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From a Global Britain, are people too small to see?

March 19, 2021

Does the UK’s new integrated approach to its foreign relations recognise the need for a human security approach? Probably not.

The UK government published Global Britain in a Competitive Age this week, its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. It’s a veritable Christmas tree, draped in many sparkling, coloured lights and hard to know where to look. Or perhaps it’s more like visiting the zoo: just as one has finished being intrigued by the lion enclosure (the increased nuclear arsenal, say), one is immediately distracted by what’s going on in the monkey cage (science and technology) or the aquarium (bio-diversity). Perhaps as befits an ‘integrated’ review, there’s a lot going on.

So I decided to guide my own initial read-through by asking three key questions, premised on my own particular (and professional) interest in peacebuilding. I wanted to know, first of all, does this review prioritise building stability and long-term peace in fragile countries and regions? Second: does UK aim to support the kind of international order in which stability and peace are more likely to thrive and be sustained? Third, is this review self-aware? Does it reflect an awareness of the trade-offs between the UK’s own security, defence and development and that of others – does it adopt a human security approach to the UK’s overseas reach?

Supporting stability and peacebuilding
By and large, the review is quite encouraging here. Yes, there are questions to be asked about geographic focus and spending levels, and of course the devil may be in the details. But it clearly and explicitly says the UK will support the resolution of conflicts. It will also help conflict affected societies build resilience and tackling conflict causes, rather than just the symptoms. It sets out a series of thematic priorities for UK overseas aid which not only includes addressing conflict explicitly, but also covers many of the areas where conflict drivers are to be found: in governance, human rights abuses, economic, education and health inequalities, and so on. It proposes establishing a conflict centre in Whitehall, designed to coordinate cross-governmental expertise and actions in helping prevent, manage and resolve conflicts. Overall: promising, at least.

Supporting an enabling international order
The review is also quite encouraging in its repeated emphasis of the need to support the evolution of an international order that’s fit for the future, replacing the post-WW2 and post-Cold War arrangements that everyone acknowledges have been creaking for years. The UK wants to play a leadership role, bringing cutting edge thinking to maximising collaboration and security, minimising conflicts, and enabling good, democratic governance and open societies across our ‘increasingly fragmented’ world. I am not sure the challenge has been identified quite right here. Is ‘fragmentation’ really the issue, or is it that we need institutions reflective of new and evolving patterns in the distribution of power? It would have been helpful to see a recognition of how countries like the UK have disproportionately benefited from the international order of the past, arguably at the expense of others’ conflicts. The review does identifies specific new and evolving challenges on which the UK will focus its contribution: these include space, cyber, regulations, science and technology, and conflict prevention and resolution. The review says that the UK’s diplomatic capacity will be boosted – but does it say enough about how the UK will contribute to the softer international governance challenges? It seems more focused on new issues, rather than new international approaches. Overall: encouraging, but needs to be watched and nudged.

Human security
It is my third question that gives me most pause. An Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy that was self-aware would explicitly discuss trade-offs. But I’m not sure this document does that, or at least not enough. It does recognise that the UK’s values and interests will not always be aligned – but I didn’t see much – or anything, really – about how the conflicts between them will be resolved.

What I did see however, was a preponderance of rhetoric – on practically every page it seems – about the UK’s interests: maintaining its competitive advantage, keeping its citizens safe, ensuring the prosperity of its people. Whereas the problem of insecurity and conflicts elsewhere are framed in terms of their challenge to global stability, rather than the challenge they pose for those caught up in conflict. To take just one example on page 63, the UK will focus on security in the Middle East ‘to protect our interests’ (my italics). More grandly put: ‘The precondition for Global Britain is the security of its citizens’.

But there is nothing really to suggest that the human security of people affected by violence in, say, West Africa or the Middle East matters because it matters; nor that by emphasising a human security approach, there is more likelihood of building a stronger and more stable social contract and thus stability and peace in such places.

The document rather gives itself away when it glibly suggests that the UK’s ‘prosperity and security are mutually reinforcing’. Well, yes, but only if its prosperity relies less and less on exploiting unequal terms of trade with the developing world, and on partnerships with regimes that harm their own citizens. Otherwise, prosperity in the UK will continue to create and exacerbate the kinds of grievances that undermine peaceful and open societies, rather than enable them.

So returning to my three questions, and subject to the devil and the details, I’d say that on the first, a commitment to supporting peacebuilding, the document is encouraging. It is also quite encouraging on the second, supporting an enabling international order, but I’m a bit concerned that the issue is not quite framed correctly, and thus may not succeed. While on the third, the Review is disappointing, as it seems pretty clear that human security has been marginalised, and therefore people ‘over there’ are less likely to benefit from the UK’s support, than they have a right to expect.

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