Sir John Sawers is a Fisher Family Fellow (in residence February-March 2018). He was Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, from 2009 to 2014, a period of international upheaval and growing security threats as well as closer public scrutiny of the intelligence agencies. Prior to that, he was the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the United Nations (2007-2009), political director and main board member of the Foreign Office (2003-2007), special representative in Iraq (2003), ambassador to Egypt (2001-03) and foreign policy advisor to the Prime Minister (1999-2001). Earlier in his career, he was posted to Washington, South Africa, Syria and Yemen as a diplomat for the United Kingdom

Sir John Sawers, former Chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, discussed “Intelligence and National Security Threats in the 21st Century” with former U.S. Secretary of Defense and current Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Ash Carter, and former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and Future of Diplomacy Project Faculty Chair, Nicholas Burns on February 26, 2018.

“We haven’t come to terms,” he said, “with a world where the West does not dominate.” The West will need to determine how it responds to a decline in global power and how it engages with rising powers to maintain stability, Western values and Western institutions in a two-power world, led by the U.S. and China.

To combat the atrophying of global institutions, the West would need to adapt its institutions to changes so they remain flexible and relevant. Avoiding doing so would not only increase the risk of atrophy but also endanger institutions to the point where they might be replaced by parallel structures created by other governments without any Western influence. The creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, born from the frustration of the Chinese leadership with international trade organizations was one such example, designed to bypass Western institutions altogether.

Russia, he said, will increasingly be a threat to the West. “Iron entered his soul,” Sawers said about President Putin’s response to the Iraq war and the color revolutions in Eastern Europe. President Putin’s view of the U.S. and Britain had changed during the presidency of George W. Bush and had not improved under President Obama. Because President Putin had interpreted the Maidan demonstrations in Ukraine and the EU trade agreement as a Western plot to diminish Russian influence in an important region, President Putin is now actively challenging the West in a zero-sum game.

In both sets of relations, the West vis-à-vis China and the West vis-à-vis Russia, Sawers underlined the need to engage in negotiation, even if difficult. “Dialogue is not,” he said, “an act of friendship. The essence of diplomacy is that it is discussion with those you don’t agree with.” 

Additionally, Sawers noted the West had to grapple with populism at home and the exponential rate of change caused by technological innovation. Populism in the U.S. and Britain, Sawers explained, was a “consequences of our societal journeys over the past 50 years.” Individual grievances about the nature of work, inequality, and globalization had led to uneven growth and development. The median wage was higher in the U.S. in 1973 than it is today (in relative terms) despite the U.S economy growing by 400% - all of these elements had fed the populist narrative. Growing inequality is turning Westerners against their own institutions, he said. The West needed to recognize inequality and begin to manage the transition into the integrated twenty-first century economy by giving people the skills necessary to navigate the technological change, Sawers demanded. Only then could the political manifestations of these disparities be turned back.