cannot be tackled without working with an industrial power like China (and its 1.4bn people).
None of this means that Britain must be victim to such circumstance. What is refreshingly candid throughout the Review is an understanding that, in certain ways, Britain lacks the agency to be so morally stubborn no matter how much it believes in its own virtue. This should not be seen as an embarrassing admission. The experience is that for any country not called America or China, the term ‘Great Power’ is by and large a misnomer. For Britain to discuss its future strategy in strictly Great Power terms would be unflattering and misplaced. Fortunately, Britain chooses not to and checks against any appearance of Great Power delusion.
This is precisely one of the Review’s strongest points – there is a clear emphasis on compromise; Britain must balance what is beneficial to the nation (economic growth) and its values (supporting democratic allies) in a world which requires cooperation on bigger picture issues (climate change, for example). The Defence Secretary said it clearly enough when he declared that Britain will “for the first time in decades, match genuine money to credible ambitions”.
Understanding Chinese Power
From as early as the 1980s, it was believed that China’s economic growth would inevitably lead the country to democracy. The collapse of the Soviet Union then further justified confidence that liberal ideology was the End of History. The optics of China coming in from the cold, compared to a Russia that had always stayed outside, bolstered this fallacy. Indeed, the ongoing shift of economic power from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific has followed China’s integration into the very capitalist structures which the Soviet Bloc spent decades attempting to prove wrong. From this, one of the greatest misunderstandings of contemporary international relations developed: the idea that Chinese investment into the global community meant a willingness to adopt Western ways of governance.
It would be unfair to judge the then-strong confidence in liberalism from a position of hindsight. After all, the 1990s was a wishful era of Pax Americana and Democratic Peace Theory. Still, it is very believable to think that during the Cold War, Western policymakers became so convinced in their analysis of what a “communist” state should be that illusions of creeping democracy in China through the 1980s foretold its downfall. Early experiences of rule under Stalin and Mao cemented notions that communist ideology (autocracy) must either be a product of communist economic policy (collectivisation) or vice versa. In any case, with political yin being so tied to its economic yang, an idea of a free market “Red” state was considered paradoxical. However, if it was not clear four decades ago that China had a political system it intended to sustain, regardless of economics, it must be understood now.
Deng Xiaoping – the ‘Paramount Leader’ that led the way to China’s ‘opening up’ – saw many faults in his predecessor, Mao, and vowed never to allow a return to such dictatorship. At the end of the 1950s, Deng witnessed first-hand the horrors of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (famine-inducing collectivisation designed to boost China’s communist image by over-exporting agriculture) resulting in the greatest loss of life under one policy in human history. He was also stung directly by Mao’s other infamous attempt to enforce rule (the Cultural Revolution) where, over a decade of psychological and physical terrorism from the 1960-1970s, Mao demonised anything and everything that would justify the elimination of his enemies. In both examples, by abusing a particular economic framework and then methodologically using “capitalist” and “bourgeoise” rhetoric if it served his purpose, Mao deeply shaped the Western narrative of what it ‘meant’ to be communist. And so, Deng’s shift toward an open market in the 1980s was seen as inspiring if retrospectively mistaken. It did not equate to democracy.
Just a few months after Tiananmen Square, Deng warned members of the CPC that Western ‘talk about human rights, freedom and democracy is designed only to safeguard the interests of the strong, rich countries, which take advantage of their strength to bully weak countries, and which pursue hegemony and practice power politics.’ The West believed that politics would follow economics, yet China made absolutely sure that economics stuck deeply to the party line, literally. Yet, the myth of democratisation prevailed well into the millennium, especially after entry into the World Trade Organisation after 2002. The opposite is true.
China’s growing capture of the international system has in fact subverted traditional expectations that China will be the one that changes. Instead, after decades of belief that democracy, capitalism and economic growth are inherently linked, China has managed to persuade developing countries to sacrifice liberty for economic growth under their State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) model. This is the most important area of GPC today. Traditional China hawks have fortunately woken up to this threat. It may be way past the alarm, but not too late to get to work.
The fact that a free-market phenomenon like China has managed to reject any prerequisite for democracy is game changing to the idea of Western power and influence. It is used to promote the idea that China’s trading partners are not obliged to support CPC values prior to accessing its economy, let alone democratic ones. This is very appealing to many because they view Western (liberal) perquisites as cumbersome, especially when they are often not actually backed up tangibly. Instead, countries are more than happy to look to China for expediency. The integrity of democracy is at stake if examples of poor foreign policy place words over action and will only result in a global loss of freedom as the illusion of profitable illiberalism becomes more acceptable.
The China which Britain has written its foreign strategy for is one of great economic strength, especially having solidified its internal power through Xi Jingping. It is ready to promote a rebranded national narrative of a dream that in many ways ignores its Marxist-Leninist foundations and is more akin to imperial China. With all that said, it may seem perverse for Britain to grow its relationship, but competition is just as much about needs as it is about wants. With a strong economy to support persistent and earnest overseas engagement, whether through aid, militarily support, diplomacy, or a mixture of all, Britain can in fact live in the real world whilst seeking to develop the one it desires.
Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
The Review sets out two goals for the nation: to ensure Britain is wealthy enough to provide for its people, security and future and to defend against democracy’s ongoing decline by protecting liberal values and halting the spread of autocratic governance. The problem is that the tactical strands of this greater strategy contradict each other in many ways.
As excellent as the sentiment of a cash rich force for good is, the second goal can only credibly follow the first. There is an element of needing to have one’s house in order before promoting its virtue. Yet Britain finds itself in a questionable economic position to justify expensive, and to some unpopular, overseas endeavours. Also, when these are conducted – whether for humanitarian reasons or to support allies in times of need – they must be backed by genuine economic clout to be taken seriously.
First and foremost: money matters, not ideas (at least initially). Within established democracies, genuinely admirable notions of liberty and justice were developed over many generations and it is sheer ignorance to think that these can be exported with haste. It would be akin to giving people the schematics to a bookshelf without any of the wood. The irony for Britain is that one of the best avenues to generate the wealth needed to be an earnest sponsor (or in other words, someone who provides the wood) is through engagement with the growing Chinese economy. Supporting allies in the form of just words (again, put differently, only offering schematics) provides little in reality and in fact just generates cynicism.
Britain will not endear itself to the nations at risk of autocracy by educating them about philosophical crocodiles when the ones closest to the boat are more structural. When lecturing others on the metaphysical facets of statehood, it often comes across that important, real issues of basic stability are taken for granted in developed nations. Cutting overseas aid whilst promoting itself as a force for good strikes at the heart of this predicament. Another example is demanding carbon-emission reduction to those who have yet to break through their own industrial barriers. In this instance, unless these nations are aided with alternative means for producing the necessary energy to continue their development, international climate policies are unreasonable. In a similar vein, climate change is a security issue and one that can only be tackled with China. In both of these examples (trade and climate), it is unavoidable that this would involve, even in the smallest of ways, the back-and-forth support of an autocracy diametrically opposed to British liberal values.
Having Skin in the Game
Post-war relations between Western and Eastern blocks saw to it that their militaries were the basis of foreign strategy. A deeply held notion that Sino-American competition will either generate a new Cold War or result in hard-power conflict persists because of this history. But the boundaries of conflict are murkier than ever and traditional methods of deterrence – i.e. large armies held at readiness on opposing sides – has been deemed too static in the information age. The old adage of war being an extension of politics is of course as true to life as ever, but not in the linear diplomacy-then-war fashion of the twentieth century. This is especially so as the rhetoric of competition increasingly speaks of economic war, information war, cyber war and even cultural war; not a tank in sight.
Accepting advances in technology, the machinations of modern foreign policy actually have more in common with the balancing acts of European states in the period preceding the Treaty of Westphalia. Considering what an epoch changing moment that was for political history, the analogy should not be taken lightly. In this light, foreign affairs must no longer be so strictly fragmented between diplomatic, economic or military policies as they came to be during the Cold War. Again, this is an admirable aspect Britain’s new foreign strategy, which is by definition Integrated.
However, the military still matters in foreign affairs and the many conflicting notions of what the UK Armed Forces should constitute is a good example of unenlightened criticism against the Integrated Review. No doubt the threat posed by China to Britain is very much real, but as explained, not in the traditional sense demanding tanks on the plains of Europe. To demand that tomorrow’s policy strictly adheres to our past understanding of events is reductive. When the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, Mr Mark Francois, heckled the Defence Secretary’s reveal of the Defence in a Competitive Age command paper, he demonstrated that even the politicians meant to set out security policy have their threats confused.
Focusing strictly on ideas of hard power, and angry to the idea of reductions in armoured capability, he shouted that a “Russian armoured division has three brigades.” This was a senseless distraction from the actual point of the Command Paper’s strategic intent: the contemporary demand to persistently engage below the threshold of conflict. By definition, such engagement does not constitute a use of mass armour because the point of conducting sub-threshold activity is to stay below it. In response to the heckler, Mr Wallace emphasised well the rationale of the government’s rebalancing of defence:
“If my Right Hon. Friend wants to see what happened to a Russian armoured division, he should look what happened in Syria last year, in the weeks when 172 tanks were wiped out by Turkish unmanned aerial vehicles. I wonder what comfort that would have been to the 3,000 Syrian soldiers—fighting for the wrong regime, however—who no doubt thought that somehow their mass gave them protection.”
In isolation, the threats demanding persistent engagement seem trivial to those with Cold War mentalities (moulded by ideas of nuclear war and the need for mass mobilisation). They cannot see the true dangers posed by states which lose faith in democratic support, in turn bolstered by autocratic governments filling the spiritual vacuum. This actual threat is far more damaging in the long run than the size of a foreign army. It is also frustratingly less clear to define than defence budgets and even harder to demonstrate than presenting pictures of a foreign nation’s fleet of tanks.
It is precisely why the integrated nature of Britain’s future foreign policy is encouraging. Defence will always be a vital aspect of securing national interests, but it must no longer work separated from the mutual pressures across multiple domains; from aggressive military-based diplomacy to cyber-attacks to the unconventional use of force (“grey-zone conflict”). Warfighting should always be planned for, and of course still is, but the fact is that the need for it would constitute the failure of British foreign policy entirely. Every effort should be placed at ensuring the 3rd (UK) Division only ever remains an insurance policy.
Conclusion: Wicked Problems
Persistent engagement means long-term overseas investment, where the investment is both physical and moral. To train, advice, assist and (especially) accompany partner nations against mutual enemies proves a commitment that at times can have greater value than the actual costs involved. It provides the means to demonstrate whole spectrum support to countries at risk of looking East and should be seized upon as an opportunity. If the financial investment outlined above is about putting money where the ideological mouth is, persistent engagement is about having skin in the game.
Since identifying foreign policy failure at its most extreme – war – is much easier than appreciating its ongoing success (usually identified only in disastrous hindsight), strategy offering the sophistication of the Integrated Review deserves highlighting. It is with any policy that follows in support of the strategy where criticism will matter most. It is very easy to analyse the Integrated Review from a purely moral perspective and claim Britain is selling out the country’s values for a ride on the Indo-Pacific gravy train. It is not whether a British strategy to engage China is a nice to have; whether we like it or not, having a such strategy in place is a necessity.
The experience of Britain’s move from Empire to Island never had to face ideological challenge by its then successor, America. Nor did a European tilt into economic union during the latter half of the twentieth century risk the stark clashing of political philosophy offered by China’s technocratic, illiberal economic phenomenon. The honesty of the Integrated Review is evidenced by a frank outline of what China is (a threat) but what Britain must nonetheless do (engage). A place that the UK government clearly does not want to find itself stuck between is that of a client state pegged philosophically to American power (based on democratic ideals and neoliberal economics) or an appeaser to a superpower grossly in breach of British national values.
Britain must be supported by the members of its integrated institutions in seeking to show the capability of its hard and soft power. It is a challenge of taking the best parts of the status quo whilst adapting to future geopolitical realities and meet the threats of twenty-first century competition. These threats are on the opposite side on a horseshoe to those of the twentieth. The Cold War saw the UK government bent on containing the socioeconomic designs the Soviet Union. This went hand in glove with the rejection of its autocratic political philosophy. Today, it is seeking economic links with an autocratic state noting that the key risk in doing so is in fact the spread of an illiberal political philosophy. Britain has to put its head in the tiger’s mouth if it genuinely wants to pursue growth and be prepared for the ideological second order effects that this may bring about.
Cover photo: The Terracotta Lantern display in Manchester in 2017. Photo by David Dixon (Creative Commons)