Letter from Washington: How did DC react to the Integrated Review?

March 26, 2021

DC likes what it sees but concerns remain the UK isn’t ready to back it up its ambitious new strategy with cash and action for the long term.

What is Global Britain? This is a question that has been asked, mostly witheringly, in Washington since Theresa May first picked up this coinage in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum. Now with the launch of “Global Britain In A Competitive Age”, the government’s 114 page integrated review of Britain in the world, DC has got its first major look at both how the British government sees a changing world and its plan to compete in it. And it likes what it sees.

“The Integrated Review has turned “Global Britain” from a much-maligned slogan to an extraordinary plan,” wrote Fred Kempe, the CEO of the Atlantic Council think tank. “If the United Kingdom can execute it, the former empire may have found a role equal to its resources, capabilities and ambitions — and the historic moment.”

The Integrated Review, nor the Defence Command Paper that followed it, was, obviously, not front page or CNN alert news. But it was still a major talking point on the day of its release in the Washington think tank community. It also aroused the curiosity of officials in the administration and those of congressmen with a keen interest in the special relationship.

Amongst the think tanks, opinions ranged from the rhapsodic to the warm. According to Damon Wilson, speaking at an event at the Atlantic Council, “It is better than almost any other national security strategy I’ve seen.” Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defence policy at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, and a former Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council official called it, a “terrific, a smart strategy” at a discussion on its launch at the Atlantic Council. Rachel Ellehaus, deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program and a former Pentagon official at the centrist CSIS called it “on balance a solid, forward-looking document that sets out a clear direction of travel.” This was part of a larger trend of reacting to the review. A sure fire way to know if a topic is a major discussion point in Washington think tanks is to count how many Twitter threads where issued about it, and there were plenty on the Integrated Review — not something, given language barriers, that France, Germany or Japan could hope to achieve as easily.

Good think tank reception is a positive turnaround for Britain. The feeling in Washington, and hot housed in its think tank, is that the UK, since Brexit, has fallen behind France and Germany in engagement with the powerful foreign policy community.  The success of the Embassy’s outreach around the Integrated Review marks a positive departure from this trend. For the first time in years Britain was not being defined by others — more often than not, its critics — but by responses to its own ambitious presentation of what it wanted to be in the world.

Criticism around “Defence In A Competitive Age,” the Defence Command Paper, which released plans for the armed forces was also muted. “For better or worse, this tilt to the Indo-Pacific rather begs for “Falkland-like” capabilities,” wrote Michael Shurkin, senior political scientist at RAND. “Showing the flag periodically through visits by the Queen Elizabeth is nice. But is it enough? The Queen Elizabeth and her fleet might have impressive capabilities, but arguably only enough for a demonstration rather than anything more dramatic. Perhaps the real question is whether or not it’s at all plausible that the UK might ever require more than that.”

What was the reaction to both outlines in Capitol Hill and in the administration? Behind the scenes there were concerns raised. Would the UK have the stamina able to turn a great think tank report into a long term strategy? Chiefly there were pockets of bipartisan skepticism, following what the Prime Ministers has called an “era of retreat,”as to whether London was committed to funding such a strategy until 2030 to bring it to fruition. The fact the review came following a major boost in defence spending in the UK gave it real credibility. But doubt stills remain.

Secondly, China-septics, mostly on the right, were worried the UK’s public health ambitions could run into Chinese domination of the WHO. In this camp, a few, like in the House of Parliament, felt the UK did not go far enough by not labelling China with the same tough language as Russia. In Washington, the review’s language fell in the moderate camp when it comes to China. And finally, on the left, amongst Democrats there was concern that cuts to the UK aid budget would undermine the goals of the integrated review. An article on OpenDemocracy suggesting the UK might cut 80% of its anti-corruption work was shared by Democratic hill staffers, a move at odds with Biden’s priorities.

But such concerns were outweighed by official enthusiasm in much of what the Integrated Review promised: talk of variable geometries for alliances, something the Biden administration has been experimenting with the Indo-Pacific Quad and a European Quad of France, Britain, Germany and the United States. The focus on climate and what was seen as sensible but still modest Indo-Pacific tilt was welcomed. There was also hope that the elliptical language in the report on cooperation with France, Germany and the EU opened the door to more cooperation between America’s closest allies as the Brexit dust settles — which is what the administration wants. It is worth noting there was not, as some pre-publication UK reports suggested, any detectable concern the UK was not meeting its objectives against the Russian threat.

Britain’s Post-Trump Opportunity

How has Britain’s image begun to improve in Washington? The reception of the Integrated Review fits into a broader story. Like water, they say, you can never step into the same Washington debate twice. This is a capital with much more frequent, sudden and, when they happen, pronounced mood swings than London when it comes to foreign policy. The post-pandemic DC which UK based commentators will return to, hopefully later this year, is not the same one they last visited, for many perhaps close to two years ago. And it is one that has become, overall, a more — and not, as was predicted, less — hospitable environment for Boris Johnson’s diplomatic pitch.

The debate in the “last” Washington, pre-pandemic, was dominated by the narratives emerging from the Democrats and the liberal media in the campaign against Donald Trump — which his supporters were unable to shake or disprove. These included much discussion of varieties of “populism,” fears of fragmentation of the West and liberal enthusiasm for Angela Merkel and, at time, Emmanuel Macron, to draw contrast to those in the White House. This was not, to say the least, the ideal backdrop for British diplomats to be explaining Brexit.

The “new” Washington of the Biden “folks” has seen a shift in preoccupations. Talk of Russia is nowhere near as frequent as it was before November. Discussion of “populism” and fears over the threat it poses to the European Union in the foreign policy community has similarly waned. This has been replaced by, what can feel at times like, an intense focus on China. In what is hopefully the emerging post-pandemic, Washington’s great power competition with Beijing offers one of the few bipartisan issues, is a throughline in Congress and a foremost priority of the administration, in continuity with Trump’s approach.

This makes things a bit easier for Britain and an appropriate moment for the Integrated Review to land. “I think this went down extraordinarily well here in Washington,” said Damon Wilson, the Executive Vice President at the Atlantic Council and former National Security Council official, in an event at the think tank. “In many ways this was a home run for the Brits in defining what Global Britain means, giving us a sense of purpose. And politically, I think it has closed the door, turned the page if you will on the whole Brexit debate.

This is the geopolitical backdrop to the receptiveness towards the review. With a successful launch of what Global Britain is in Washington the UK should take advantage of this openness to British ideas with, as Policy Exchange has argued, a tilt towards more ministerial visits to Washington and resources for the Embassy at 3100 Massachusetts Avenue.

A possible risk on the horizon is that outreach to Congress about the Integrated Review to Congress saw questions asked about the situation in Northern Ireland, distracting from its forward-looking message. The UK government and the Embassy needs to explain its agenda in Northern Ireland with the same vigour the Irish department for foreign affairs brings to its approach. This could include steps like publishing essays in key DC think tanks outlining the government’s vision, virtual visits and new staff members in the Embassy dedicated to the issue. Above all it will require bringing clarity to the debate.

But if a major dispute in Northern Ireland, grabbing the attention of Capitol Hill, can be avoided and current tensions over the implementation of the protocol soothed things bode well for Britain in DC — with its stock rising again after years of decline. As things ramp to the G-7 and COP-26 the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary should lean into Washington and take advantage of the review’s buzz around British ideas. The need now is to demonstrate that British ambitions are going to be followed up by British actions — global or otherwise.


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