Does Australia need a UK-style integrated review?

In March, the United Kingdom released its integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, titled Global Britain in a competitive age. It’s quite possible that, after the next federal election, Australia’s government will want to revisit its international policy settings. Is an integrated review the way to go?

Australia has traditionally released separate planning documents for defence, foreign affairs and international aid. With the focus on closer coordination across defence, diplomacy and development, there’s a case to be made for going down the UK route. While the defence strategic update and Partnerships for recovery development policy only came out last year, the 2017 foreign policy white paper is looking dated and its lead author, Richard Maude, recently called for an update in ‘a smashed-up Covid-19 world.’

The UK review is less review and more strategy. It doesn’t trawl over the past looking for failure or spruiking success but spends the vast majority of its 100 pages looking forward. The overview clearly sets the scene, stating: ‘A defence of the status quo is no longer sufficient for the decade ahead.’

Critics who want to find fault will easily identify some bombast and overly ambitious goals. The ‘force for good’ language can grate, and there are some vague plans where problems outpace solutions, perhaps indicating a somewhat rushed process.

But this misses much of what is groundbreaking and constructive.

Commentators have described the review as strategically innovative, setting Britain up with ‘a new strategic lexicon for thinking about international affairs—one more suited to 21st-century realities’. Perhaps its greatest achievement is giving a sense of national vision: ‘It conveys that, for a country that has lost both its empire and its closest continental partner, it has finally found its place in the international system.’

As Abhijnan Rej noted in The Diplomat, the review makes a clear, unambiguous prediction about the future structure of the international system that is multipolar and Indo-Pacific-centred, with a larger role for middle powers. The review is willing to rethink orthodoxies, including the impacts of globalisation and the size and role of the state, and to position the UK to spend more and be selectively interventionist.

Particularly notable features of the review are its integrated reframing of issues such as climate change, conflict and the interconnectedness of international and domestic events. As it notes, ‘responding to state threats can no longer be viewed as a narrow “national security” or defence agenda’. And there is follow through, with climate change finance getting an £11.6 billion boost.

It is also willing to come to sharp judgement on the responses required: naming adversaries, making a big bet on building a strong ‘technological industrial complex’ and designing more joined-up government programs and funding. The emphasis on science and technology as an enabler—of economic, cyber, military and soft power—is pervasive and backed up with a slew of new agencies including an £800 million Advanced Research and Invention Agency, an Office for Artificial Intelligence, a National Cyber Security Centre and a National Cyber Force.

Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a perfect landing on everything. The Indo-Pacific tilt, much highlighted in Australian coverage, is somewhat thin, with an underwhelming list of actions. Britain sees the economic prize and the need to defend trade routes, democracy and human rights, but winning strategies are hard to discern.

The reaction in the UK has been positive. The main concerns expressed have been with prioritisation and implementation, in particular that it covered a ‘laundry list of issues’ and that many proposed actions were vague, general or unrealistic. This misses the point of what type of document it is: one that provides a vision and high-level guidance. Its conclusions in many areas were either to indicate the main lines of anticipated development or to initiate sectoral reviews. This suggests the need to be clear about the aim of the exercise so there’s no perception of overpromising and underdelivering.

The UK review meets the needs of a post-Brexit Britain trying to become a ‘global Britain’. But its approach also offers benefits for a country like Australia that must work harder to have influence in its region.

As Matt Sussex argues: ‘Attaining a more clear-eyed and holistic vision about precisely what the threat and opportunity landscape looks like—as well as the types of capabilities needed to address them—is precisely the kind of activity Australia’s strategic and security community should be engaging in.’

Australia has arguably been an outlier in its reluctance to embrace more holistic policymaking. Critics of integrated strategies argue that they can lead to an obsession with perfecting documents rather than taking practical actions. Some say they are rigid and prone to being out of date by the time they’re completed. Others express concerns about the securitisation of everything. All these outcomes are possible, but none is inevitable.

An integrated international relations strategy is not a panacea, but the process can allow policymakers to step out of constraints, re-evaluate risks and opportunities, and chart a new course. It can bolster national determination to engage with the world and shape it to our interests. It cannot miraculously create a whole-of-government, whole-of-nation culture where it’s lacking, but it can help to build one where it’s sought.

And there are now signs of change in Australia. The Office of the Pacific was established in 2019 to enhance whole-of-government coordination, and the 2020 Southeast Asia package was presented as a whole-of-government initiative. There is an appetite for more integrated approaches, as demonstrated by enthusiasm, including from ministers, for the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said Australia needs to use ‘all elements of statecraft to shape the world we want to see’. This suggests the need to break down siloed thinking through the deliberate use of integrating tools and techniques that help us to think differently. An integrated international strategy might be just the place to start.