In coordination with the Cabinet Office, the Centre for Grand Strategy commissioned a series of papers to help inform the planning and delivery of the United Kingdom’s 2021 Integrated Review. The purpose of these reports was to understand how major strategic ‘resets’—i.e. significant redirections and realignments of foreign policy—have been conceived and implemented across a range of historical and contemporary contexts. By examining specific instances in which countries, including the United Kingdom, have undertaken strategic realignments, the papers offered valuable insights for policymakers developing the Integrated Review.
Select findings included:
- Strategic resets must take account of existing political realities, particularly a country’s diplomatic, military and economic commitments to other countries as well as regional and international institutions. When these realities are ignored—or worse, incorrectly viewed as malleable—a strategic reset can result in failure.
- Strategic resets are rare, in part because they are difficult to initiate successfully. They often run up against bureaucratic inertia, a host of ingrained and implied values, images of national identity and subsequent choices about the future of war, force structure and weapons acquisition.
- Realignments require the buy-in of key stakeholders, but first and foremost the national public. Policymakers must thus have the ability to (1) gauge the direction and intensity of public opinion and (2) to persuade citizens of the benefits of a particular strategic realignment.
- The mechanics of strategy-making are dependent on existing bureaucratic structures, but personalities and personal relationships matter. Closely related is that the major policy initiatives tend to be dependent upon the buy-in of various departments across government, a measure of support which is often secured in the early planning stages.
- Both from an intra-and inter-governmental perspective, those who take the strategic initiative often shape the political, economic or military agenda.
- External events, especially ones outside of the control of a national government, can doom a strategic reset from the start. The odds of a successful realignment further decline when policymakers misread—or worse, ignore—certain emergent forces within international politics.
- Strategic resets should begin with a sober reassessment of first-order assumptions and first-order principles. These can include: the nature and pace of change within the international system; the benefits and dangers of allies and adversaries; the sources of national influence; and the contours of national interest.
- Futures thinking and horizon scanning, while a necessary function, often suffer from inherent limitations.
- Strategic realignments do not usually proceed in smooth, linear trajectories. Benefits can arrive years, even decades later; while more negative ramifications can be experienced long after the reset was implemented. Moreover, future leaders can attempt to alter the narratives around perceived historical resets.
- Historical narratives of past ‘strategic resets’ can, at times, be exaggerated—a misuse of history which can exercise significant influences on contemporary approaches.
Case Studies Part I:
Chinese Strategic Resets in 1945 and 1972 (pp. 6-10) Professor Rana Mitter
South Korea’s Strategic Reset under Roh Tae-woo: Nordpolitik (pp. 11-15) Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo
India’s Strategic Resets in the 1990s and 2014 (pp. 16-20) Dr Rudra Chaudhuri
Japan’s Strategic Reset under Abe, 2012-2020: The Rise of the Kantei (pp. 21-25) Dr Alessio Patalano
Malta’s Strategic Reset: Becoming ‘Blockchain Island’ (pp. 26-31) Dr Hillary Briffa
The United Kingdom after Suez: A Strategic Reset? (pp. 42-46) Gill Bennett MA, OBE, FRHistS
The Challenge of Strategic Resets (pp. 56-59) Dr Benedict Wilkinson and Professor Matthew R. H. Uttley
Andrew Ehrhardt, Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Grand Strategy, KCL & Nicholas Kaderbhai, Leverhulme Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Grand Strategy, KCL, 8 September 2020
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