Reviewing Britain's approach to the world must be about much more than defence
The UN headquarters in New York has been shut down due to coronavirus | PA Images
Government must not limit itself to military matters. It must rediscover the lost art of strategy at the heart of Whitehall – and foreign affairs is a key part of that.
Coronavirus is not just a passing storm. If the projections are accurate, this public health emergency will reshape the world. A foreign policy review has never been more timely.
Britain has important choices to make and the Foreign Office’s role will shape our actions. This isn’t about aircraft carriers, or aid spending; it’s about rediscovering the lost art of strategy at the heart of Whitehall.
The Foreign Affairs Committee is launching an inquiry into the review. We will try to set the questions other departments will then demand the resources to answer.
They start with the obvious – what do we want Britain’s place in the world to be? That can’t simply be answered by pointing to our role in the UN, the Commonwealth, or NATO; we need to look at our scientists as we compete in biotechnology, dominance in areas of artificial intelligence, and influence over the regulatory structures that channel the efforts of the companies large enough to change the way people think and act.
The Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, as the Government is calling it, will have to look at our industrial base, as much as our military bases. The plans of our entrepreneurs matter as much as those of industrialists a century ago.
Others matter too. Since 1945 we have been deepening the process of globalisation. From the early steps creating the United Nations, through the US understanding of interdependence that led to the Marshall Plan, we’ve moved to a point where national identity is returning to our politics. The question now is, will the current emergency change that?
China hid the emergence of a killer disease and arrested those who spoke out. Will public opinion turn against Beijing for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, or will aid packages to Italy and elsewhere whitewash its actions?
Will the European Union’s delay in co-ordinating a common response undermine solidarity when the economic shock has to be dealt with? What will this mean for our largest trading partner, and our trade?
These are not academic questions but moments when Britain must decide the direction we wish the world to take, and help shape it. That’s where defence, aid, and trade come in. If we get this right, our regulation at home will reinforce the world we want to build abroad, and we will work with others to encode the DNA of freedom and prosperity into our future just as our predecessors did for us.
Building a 5G telephone network isn’t just about connecting people, it’s about deciding where we want to spend billions and who writes the code that determines our future. Do we want one company dominating global communications or do we remember that democracy is about the competition of ideas, and while monopolies can be efficient, they are very fragile?
This is the fundamental question for our diplomacy and our strategy – what do we want the rules to be and how will we shape them? Every line of code is as compelling as the treaties diplomats once spent weeks debating, but these texts are written in silence and in such volume that scrutiny is hard. They shape how we act, and embed concepts of privacy, the rights of the state, and control deep at the core of our systems.
The Integrated Review must be about much more than defence. It’s about how we will emerge and shape the future. In 1941, in the darkest days of the war, Britain and the US planned for the future. We can do the same with Parliament, and our people, having a voice.
Tom Tugendhat is Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling and chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee
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