CER submission to the British government's integratered view of security, defence, development and foreign policy

Opinion piece
Ian Bond , Camino Mortera-Martinez, Luigi Scazzieri
21 September 2020

The CER's submission to the British government's security, defence, development and foreign policy review argues that to tackle diverse threats successfully, the UK must build strong partnerships with other democracies.

1. What are the key opportunities, challenges, threats and vulnerabilities facing the UK now? (Submissions focusing on rapidly evolving areas such as science, technology, data, cyber, and space are particularly welcome.)
2. What are the key global and domestic trends affecting UK international policy and national security out to 2030, and how should the government prioritise its efforts in response to these? The key global and domestic trends till 2030, and the opportunities, challenges, threats and vulnerabilities arising from them

Both man-made and natural trends will affect the UK’s national security in the next decade. Top of the list of man-made trends is China’s economic and military rise. Despite demographic and environmental problems, China’s global influence is likely to continue to grow over the next decade. Xi Jinping’s stated objective is to develop a “world class” military force that can “fight and win” global wars by 2049. China’s navy is now the largest in the world (Maizland, 2020). China’s ability to inflict economic damage on countries that it perceives as acting against its interests will continue to grow if the rest of the world remains dependent on China for critical goods and raw materials (Rogers et al, 2020).

The relationship between China and the US has deteriorated, particularly under the Trump administration, which is seeking to reverse 30 years of economic integration. Trump’s sanctions on Huawei are designed not merely to dissuade US allies from installing Huawei equipment in 5G systems, but to cripple the firm completely. While his approach is unprecedented, there is cross-party consensus in the US that China is a threat that the US must confront. That is likely to lead to the US’s military and diplomatic footprint in Europe shrinking as resources shift to Asia.

China is likely to respond to Trump’s economic warfare by intensifying its ‘Made in China 2025’ programme – acquiring more Western intellectual property, fairly or otherwise, while making it harder for Western firms to access the Chinese market (Wübbeke et al, 2016). If future US administrations continue Trump’s policies, the world will have to choose between belonging to America’s technological sphere of influence or China’s, unless another player, such as the EU, can use its regulatory influence to offer an alternative to both (Bradford, 2020). Decoupling would cause lasting economic damage to all parties, including the UK, diverting investment into inefficient import substitution based on geopolitics.

Russia’s long-term decline will continue over the next decade, driven by serious demographic problems and reduced demand for hydrocarbons as the world transitions to a low carbon economy. Nonetheless, it will remain a significant military power, and will have the intelligence resources to run disinformation and influence operations against Western countries including the UK (ISC, 2020). Vladimir Putin is likely to remain in power for most of this decade and possibly longer. With the US more focused on Asia, he may see opportunities to destabilise his European neighbours and undermine NATO.

China’s rise, America’s political dysfunction and Russia’s mischief-making are contributing to a global retreat of democracy: 2019 marked the 14th consecutive annual decline in global freedom (Freedom House, 2020). The UK was one of 25 established democracies that performed worse in 2019 than 2018.

Populism, particularly though not exclusively right-wing, will remain a threat to democracy and the rule of law in the West. It offers simple solutions to complex problems, claiming the mantle of ‘popular will’ as justification for breaking legal and constitutional norms, and identifying outsiders as being to blame for domestic problems. Populism in combination with nationalism is likely to increase the risk of conflict in Europe and elsewhere, both inter- and intra-state.

In the UK, English populism is likely to weaken the Union. Opinion poll evidence shows that support for the maintenance of the UK is significantly lower among 18-24 year olds in England than among older cohorts, and only among the over 65s would a majority feel upset if Scotland became independent. Fewer than half of the population in all age groups in England would feel upset if Northern Ireland left the UK (YouGov, 2020).

Terrorist crimes both in the UK and the EU have decreased over the past few years (NCA, 2020; Europol 2020). Organised crime is now the UK’s most serious internal security threat. This includes drug and human trafficking, child sexual abuse, money laundering and cybercrime (i.e. crimes committed online or with the help of connected devices, ranging from identity theft to child pornography to ransomware that locks users out of computers and information networks) (Europol, 2019; Mortera-Martinez, 2018). In FY 2018/2019, there was a 32 per cent increase in the average cost of cyber security breaches to business (NCA, 2020). As citizens, companies and governments have increasingly gone online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, cyber-crime and cyber-attacks on infrastructure are likely to remain top threats to UK and international security. 
Natural challenges include those driven by climate change. Sea levels have been rising by 3.3mm per year (NASA, 2020), which will over time damage coastal infrastructure (including naval infrastructure). Climate change is likely to damage the UK’s food security: for example, warmer seas will lead to smaller fish (Queirós et al, 2018); and warmer and wetter weather will affect agriculture in the UK and elsewhere (Met Office, 2019).

Damage to food security in developing countries is likely to be more serious: in the Sahel, where population growth is rapid, a 2C increase in average temperatures could cause a drop of 10-20 per cent in yields of staple crops, according to one estimate (Sultan et al, 2013). Food shortages in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa could increase intra- and inter-state conflict and create migration flows to Europe. The World Health Organisation estimates that between 2030 and 2050 climate change could cause about 250,000 additional deaths per year globally, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress (WHO, 2018). Uncontrolled migration flows into Europe, like those of 2015, could destabilise the EU politically and also lead to more irregular migration to the UK. The situation would be worse in the absence of a post-Brexit EU-UK agreement on irregular migration and asylum seekers.

Broader demographic trends will also affect the UK. In the next decade, a small increase in the UK’s total population is forecast, but (if the government succeeds in slowing immigration to a trickle) the ratio of people over 65 to those of working age will increase sharply (UN, 2019). China will see an even steeper rise, albeit from a lower base; by 2040 UK and Chinese old-age dependency rates will be comparable, at around 40 per cent. The US’s will be slightly lower, at about 35 per cent, while Germany’s will be around 50 per cent. These trends will affect everything from armed forces recruitment (harder) to health and social care expenditures (higher).

While Europe struggles to cope with an ageing population supported by a shrinking working-age cohort, Africa will be experiencing a population boom. The continent’s population of 1.2 billion is expected to double by 2050, due to a large fall in child mortality and a sustained high birth rate. The working-age population (aged 15-64) is expanding at an even faster rate.

Africa has also been experiencing modest economic growth. In Sub-Saharan Africa, real GDP growth rose to 2.7 per cent in 2018, and is predicted to reach 3.6 per cent by 2020. Many African countries are getting richer, but not enough to retain their population; migration from Africa is likely to continue to increase (Mortera-Martinez and Oppenheim, 2018).

It is easier to find challenges, threats and vulnerabilities than opportunities among these trends. The UK may be able to leverage its strengths in climate science and the life sciences as sources of international influence, provided that it continues to invest in them and keeps an open door for scientists from around the world who want to study and work in the UK. But the government’s main focus in the next decade should be on reducing vulnerabilities and increasing resilience to negative developments both man-made and natural.

Five years ago, China’s rise would have seemed more of an opportunity than a challenge; no longer. Like the US, the EU, Australia and others, the UK is having to examine Chinese investment more closely to see whether it will strengthen the UK, or lead to the loss of UK intellectual property. The Chinese party-state system makes it unlikely that China will strengthen the protection it offers to foreign intellectual property (Brander et al, 2017). Moreover, the confrontation between the US and China puts the UK at risk of being forced to choose between the two as sources of investment, facing US vetoes over Chinese companies’ involvement in the UK economy.

As the US cracks down on the penetration of American universities and high-technology firms by individuals linked to the Chinese military, their British counterparts will become more attractive targets for China. UK universities host 120,000 Chinese students, who pay £1.7 billion a year in fees; at least nine leading universities rely on Chinese students for 20 per cent or more of their fee income (Pogrund et al, 2020).

China is unlikely to become a direct military threat to the UK in Europe, but the greater the tension between Washington and Beijing, the more US allies are likely to suffer economic punishment (China has imposed various economic sanctions on Australia in retaliation for its criticism of China’s handling of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic), or cyberattacks designed to disrupt or paralyse government or other IT systems.

Russia, by contrast, is already a direct military threat to the UK and our European allies. Though its military budget peaked in 2016, it has continued to reinforce the regions facing NATO. The First Guards Tank Army in the Western Military District, reconstituted in 2014 for the first time since the Cold War, has around three times as many tanks as the whole of the British Army. But it is not just a ‘heavy metal’ army: Russia’s electronic warfare capability was used to jam and disrupt the GPS signal during NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise in Norway in 2018 – a reminder that as NATO and the UK become more dependent on technology, they also become more vulnerable to technical attacks.

Russia also has a range of non-military weapons which it can use against its NATO adversaries. It was the first country to launch a broad cyberattack on the institutions of another country, when it succeeded in paralysing various government systems in Estonia in 2007. It has carried out assassination operations in a number of European countries, including the UK (Litvinenko in 2006 and Skripal in 2018).

The UK may be particularly vulnerable to Russian influence operations because of the Russian diaspora’s size, wealth and access to the UK’s political and business elite. ‘Zima’ magazine, aimed at the Russian-speaking diaspora in the UK, estimated that in 2017 766,000 people from the former Soviet Union spent more than six months in the UK; Russians probably made up at least half that number. Some Russian émigrés with high-level UK connections are known to have links to the Russian intelligence services or to the Kremlin. Russia has shown through its well-documented interference in the US presidential election of 2016 that it can use agents of influence and social media to exploit existing divisions and polarisation in society.

The UK and Europe are likely to have to face the security challenges from China and Russia with less help from the US, as more US effort is devoted to the Asia-Pacific theatre. There is an opportunity for the UK to be an ‘indispensable nation’ for European security provided that it can adapt to operating with less US support and re-establish good relations with its neighbours following Brexit.

7. What lessons can we learn from the UK’s international delivery over the past 5 years?  Which are the key successes we should look to develop and build on, and where could we learn from things that didn’t go well?

The UK has had some international policy successes in the last five years. It played a leading role in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which significantly reduced the risk of Iran developing a nuclear weapon. That involved patient diplomacy, having a clear objective, working first with France and Germany, then with the rest of the EU and with the US, and finding enough common ground with China and Russia to ensure that Iran was unable to play off the E3+3 against each other. Unfortunately, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA has undermined the progress that had been made.

The UK also pulled together a strong international response to the poisoning of the Skripals in 2018, including the large scale expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from Western countries and action at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that eventually led to chemicals of the type used against the Skripals being added to the list of banned chemical weapons.

Other than that, however, the last five years (and more) have been marked by the UK’s absence from many international efforts to resolve important crises. Since 2014, France and Germany have taken the lead in trying to bring peace to Ukraine; the UK has barely featured in international efforts to bring the conflict in Syria to an end; despite the UK’s role in the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2011, it has played a minor part in efforts to stabilise the situation there; Poland and the Baltic States are leading Western efforts to bring about peaceful political change in Belarus; and the UK is keeping a low profile in the current tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean (unlike France, which has thrown its weight behind Greece, or Germany, which has tried shuttle diplomacy between Athens and Ankara in an attempt to lower the temperature).

The major reason for this is Brexit: the UK’s attention was focused first on renegotiating the terms of its EU membership and then, after the referendum, negotiating the terms of its exit and then its future relationship with the EU. In the process it has won few friends, even among European countries that had traditionally been its allies inside the EU.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that if the UK wants to have influence it needs to know what it is trying to achieve, and it needs strong and enduring partnerships with other democracies to deal effectively with countries with different values and interests. The Northern Future Forum – which brought the UK together with the eight Nordic and Baltic countries – is a good example of what the UK should be doing. It was a modest but successful British initiative to build a coalition of like-minded countries, economically liberal and serious about security; it met at prime ministerial level each year from 2011 to 2015, but has only met once since then, in 2018. ‘Global Britain’ only works as a slogan if the rest of world thinks it matches the reality, but for the last five years it has not.

3. What are the key steps the UK should take to maximise its resilience to natural hazards and malicious threats? How can we build a whole of society approach to tackle these challenges?
6. How should the UK change its governance of international policy and national security in order to seize future opportunities and meet future challenges? (Submissions focusing on the engagement of an increasing range of stakeholders while maintaining clear responsibility, accountability, and speed of action are particularly welcome.)
8. How should UK systems and capabilities be reformed to improve the development and delivery of national strategy?

The starting point for good policy-making is good information. The UK has highly capable if under-resourced diplomats and intelligence officers. It is vital that the information they feed in is their best assessment of the facts, not what they think Ministers want to hear, or what they think would cause least damage if leaked to the media. Policy-based evidence-making, of the kind that blighted the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, causes immense damage. So do leaks of sensitive judgements. Civil servants and military officers are human: if they think that honesty is going to be career-limiting, many of them will shade their advice. The leak of Lord Darroch’s unvarnished analysis of the Trump administration, as a result of which he was forced to resign as ambassador to the US, set a very bad precedent. Incentives need to be created to encourage officials to provide frank advice based on accurate information, even when it does not fit with the government’s policy preferences; Ministers need to show that they value challenge (even if they eventually take decisions that go against the advice they receive) and that they understand the dangers of groupthink.

The FCDO, MOD and intelligence agencies should look at the experience of the US State Department’s ‘Dissent Channel’ – a mechanism established in 1971 to enable officials to dissent formally from administration policy, and have their arguments examined by the State Department’s senior political leadership. Sometimes (as in the case of Bosnia in the 1990s) submissions via the Dissent Channel have changed policy. Officials who use the channel are protected from retaliation or negative career consequences (indeed, many have gone on to senior positions), and the State Department’s Director of Policy Planning is responsible for ensuring that any submission via the channel receives a substantive response (State, 2018). The American Foreign Service Association, (the officially-recognised staff body for US diplomats) and the Director General of the Foreign Service (equivalent to the FCDO Director General, Finance and Corporate) co-sponsor an annual award for constructive dissent, to underline the administration’s recognition that it contributes to better policy-making.

National security policy should be subjected to regular external as well as internal challenge. In the last decade, the FCO made some progress in incorporating external challenge into policy-making in a more or less formalised way. The newly-merged FCDO should look at best practice from DFID, as well as at lessons learned from the 2011-2015 ‘Diplomatic Excellence’ agenda in the FCO (Ellis, 2013).

National security crises often unfold at speed, and the government has to take decisions without much chance to consult widely. But in the long term, successful national security policy needs to be built on popular and parliamentary consent, which takes time to develop. To understand foreign policy choices, respond appropriately to events and thrive in a globalised world, the UK population and its representatives need a better understanding of the international context. In a democracy, citizens need to be well-informed in order to take part in decision-making and understand the choices that governments have to make. The education system needs to put a higher priority on building understanding of and curiosity about the world beyond the UK, why it is the way it is and how it could be changed. MPs need to be exposed to the international as well as the domestic implications of policy choices, and the government needs to accept more parliamentary scrutiny of foreign policy: in the short term it may seem inconvenient (as with the Syria vote in 2013), but it can also be a necessary brake on ill-considered action, if governments allow it to be. For some large, strategic national security policy choices (such as the renewal of the UK’s nuclear deterrent) the government should consider whether to use citizens’ assemblies as a way of building consensus and getting people to think about the trade-offs involved in different options, on the model of the recently completed Climate Assembly UK process.

4. What are the most effective ways for the UK to build alliances and soft power?

If the key indicators in measuring soft power are familiarity, influence and reputation, the UK has a tough job ahead to retain its high place in the various soft power indices. BrandFinance’s Global Soft Power Index 2020 has the UK in third place, behind the US and Germany, but notes that the UK is only ranked 15th for its relationships with other countries – perhaps as a result of Brexit (BrandFinance, 2020). The ‘Soft Power 30’ report for 2019 referred to the “surprising resilience of British soft power despite the political division and chaos brought on by Brexit”, as the UK slipped from first place to second (McClory, 2019).

Brexit has had a negative effect on the UK’s soft power, even if so far the impact has been limited. Whether the impact grows or diminishes over time will depend on the kind of UK that emerges. If the UK still looks like a well-governed country, where the rule of law is respected and institutions are stable and predictable, then the damage may not be too great. But chaos will hurt the UK’s brand, especially in Europe. So will policies that negatively affect UK institutions that contribute to soft power.

An important element in the UK’s soft power is its media, especially the BBC – a powerful international brand in factual programming and entertainment, but one which is under political attack on both flanks. The British Council, a vital tool of soft diplomacy, now receives only 15 per cent of its income from its FCDO grant-in-aid, forcing it to focus more on activities that generate income, such as English language teaching, and administering English language tests, than on increasing the UK’s soft power. Education is important, both as a source of soft power and as one of the UK’s most important services exports, but may suffer from the perception that the UK is becoming less welcoming to foreigners. 

In terms of alliance-building, trustworthiness, reliability and a willingness to invest in cultivating relationships are vital. Unfortunately, perceptions of the UK in these areas are getting worse. EU member-states (21 of whom are also the UK’s NATO allies) were already concerned that the UK, despite having signed up in the Political Declaration to “ambitious, close and lasting” security co-operation with the EU, had refused to discuss foreign, security and defence policy issues in the negotiations on its future relationship with the EU. Private contacts with EU diplomats show that they are worried that the UK’s refusal to engage is a sign it might try to divide and rule, rather than co-operating with its former partners. Their concern about UK good faith will have been increased this week by the government’s stated intention of breaching an international treaty.

The British approach to meetings with foreign officials and ministers has often  been quite transactional, focused on ‘deliverables’ and seeking to avoid meetings for their own sake; but trust, built up over time, is an essential element in any sustainable partnership. If the UK wants to reinforce existing alliances and build new ones, that implies a lot more ministerial and senior official travel and a lot more willingness to understand what matters to other countries, rather than a focus on what they can do for the UK.

Over the past decades, the UK has been aligned with EU member-states on many international security issues. That is likely to continue. But the UK will no longer have direct influence on EU foreign policy decision-making, and this might affect its interests, for example if the EU decides to water down sanctions on Russia – or to tighten them. The UK needs to find a way to continue to co-ordinate with and influence its European partners.

The UK will need more bilateral engagement with individual member-states. Working more intensively in the E3 format will also be essential. But ad hoc co-operation is unlikely to be sufficient. France and Germany are likely to be wary of doing too much through the E3, for fear of alienating other member-states. So the UK will need to accept a more institutionalised co-operation arrangement with the EU itself, as foreseen in the Political Declaration. The UK can maximise its influence through a foreign policy partnership with the EU involving regular meetings, staff secondments, participation in CSDP operations and alignment on sanctions. This might not be achievable or politically acceptable to the British government in the short term, but even a thin agreement on foreign policy could evolve over time into something more substantial.


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