A Briefing with Sir John Sawers


 The new COVID-19 national security world is one shaped by a host of national and global security issues that were impacted – both good and bad – by the global pandemic. That, in turn, has fundamentally changed the way governments and private sector companies need to think about the old threats, according to former Chief of MI-6, Sir John Sawers.

Tensions with China, Russia and Iran for example, already high before COVID, now require a new way of thinking and renewed alliances in order to address them.  In this new world, The Cipher Brief sat down with Sir John to talk about COVID, the expanded cyber threat surface and how old threats have evolved. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

The Briefer

Sir John Sawers, Former Chief, British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

Cipher Brief Expert Sir John Sawers retired from British government service with 36 years of experience in diplomacy and intelligence, culminating in five years as Chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).  As MI6 Chief, he was a member of the UK National Security Council and the Joint Intelligence Committee. Sir John is now Executive Chairman of Newbridge Advisory, a firm he founded in 2019 to advise corporate leaders on geopolitics and political risk.

The Briefing

The Cipher Brief: Let’s start with the issue that very quickly became the world’s most pressing national security concern last year, COVID-19.  How much of an impact did the pandemic have on other national security priorities? 

Sawers: COVID has been all consuming for governments and has had such a devastating effect on national economies that it has swamped all other issues, including national security issues. We’ve had some of the most devastating cyber-attacks in recent years; we’ve got real challenges from states like China, Russia, and Iran; and we need to repair alliances. All of that is of high priority, but a lot of the oxygen at the political level in governments has been taken out by the COVID pandemic.

China, of course, has been in the spotlight throughout the pandemic. We originally thought that the pandemic would damage China’s standing in the world because they were the source of the virus and they cooperated badly with the World Health Organization. They also behaved very aggressively in controlling supply chains for personal protection equipment and other medical equipment, so there was a lot of hostility towards China in the middle of last year.  But as we are now 12 months into the pandemic, China has emerged in better shape than most Western countries. Their autocratic system of government has managed the virus better than our free-market democracies and their economic bounce back has been quite effective. One of the things we’re going to have to grapple with in the years ahead, is that the Chinese will have been confirmed in their own self-assessment that their system is better than the Western system. There is a growing conviction in China that Western democracies and the United States are on the decline and China is on the rise. I fear that the pandemic will only accelerate that and make China more difficult for the West to deal with in the future.

The Cipher Brief: Many experts within our network have repeatedly said that China is by far the largest threat to national and global security. Do you agree, and how do you see those threats?

Sawers: I certainly agree that China is the issue of the 21stCentury. It’s very different from the challenge of a rising Germany in the first half of the last century or the Cold War in the second half. China is a new type of challenge because in both economic and political terms, China is a near peer of the United States. This makes it very different from the Soviet Union, which was a peer on military grounds but never on economic or political grounds. China has a system which they believe in and which other countries are in danger of emulating. They have a powerful economy and technology base, which separates them from the challenge of the Soviet Union. China is the biggest issue, and it is a different kind of issue that we have to find a way to deal with.

The Cipher Brief: It’s an issue because of economics, as you mentioned, so finding a balance with China as a friend or foe can be difficult. Do you see that changing much over the next few years?

Sawers: I don’t see that changing. There’s a simple way of thinking about it in that we must find areas where we can cooperate with China, like in climate and health, areas to compete with China, like trade and technology, and areas to stand up to China, like the South China Sea and its treatment of Taiwan and the Uighurs. The implementation of this, where America is aligned with its East Asian, European, and, hopefully, Indian allies, is going to be a real challenge.  In dealing with the Soviet Union, we were able to compartmentalize issues. We all have very strong political views on the treatment of Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but at the same time that the United States condemns Russia for that, they can still sign the extensions to the START treaty, which is in both side’s interests. Russians are good at compartmentalizing.

The Chinese prefer to link things. The Chinese instinct is not to compartmentalize, it’s to link, and that makes it much more difficult to work with them because we’re not going to pay a price in terms of something like technology access in exchange for Chinese moves on climate change. They have to learn that the only way forward for a 21stCentury with two great powers with very different systems in which we avoid war, is to manage that relationship and compartmentalize issues.

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The Cipher Brief: How much do you think the new U.S. administration will be able to get the EU and the UK to work with the U.S.  in pursuing a coherent comprehensive approach to China?

Sawers: One of the impacts of the pandemic and Chinese behavior during the pandemic is that some of the scales fell from European eyes about the true nature of China under Xi Jinping. There is a much greater understanding now about Trump’s handling of China and him calling out China on trade and national security issues. We were slow to understand just how much China changed under Xi compared to what China was like under Deng Xiaoping and his two successors.

I don’t see the Biden administration changing the content of that approach towards China, but there are still going to be differences. The reality is that the most important economic power in Europe is now Germany and about a quarter of Germany’s manufactured exports go to China. China is an important market for Germany and the Germans have always tried to focus on them as an economic partner rather than as a security challenge. That is changing now, but we will not see the extent of that change until after German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down later this year.

In order to create a coherent strategy toward China, we need to have a group of allies which the United States consults and engages. We all want American leadership, but American leadership only works if there’s a followership from America’s allies which requires that allies’ concerns and interests are taken into account in the formulation of American strategy. That will be a huge challenge for Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan as they engineer the whole of government approach that is necessary in approaching China in order to be effective.

The Cipher Brief: How should the UK, U.S., and other allied nations be working together to understand the totality of these Chinese relationships, economic initiatives, security arrangements, information operations, and its impact on Western influence and competitive advantage? 

Sawers: We are good at identifying some national security challenges like cyber capabilities, for example. We are less good at understanding what lies behind the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s BRI is a commercial economic project and strategic project at the same time. China has some of the same goals with the BRI that the United States had with the Marshall Plan designed to reconstruct Europe after WWII while simultaneously binding them into a longstanding alliance with the United States. China wants to tie economies of countries along the Belt and Road into China economically and make them strategically dependent on China. That doesn’t mean all BRI projects are undesirable as they are helping a lot of countries develop their own economies, but there is a strategic goal of the BRI that we need to factor into our management of China as a whole and how it deals with many other countries. These countries need to be open eyed about the political and strategic goals that lie behind the BRI.

The Cipher Brief: Can you talk a bit about the new leadership in the U.S. and how you’re seeing both the opportunities and the challenges that are presented under a Biden administration?

Sawers: I think the Biden administration’s first, second, and third priorities are going to be domestic. It’s going to be about getting on top of COVID, turning around the economy, and trying to reunite America as effectively as possible while looking for bipartisan consensus on the crucial issues facing America. The people who are going to be dealing with national security issues are familiar faces we all know: Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Bill Burns, Avril Haines, and other familiar figures. In that sense, there is some continuity with the approach that we knew under previous presidents, especially President Obama.

There’s confidence in this team.  But the biggest difficulty this team is going to face is that for 70 years, there was a sense that foreign policy and international security was a nonpartisan issue in Washington, but over the last 10 years, it has become a partisan issue. This means that both friends and hostile powers to the United States are going to find it more difficult to think in terms of decades, knowing what the American strategy is going to be. If the American strategy is going to change every four to eight years, it is going to be much more difficult to deal with the United States and for the United States to exert a leadership role on an international scale.

The Cipher Brief: As the president is focused on domestic issues, there are also international issues that have to be dealt with. Europe and the U.S. have not agreed on how to handle JCPOA and the Iranian threat. What do you think that President Biden and Jake Sullivan, his national security advisor, should keep top of mind in deciding on their policy regarding Iran?  Is there real potential for containment of the nuclear threat and what about the historic differences between Europe and the U.S. over how to deal with it?

Sawers: When I was in senior positions in government dealing with the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, we all prioritized the nuclear issue in dealing with Iran. We viewed Iran as a bad actor in Lebanon, in post-2003 Iraq, and in terrorism, but the most important thing was to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

In 2004, when we were able to get Iran to agree to suspend all enrichment and nuclear conversion activity, we were not able to provide the quid pro quo in terms of lifting sanctions because the Bush administration took a year and a half to come on board for that process. By the time they came on board, the Iranians slipped off the other end with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005. Ten years later, it took concerted sanctions led by the Europeans and magnified in the European Union to get the Iranians back on board for a diplomatic process, which was then led by the United States. The JCPOA wasn’t as good as the 2004 agreements because 10 years passed in the interim.

In 2003, we thought Iran was as little as three years away from a nuclear weapon. In 2015, it was one year away from a nuclear weapon. If we get to next summer and the Iranians fulfill all of their commitments that they made outside the JCPOA, they’ll be as little as six months away from a nuclear weapon. There are shortcomings in the JCPOA: it’s timeline is too short, and it doesn’t address the serious problem of missile capability. But, if we throw everything into the same pot and aim to have a grand bargain with Iran, we’ll never get the constraints back on their nuclear program. I think getting Iran back inside some form of negotiated framework to constrain their nuclear activity is the first issue. We then need to address things like missiles, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, but those are not the same priority as the nuclear issue.

The Cipher Brief: Do you think the JCPOA – given the changes that have occurred since the U.S. withdrawal – is still the best vehicle for nuclear containment with Iran?

Sawers: The JCPOA needs updating and timelines need to be extended, but we have to be realistic about what can be achieved in the near term. The Iranians are on the point of a serious breakout from the JCPOA, increasing enrichment to 20%. And there is some back and forth between Iran and the Biden Administration as to who makes the first move on this.

Iran has presidential elections coming up and while the Supreme Leader will still ultimately be in charge, negotiations have always been under the direction of the president, so there will be new leadership on this issue. There needs to be an early move to somehow stabilize issues on the part of the Americans to stop Iran from a major breakout from the JCPOA. We have to stabilize things, deescalate tensions, and get some constraints back on them. Outside of that, in the wider Iranian agenda, there is some low hanging fruit there like Yemen. We could solve the Yemen crisis in the next six to nine months which would likely boost confidence between Iran and Saudi Arabia and give a bit more weight behind the efforts of the Biden administration and their European partners on the nuclear issue.

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The Cipher Brief: Let’s talk about Russia.  Given the five-year extension to the new START arms control treaty with Moscow, is there a need for a new INF treaty that can be monitored and verified to address a potential proliferation of tactical nuclear weapons?

Sawers: We need to bring nuclear proliferation back into the center of our strategic thinking. It’s not just about Iran and North Korea, though those are the two most dangerous countries which are outside some sort of framework, but also Israel, Pakistan, and India. There is a real danger that nuclear weapons can proliferate horizontally to new countries and vertically into new weapon systems and become that much more dangerous.

We need to have some arms control governing this, but arms control was difficult enough when it was between America and Russia. It is even more difficult when you have to lock in China as well which immediately gets into the Taiwan issue because it is a strategic priority for China.

Arms control went out of fashion for 20 to 30 years after the end of the Cold War. Many of the treaties like the anti-ballistic missile treaty and some of the other lower-level treaties were taken over by developments. We need to get back into a dialogue with other major powers on nuclear and missile issues and make it central to provide stability. Russia is no longer a great power, but it is a great military power and can cause enormous damage. It has to be involved in the negotiations as well. These cannot be bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and China the way it was binational between America and Russia.

The Cipher Brief: Saudi Arabia has always been an important partner to the West, but that relationship has had its challenges, most prominently perhaps with the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. How should the Biden administration approach Saudi Arabia, considering both the challenges and the opportunities?

Sawers: The Saudis are very important partners and have helped us counter the terrorist threat and our ties with Saudi intelligence have prevented multiple major terrorist operations. Saudi Arabia is an important power that is largely on our side, so we need to find ways to work with them. At the same time, Mohammed bin Salman has indulged in stupid stuff, like the Yemen war, detention of the Lebanese prime minister, the rift with Qatar, and the most egregious, as you mentioned, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

The Biden administration needs to be abundantly clear that there can be no more wild operations and if there are, there will be a high price to pay. If they understand that, the United States and other major European powers can work with Saudi Arabia to address issues of common concern.

I should note that during the Trump administration, the use of the intelligence channel for political purposes fell out of fashion. Intelligence relationships were focused on intelligence operations and intelligence sharing, but not on managing a wider relationship. I think Bill Burns is going to change that as director of the CIA and that he will use the CIA to play a leading role in managing national relationships. This is very possible in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, and Columbia. There will be a big role for the U.S. intelligence community in helping manage strategic relationships with important countries.

The Cipher Brief: Let’s talk about technology because it far outpaces anything else including policy, and the ability to manage emerging threats. How do you see the development of technology continuing to impact global and national security issues?

Sawers: From the time of MI6’s inception in 1909, to 2005, the method of spying was fairly similar. Technology changed that. In 2010, when I became chief of MI6, we started a project across the service called Spying in the Network Age, to look at how technology was changing the entire business of espionage.

We were already using data analytics, particularly in counter terrorism, but we needed to increase our engagement in data and the use of artificial intelligence. One of the conclusions we came to is that the crucial player in intelligence used to be the case officer, but with the development of technology, that person was now the data analyst who tells the case officer what to do, what their vulnerabilities are, and who to target. It wasn’t a random cultivation in the field anymore, it was an analytical approach from head office.

Since 2010, that has only accelerated. One other thing technology has done is changed the engagement between domestic security of countries we want to conduct intelligence operations in and foreign intelligence – because the use of data, facial recognition, and the inability to use false identities – means that the advantage has shifted in favor of domestic security services that are hostile to our goals. That has made the task of foreign intelligence a lot more difficult.

The Cipher Brief: What are your views on the concept of operating undercover in the age of the internet?

Sawers: One of the conclusions we came to in our work on espionage and technology is that you can no longer use these false identities. They simply don’t stand up especially if you want to conduct operations in hostile territory.

You need to find ways to counter the ability of domestic security services to track what you’re doing. That is the art of modern-day espionage because your intelligence officer is not going to be able to go off and have meetings in dark corners or car parks or communicate by the old systems. You’re going to have to find very different ways of contacting and recruiting agents and communicating back home on the intelligence they’re providing. It has changed dramatically. Technology is morally neutral- it doesn’t work only for the good guys or the bad guys. We have to make technology our ally and a central means of how we do business.  Technology is the starting point of an operation now. The priority and status of case officers has changed. The case officer used to be the fighter pilot of the service, but they’re not anymore. They’re the deliverer and the person on the ground, but they’re not as central as they were before we were spying in the networked age.

The Cipher Brief: In closing, what do you see as the top security-related issues over the next 12 months?

Sawers: Both our countries have been through a period of political upheaval and division over the last five years. I think the biggest priority for rebuilding Western strength and cohesion is putting our systems at home in good order. In Britain, we have to absorb the costs of Brexit and find a new way of benefiting from it. In the U.S., there has to be a rebuilding of American polity- a common approach to the world- so that the rest of the world, both friends and foes, know that there is a consistency and durability to America’s role in the world. If it swings back and forth every four years, America will decline.

Our first step to rebuilding our roles in the world is to rebuild ourselves at home. One thing we learned painfully is that you can’t go out bristling with military hardware and solve the world’s problems. We’ve learned that in Iraq and Afghanistan and we’ve seen it in Yemen and in Libya. Military intervention transforms one problem into another set of problems. We have to use our military power as a force for shaping the world in the way we want to see the world. As Sun Tzu taught, the best use of military power is to manipulate and shape your opposition so that they give in without a fight.

I don’t think Russia or China are going to give in without a fight, but good intelligence provides the basis for sound policymaking. It is a basis for sound decisions, and it shapes the security environment because you can do things through intelligence, learn things through intelligence, and build partnership through intelligence. That’s what we have to think of in terms of using our great strengths as free Western countries to advance our role in the world and make sure it’s as safe for us in the 21st Century as it was during the second half of the 20th Century.

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