How can the UK help prevent great power competition from escalating into conflict?


After three decades of counter-terrorism and engaging in non-state conflicts, the UK is increasingly pivoting to focus on threats from other state powers. The United Kingdom (UK)’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (Integrated Review) sought to take stock of changes in the international environment and their implications for the UK.

Unlike previous reviews, the Integrated Review placed an increased emphasis on the role of states. It noted the rise of China, increased destabilising activity by Russia, and the part played by Iran and North Korea in increasing international and regional insecurity. It describes competition between democratic and authoritarian systems and rising conflict and instability. In setting the strategic framework for UK policy the review sets out key aims, including sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology, shaping the international order, promoting open societies, countering threats and addressing conflict.

There are, however, a number of important questions to be asked about the UK’s approach. For instance, does a focus on ‘hard’ military-led security responses risk stoking more violent conflict than it stops? Does it do enough to support the security of people caught in the crosshairs of state-based competition, especially in conflict-affected countries? What lessons can we draw from history?

To answer some of these questions and contribute to the policy debates around the Integrated Review, this ‘written roundtable’ brings together five experts to assess how to avoid conflict in an era of great and regional power competition. Dr Samir Puri, Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), sets the scene by arguing that conflict prevention will have to shift its focus from state vs non-state entities towards inter-state rivalries and the tools of diplomacy and deterrence. The following two contributors add important caveats to this lens, arguing that the UK should not approach this geopolitical environment from a national security standpoint. Marissa Conway, Co-Founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, notes with concern the changes in policy to increase the UK nuclear arsenal. She argues that instead the UK should focus on areas such as food, housing and health in order to improve people’s security. Dr Happymon Jacob, Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University argues that, to resolve conflict, the UK needs to act as an honest international broker. The final two contributors look at two specific countries. Saferworld’s Head of China Programme, Bernardo Mariani, looks at how the UK can work with China to address mutual interests in conflict prevention. Elham Saudi, Co-Founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, draws on the experience of Libya to caution against an overly optimistic or tokenistic use of multilateralism to solve conflicts where regional interests compete.

Across these five contributions common themes emerge. Changing dynamics between great and regional powers shape what the UK can achieve on conflict prevention. But the UK should not solely view conflict using the great power competition lens. It should be conscious of the way international interventions interact with local realities within a conflict and the impact on people caught in the fighting: as recent decades have shown, national security cannot be successfully advanced through foreign and security policies that undermine human security. The UK also needs to stand ready to grasp opportunities for addressing shared security challenges and cooperating on conflict prevention and management with other powers. Ultimately, if the UK manages international rivalries constructively, gains in global stability can pay dividends for UK prosperity, security and public well-being at home.

Dr Samir Puri, Senior Fellow in Hybrid Warfare and Urban Security, IISS–Asia: Managing the risks of competition

Preventing war between regional and great powers is a markedly different undertaking from responding to civil wars and insurgencies. This is worth reflecting on since generations of practitioners and scholars who work in conflict prevention came of age in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 eras. For many of them, conflict prevention has meant responding to wars involving violent non-state actors in scenarios featuring intercommunal organised violence, terrorism and the breakdown of states. These scenarios will persist but may be influenced and overshadowed by the growing prospect of wars between states.

In April 2021, for instance, there was a build-up of Russian armed forces close to the border with Ukraine. In 2014, the Russian state annexed Crimea and began a war in Ukraine’s Donbas region that persists today. Concern lingers that Russia could escalate the war to protect or extend the writ of the separatist movements it supports there. Also in April, China reportedly flew a record number of its warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence zone, amid a heightening of tensions around China’s claims for greater regional authority. All of this comes after long-standing conflicts, such as in Libya and in Nagorno-Karabakh, have experienced high degrees of intervention by rival external states – notably Turkey and Russia in both instances.

As geopolitics shifts gear due to intensifying competition between countries, this challenges the paradigms within which some conflict scholars and practitioners have been thinking and working. When I previously taught the subject of War Studies, I noticed that some required reading on the subject repeated the following mantra: civil wars outstrip in urgency and importance those wars that may occur between states. Whereas so-called ‘messy’ conflicts waged by amorphous non-state actors constituted ‘new wars’, everything else was old hat. This may no longer be true.

Militarised rivalry between states re-focuses conflict prevention on seemingly old-fashioned themes: the diplomatic alliances between countries; the deterrent power of the armed forces; and crisis-avoidance diplomacy between chancelleries and defence ministries. Such themes typified matters of war and peace in a bygone age. It is a stark reminder that the march of history is not linear but cyclical, and that old themes can return to prominence in new forms.  
The Integrated Review says that ‘competition will continue within the conventional military domains of land, sea and air’, but that it will also 'grow in other spheres, including technology, cyberspace and space’. It acknowledges the notions of hybrid and grey zone warfare: 'systemic competition will further test the line between peace and war, as malign actors use…economic statecraft, cyber-attacks, disinformation and proxies…to achieve their objectives without open confrontation or conflict’.

The tactics matter, but so does the changing international context. The regimes in China and Russia believe that the United States (US)-dominated unipolar world order is reaching its twilight, despite President Joe Biden’s declaration that “America is back”. Read-outs from Russian Foreign Minister Seregi Lavrov’s bilateral meeting in Guilin in southern China with his opposite number Wang Yi on 23 March 2021 convey that both countries are emboldened by their resistance to US sanctions. But other countries with far less power than Russia and China are also positioning themselves for a less US-dominated world.

This creates a challenging dynamic for preventing conflict involving both great and regional powers. The Integrated Review recognises this when it points out that ‘increasing great power competition is unlikely to mean a return to Cold War-style blocs. Instead, the influence of middle powers is likely to grow in the 2020s, particularly when they act together'. The examples of the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean regions are cited, but this principle also applies to other regions of contestation between rival states, notably the areas of the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.

As the stakes heighten, the need for conflict prevention is considerable. Diplomacy cannot bring competitive rivalries to an end but it can help the governments involved to avoid miscalculations that lead to war. Peacebuilding can make a vital contribution by extolling and demonstrating the values of international cooperation, reminding us that an obsession with competition cannot be the defining feature of this epoch. 

Dr Samir Puri is Senior Fellow in Hybrid Warfare at IISS–Asia. He previously held a senior advisory position in the Ministry of Defence's think tank, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, and began his career in the Foreign Office, during which time he spent a year monitoring the war in east Ukraine. After government service Dr Puri was a lecturer in War Studies at King's College London. He is the author of three books, the latest of which is 'The Great Imperial Hangover' (Atlantic, 2020), released in the USA as 'The Shadows of Empire' (Pegasus, 2021). 


Marissa Conway, Co-Founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy: Building feminist peace doesn’t include nuclear weapons

I spent the day leading up to the Integrated Review’s publication impatiently refreshing my Twitter feed, waiting for news on the changes to UK national security to come. Any shift to a country’s national security policy is interesting enough in its own right, but on the heels of Brexit, it was clear the Government saw this as an opportunity to reshape the UK’s national identity as well. This Integrated Review is more than ‘just’ a policy change, but a symbolic change as well, signalling certain messages to the international community about who the newly untethered UK wants to be. The Government’s consistent nod to human rights and democracy in the months leading up to the Integrated Review’s publication also left me with a quiet seed of hope – would we see a truly innovative national security policy that centres human security?

And then the articles started to trickle in. 'Cap on Trident nuclear warhead stockpile to rise by more than 40%'. 'Johnson: Defence reforms "will help make UK match-fit"'. Any optimism I had that the UK Government may think outside the foreign policy box was dashed. Of the many changes made, perhaps the most significant is the decision to increase the nuclear stockpile, purportedly in response to great and regional power competition. This marks a departure from decades of British nuclear policy, which from 2010 until now included a commitment to reduce the arsenal ceiling from no more than 225 to no more than 180 warheads by the mid-2020s. Now, the maximum number of nuclear weapons allowed has been increased by about 40% to 260. The Integrated Review also re-commits to ambiguity about the circumstances in which nuclear usage would occur, and additionally confirms that the precise number of nuclear weapons, including deployed warheads, will no longer be made public.

The world we currently live in has changed dramatically, in so many ways, both in the past few decades and especially so in the last few years. A call back to outdated and patriarchal Cold-War era mentalities emphasising deterrence as the be-all and end-all, in lieu of actual peacebuilding, is not suitable for the challenges we have today (nor was it suitable in the first place).

Ensuring the security of any given community requires people-centred, feminist solutions that are focused on both the needs of the individual and systems change. This means considering what truly makes people feel safe, which has much less to do with nuclear weapons and much more to do with food security, housing security, a universal basic income and a well-funded National Health Service (NHS).

This means looking squarely at the damage of colonialism and the imperial nostalgia that grips British foreign policy, and making a commitment to reparations and eradicating systemic racism. What will put an end to the everyday violence that millions experience has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, and everything to do with how willing we are to shake off the patriarchal status quo and envision new change.

Marissa Conway is an award-winning activist and feminist foreign policy expert. She is the Co-Founder and UK Executive Director of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy and regularly consults with organisations and governments around the world to design feminist approaches to long-standing foreign and security policy problems. In 2019 she was named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List in recognition of her work. Her work and insight have been featured on the BBC, and in the New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy, The Hill and many other publications. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @marissakconway and learn more about her work at

Dr Happymon Jacob, Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University: A volatile world needs more peacebuilding efforts

The contemporary international system could be characterised as conflict-prone and unstable: the leading superpower, the US, is losing its pre-eminence and is increasingly forced to cede ground to China – the system’s new rising power. In such a system, the impact of great power competition on regional and local conflict dynamics is far higher compared to the unipolar system of the immediate post-Cold War years or the bipolar system that existed during the Cold War. China’s global ambitions, its grand infrastructure strategies and the coalition that it is stitching together along with Russia could potentially unsettle the current status quo, making it more dangerous. If this situation continues without concerted efforts to build global stability and promote peace, the intensity of the global competition and its adverse impact on various parts of the region could steadily increase.

However, while competition among the great powers could get more intense, they may not necessarily come to a direct confrontation. Instead, great powers may prefer to compete indirectly by supporting or using regional conflicts. For instance, while competition in East Asia between China and the US may not lead to a direct confrontation between them, smaller states in the region could get caught between the two giants and their competing interests.

It would not be wise for the UK to approach great or regional power competition solely from a security standpoint. For one, a solely securitised approach to great/regional power competition would make the global and regional political environments more unstable and prone to conflict. Secondly, a great power such as the UK can play an important role in bringing about peace and stability to an unstable international system for a number of reasons.

While the Integrated Review indicates a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific, the move by itself is unlikely to intensify competition in the region. However, given the already heightening tensions in the broader region thanks to China’s aggressive behaviour, the UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific could potentially be interpreted by China as hostile, even though the Integrated Review articulates that the UK is seeking to build bridges with Beijing. To that end, even though some have criticised the Integrated Review as being ‘soft’ on China, the UK’s trade-focused approach to China should be helpful in reducing tensions in the region. It may also enable London to be a useful broker should great/regional power conflict intensify.

However, given the UK’s security relationships with NATO and the US, London’s ability to pursue an independent policy towards China or Russia could be limited. In order to avoid conflict in regional theatres, the UK and its allies should shift their approach to regional issues: stabilising a conflict-prone global order today requires a great deal of patient diplomacy, a willingness to mediate and build peace in conflict situations, and to cooperate as much as possible on security matters with adversaries such as Russia and China.

The UK, perhaps more than some of its allies, has a track-record of using diplomacy to reduce conflict, most notably in regional settings. The UK’s engagement in conflict resolution in South Asia is instructive in this context. Given its colonial history in the region, London typically stays away from direct mediation in the region’s conflicts, especially those between India and Pakistan. However, its steadfast support for track-two efforts has helped reduce tensions between the two nuclear powers in South Asia. This support must be strengthened, especially now that the UK has left the EU and so may not be part of the EU’s efforts to avoid or resolve conflict. 

The UK could help prevent conflict between great or regional powers by working as an honest broker. It could initiate and promote honest conversations between rising powers such as China and the smaller powers in its neighbourhood threatened by China’s rise. In that context, the UK’s decision to engage China, while at the same time being wary of it, is a wise policy decision. The UK’s focus on 'promoting open societies and protecting public goods through conflict prevention, strong rule of law, respect for human rights and media freedoms, girls’ education and humanitarian response' is very welcome and must continue to inform its international engagement. Given the UK’s existing relationships around the world, it is well placed to bring more stability into an increasingly unstable world.

Dr Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Dr Jacob is a member of the Pugwash Council, having been elected in 2013. He is the author of ‘Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics’ (Oxford University Press, 2019) and ‘Line of Control: Traveling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies’ (Penguin Viking, 2018). He has a column in The Hindu and hosts a weekly video show on national security on The Wire (


Bernardo Mariani, Saferworld's China Programme Manager: Great power competition: a recalibration of relations with China?

In the current climate of geopolitical competition and nationalist processes fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a high risk that fragile countries get caught in the middle of an all-consuming superpower struggle.

As China’s global economic and political influence grows, engaging China on issues related to peace and security is crucial for international conflict prevention and peacebuilding to be effective. A recalibration of relations with China – through new partnerships and fresh approaches – could bring benefits in conflict-affected countries, help to tackle the drivers of conflict and find common ground on which to build peace and security cooperation.

Currently, great powers’ cooperation on peace and security around the world is minimal. China finds itself being questioned over human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, its operations in the South China Sea, its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the behaviour and practices of its tech firms. In this climate, those advocating for a recalibration of relations with China towards cooperation are running against the dominant narrative of great power rivalry.

However, China, the US, the UK and EU countries engage in many conflict-affected contexts where they encounter common challenges. While they are strategic competitors, they also have shared interests and concerns to promote the consolidation of peace and regional security. 
With the UK in need of economic recovery after COVID and new trading partners post-Brexit, it may decide to adopt a more coherent China strategy, with a more balanced approach to the flailing relationship with China than the US is exhibiting.

There is a role for the UK both in informing and shaping security dialogue on how great power relations impact conflict around the world, and in supporting cooperative actions that promote peace, especially in two areas.

First, enabling mutual learning and dialogue on conflict prevention. In 2016, the UK supported a two-year ‘track two’ programme to enable UK–China learning and dialogue on conflict prevention. Through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), the UK supports similar tracks of work in countries in which China’s influence is rapidly growing, for example in Pakistan. Although currently these programmes do not engage directly with Chinese entities, nor on issues related to China, it is important to encourage multilateral dialogue processes that involve China directly. In particular, the CSSF’s relevance to the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), planned as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), cannot be overlooked. There is a need for a programmatic approach informed by civil society and community perspectives, which addresses human security issues in communities touched by the CPEC.

This relates to the second issue: promoting conflict-sensitive investments along the BRI. The BRI spans many fragile parts of the world, affecting domestic power balances, economic development and reconstruction – with both positive and negative effects. Some of these countries attract investment from Western companies and financial institutions as well as from China. In such contexts, there are potential positive outcomes for conflict-affected populations, as well as external economic entities, if opportunities for dialogue and engagement among companies and communities lead to a better understanding of conflict dynamics and a more conflict-sensitive approach to investment and development.

Bernardo Mariani has managed Saferworld’s China Programme since 2008, focusing on arms export controls and conflict-sensitive business practices. Previously, Bernardo worked on advocacy, research and training on conflict prevention and peacebuilding across Europe and Russia. He also worked as Researcher at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International and as Consultant for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and for the European Commission, researching and advising on trans-regional security threats. 

Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director, Lawyers for Justice in Libya: Making Multilateralism work: A warning from Libya

On 10 March 2021 many states were keen to be seen welcoming the vote of confidence granted by Libya’s parliament to the new unity government. After all, this was Libya’s first peaceful transfer of power since 2012 and symbolised to all that the UN-led political track had worked. In fact, it is questionable whether those world leaders who marked the occasion were applauding Libyan progress or themselves – for shepherding this symbolic victory of multilateralism.

As the international community seeks to address conflict in an era of great power competition there is a danger that it looks at agreements – like those concerning Libya – with rose-tinted glasses, and fails to examine the hollowness of the multilateralism that surrounded it.

For although the formation of Libya’s national unity government is a significant milestone, the success of Libya’s peace process should not be measured by inaugurating a unity government, but rather by whether that government leaves in peace and success having planned and executed the elections announced for 24 December. A peace process should also be valued on whether it achieves meaningful, measurable, and sustainable improvements in peace and security – which require a return of the rule of law and at least a modicum of accountability.

To assess this properly, we should look beyond Libya and include international entities, given their role in sustaining Libya’s conflict – ironically by flagrantly disregarding the same multilateral efforts they celebrated on 10 March. As such, the triumphalism of 10 March rings hollow for those of us working on human rights, accountability and the rule of law, as we witness these same nations and competing international powers continuing to undermine international norms and the multilateral order through unilateral interventions.

Many nations involved in the ‘Berlin process’ intended to resolve Libya’s conflict and help restore order – Egypt, France, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates – have racked up a litany of violations to Libya’s peace, sovereignty and ability to recover. These include: maintaining mercenaries and other military operatives on the ground; regularly breaching the UN Security Council (UNSC) arms embargo; being implicated in violations that may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity; abetting in the looting of Libya’s state coffers and providing material support to Libyan actors guilty of war crimes and other egregious violations; and repeatedly undermining Libya’s peace process and democratic aspirations. Yet the UNSC Sanctions Committee on Libya, responsible for sanctioning those who breach UNSC resolutions, have managed no more than general references of the role of international entities.

Given the role of multilateralism since the start of Libya’s revolution in February 2011, where it became a paragon of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ and received a UN-approved NATO intervention, Libya is the test case for the role of multilateralism in contemporary conflict resolution. This ten-year case study demonstrates that the current deployment of multilateralism is tokenistic and multilateral institutions increasingly redundant. In an era of great and regional power competition, Libya's experience teaches that this tokenism will continue until multilateral expressions include genuine coercive edge in the form of genuine accountability. The UK should internalise Libya’s lesson to describe why multilateralism must always be the means and never the end. Otherwise, we end up with something tokenistic, ineffectual, and ultimately counterproductive, as reputations and opportunities are degraded by the visible failure of multilateralism.

Elham Saudi is the co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya. She is a solicitor with expertise in human rights and international humanitarian law. She has advised a number of Libyan, European and international bodies about the Libyan conflict. Prior to founding LFJL, from 2003 to 2010, Elham practised commercial law at Slaughter and May. Elham holds a degree in Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford and an LLM in International Law from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is Visiting Professor at the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice and a former Associate Fellow in the International Law Programme at Chatham House.



The world is coming to terms with a shifting geopolitical order. For academics, experts and practitioners, this shift challenges the paradigms within which we have been thinking and working for the last three decades. It raises important questions about how the UK, and countries like it, should respond and adapt. For those pushing for hard security approaches to this changing landscape, this written roundtable should prompt careful reflection.

There are no easy solutions to today’s global challenges; however, UK security and public well-being has never been more dependent on international peace and security. Clearly, great and regional power competition changes the political context and the tools suitable for addressing global challenges. However, seeing each and every situation through the lens of great power conflict would risk escalating violent conflict and undermining UK national security.

To help avoid conflict in this new environment, the views above point to a need for an approach that considers what truly makes people feel safe both in the UK and overseas. Unless conflict radically escalates, human security concerns such as healthcare, food security, and protection for gender and ethnic minorities tend to matter more than the dynamics of military deterrence and intimidation. Pursuing rivalries at the expense of human security could lead the UK and its allies to oppose China, Russia and others at the expense of people’s well-being in the countries where rivalries are playing out – creating a sense of injustice and sowing seeds for continued conflict.

Instead, in addressing some of the most pressing security challenges for people around the world, there may be opportunities for cooperation with regional and great powers. While the UK has good reason to remain strongly opposed to some of China’s domestic and foreign policies, it can also build on shared interests and concerns to promote the consolidation of peace and regional security.

Adopting such an approach may also help the UK better define what Global Britain means. For instance, it could build on its track record of diplomacy between conflicting parties to reduce violent conflict in an era of increased competition. Libya is a great example of the urgent need for countries like the UK to help reconstruct shared multilateral responsibility and accountability between rival powers in today’s more multipolar international order, for the benefit of all those affected by conflict.

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