Article by Abi Watson

Don’t Stumble at the Start Line: Lessons from the UK’s Integrated Review

Wason 2022 UK Integrated Review

(Maxim Hopman/​Unsplash)

Posted in Big Picture: Key Priorities for Germany's National Security Strategy
Share this post

The United Kingdom's Integrated Review in 2020 was supposed to be the most substantial security overview in decades. But its bold ambitions were undermined by missteps ahead of the document's release. Why this should be a cautionary tale for Germany.

The United Kingdom’s 2020 Integrated Security, Defence, Development and Diplomacy Review was intended to be its most substantial security review since the Cold War. It sought to outline Britain’s place in the world following its exit from the European Union and, unlike previous reviews, it moved away from a focus on strictly defense and security to cover more areas of the UK’s international policy. The final document provided a thorough overview of contemporary international challenges – but its bold ambition was undermined by some important errors in the lead-up to its release. This story should provide a cautionary tale for policymakers in Germany. 

Getting Departments on the Same Page 

The first major error made by the UK government: failing to use the writing process of its security strategy to get various government departments on the same page. In June 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a merger between Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID). In this speech, Johnson stated that bringing these departments together in the new FCO-led Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) would unite our efforts [and] take a comprehensive overview.” However, this key policy decision was opposed by a significant number of civil servants, and many development NGOs spoke out against merging the two agencies. However, there was no time to work through any of their concerns because the merger was announced – to the surprise of many – a year before the Integrated Review was to be released. 

Key Points:

  1. A good security strategy should bring government agencies together to create joint ownership in a shared plan.
  2. For effective strategy, ensure that bold promises are backed up by the funding required to deliver on them.
  3. When crafting a shared security plan, it is useless to consult a wide range of external experts unless you intend to act on their advice.

Worse, the funding for this work also prejudged the strategy-making process. A few months after the merger was made public (and four months before the Integrated Review was published), the UK government announced its intention to abandon its legally-binding commitment to spend 0.7 percent of its gross national income on international aid until the post-pandemic economic situation had improved. But in contrast, the government publicly launched the biggest programme of investment in Britain’s armed forces since the end of the Cold War.” These announcements hindered efforts to bring the UK’s government agencies together to develop a truly integrated approach. In fact, in the lead up to the Integrated Review, there were rampant rumors of infighting between the UK departments. And now – one year after the merger – fewer than 1 in 10 senior officials in the new FCDO believe that the move has been positive for international development.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

The (in)ability of the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) and FCDO to deliver on promises made in the Integrated Review speaks to a second key lesson: the importance of properly funding ambition. Despite the Integrated Review’s commitment to addressing conflict and supporting open societies, the UK government invested considerably more resources in hard – i.e., military – security than softer approaches to security, such as international development and diplomacy. This financial backing enabled the MoD to implement their part of the Integrated Review in a more comprehensive way than the FCDO. Case in point: The Defence Command Paper, which outlined the role of the UK’s Ministry of Defence, was released just a few days after the Integrated Review, while the FCDO’s International Development Strategy was released a full year later, in March 2022

» Without broader political investment, providing UK partners with coercive capabilities risks reinforcing abusive, corrupt and exclusive elites – undermining the Integrated Review’s commitment to conflict prevention and open societies. «

— Abi Watson

The UK’s persistent engagement strategy is an illustrative example of how this prioritization will impact policy. The strategy will see more [UK] armed forces overseas more often and for longer periods of time, to train, exercise and operate alongside allies and partners.” Many UK forces have already been deployed but, in many of the areas where these deployments have occurred, development funding has been cut. For example, the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) has been cut by £492 million between 2020 – 2021 and 2021 – 2022. This budget slash includes at least £348.9 million of the CSSF’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) alongside reported cuts of between 50 and 90 percent to UK aid for conflict-affected states. Without broader political investment, providing UK partners with increasingly coercive capabilities risks reinforcing abusive, corrupt and exclusive elites – undermining the Integrated Review’s commitment to conflict prevention and open societies. 

Take the Advice of External Experts 

Finally, the level of external engagement in the strategy-making process was – even compared to previous reviews – a new low”. The UK House of Commons Defence Committee said in its August 2020 report on the Integrated Review that the poor level of external engagement does not lend itself to improved security interventions, but to group-think where the same flawed approaches persist despite their clear faults.” A few days after this inquiry was released, the UK government did open a call for evidence – but it came only six months before the Integrated Review was to be released. By then, the themes for the Integrated Review were already set. It remains unclear how – or if – any of the evidence submitted was actually used to inform the findings. 

» When the Integrated Review was finally released, it was better than many critics had expected – but by then, the damage had been done. «

— Abi Watson

In addition, it does not seem that the Integrated Review sought input from conflict-affected communities – even though their views are vital for developing more sustainable solutions and highlighting how insecurity is experienced by different groups, such as women. If Germany hopes to deliver on a feminist foreign policy, it will need to make sure to not follow in these footsteps. Despite the UK’s history of championing the rights of women and girls on the global stage, its discussion of these issues in its Integrated Review was disappointing. In it, support for women and girls was largely confined to girl’s education overseas, and the links between gender and violence is relegated to only one small paragraph.

When the Integrated Review was finally released, it was better than many critics had expected – but by then, the damage had been done. Structural changes and funding had prejudged the strategy-making process and external engagement was never properly integrated. In the end, the UK’s Integrated Review turned out to be an aspirational document that only some departments would be able to live up to. German policymakers should learn from this process and avoid creating a nice document, detached from reality.

Abi Watson

Research Fellow, Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi)