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A Briefing with Sir John Sawers

The new COVID-19 nationwide safety world is one formed by a bunch of nationwide and world safety points that have been impacted – each good and unhealthy – by the worldwide pandemic. That, in flip, has essentially modified the way in which governments and personal sector corporations want to consider the previous threats, in accordance with former Chief of MI-6, Sir John Sawers.

Tensions with China, Russia and Iran for instance, already excessive earlier than COVID, now require a brand new mind-set and renewed alliances so as to tackle them.  In this new world, The Cipher Brief sat down with Sir John to speak about COVID, the expanded cyber menace floor and the way previous threats have developed. Our dialog has been flippantly edited for size and readability. 

The Briefer

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

Cipher Brief Expert Sir John Sawers retired from British authorities service with 36 years of expertise in diplomacy and intelligence, culminating in 5 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 agency he based in 2019 to advise company leaders on geopolitics and political danger.

The Briefing

The Cipher Brief: Let’s begin with the difficulty that in a short time grew to become the world’s most urgent nationwide safety concern final 12 months, COVID-19.  How a lot of an influence did the pandemic have on different nationwide safety priorities? 

Sawers: COVID has been all consuming for governments and has had such a devastating impact on nationwide economies that it has swamped all different points, together with nationwide safety points. We’ve had among the most devastating cyber-attacks lately; we’ve bought actual challenges from states like China, Russia, and Iran; and we have to restore alliances. All of that’s of excessive precedence, however quite a lot of the oxygen on the political stage in governments has been taken out by the COVID pandemic.

China, in fact, has been within the highlight all through the pandemic. We initially thought that the pandemic would injury China’s standing on this planet as a result of they have been the supply of the virus they usually cooperated badly with the World Health Organization. They additionally behaved very aggressively in controlling provide chains for private safety gear and different medical gear, so there was quite a lot of hostility in direction of China in the midst of final 12 months.  But as we are actually 12 months into the pandemic, China has emerged in higher form than most Western international locations. Their autocratic system of presidency has managed the virus higher than our free-market democracies and their financial bounce again has been fairly efficient. One of the issues we’re going to must grapple with within the years forward, is that the Chinese could have been confirmed in their very own self-assessment that their system is best than the Western system. There is a rising conviction in China that Western democracies and the United States are on the decline and China is on the rise. I concern that the pandemic will solely speed up that and make China tougher for the West to deal with sooner or later.

The Cipher Brief: Many consultants inside our community have repeatedly mentioned that China is by far the biggest menace to nationwide and world safety. Do you agree, and the way do you see these threats?

Sawers: I definitely agree that China is the difficulty of the 21stCentury. It’s very completely different from the problem of a rising Germany within the first half of the final century or the Cold War within the second half. China is a brand new sort of problem as a result of in each financial and political phrases, China is a close to peer of the United States. This makes it very completely different from the Soviet Union, which was a peer on army grounds however by no means on financial or political grounds. China has a system which they consider in and which different international locations are at risk of emulating. They have a strong economic system and expertise base, which separates them from the problem of the Soviet Union. China is the most important subject, and it’s a completely different type of subject that we’ve to discover a strategy to deal with.

The Cipher Brief: It’s a difficulty due to economics, as you talked about, so discovering a steadiness with China as a buddy or foe could be tough. Do you see that altering a lot over the subsequent few years?

Sawers: I don’t see that altering. There’s a easy mind-set about it in that we should discover areas the place we are able to cooperate with China, like in local weather and well being, areas to compete with China, like commerce and expertise, and areas to face as much as China, just like the South China Sea and its therapy of Taiwan and the Uighurs. The implementation of this, the place America is aligned with its East Asian, European, and, hopefully, Indian allies, goes to be an actual problem.  In dealing with the Soviet Union, we have been in a position to compartmentalize points. We all have very robust political opinions on the therapy of Russian Opposition chief Alexei Navalny, however on the identical time that the United States condemns Russia for that, they will nonetheless signal the extensions to the START treaty, which is in each aspect’s pursuits. Russians are good at compartmentalizing.

The Chinese favor to hyperlink issues. The Chinese intuition is to not compartmentalize, it’s to hyperlink, and that makes it far more tough to work with them as a result of we’re not going to pay a value when it comes to one thing like expertise entry in change for Chinese strikes on local weather change. They must be taught that the one means ahead for a 21stCentury with two nice powers with very completely different techniques during which we keep away from battle, is to handle that relationship and compartmentalize points.


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The Cipher Brief: How a lot do you suppose the brand new U.S. administration will be capable to get the EU and the UK to work with the U.S.  in pursuing a coherent complete strategy to China?

Sawers: One of the impacts of the pandemic and Chinese habits throughout the pandemic is that among the scales fell from European eyes in regards to the true nature of China beneath Xi Jinping. There is a a lot higher understanding now about Trump’s dealing with of China and him calling out China on commerce and nationwide safety points. We have been sluggish to know simply how a lot China modified beneath Xi in comparison with what China was like beneath Deng Xiaoping and his two successors.

I don’t see the Biden administration altering the content material of that strategy in direction of China, however there are nonetheless going to be variations. The actuality is that a very powerful financial energy in Europe is now Germany and a couple of quarter of Germany’s manufactured exports go to China. China is a vital marketplace for Germany and the Germans have at all times tried to concentrate on them as an financial companion slightly than as a safety problem. That is altering now, however we is not going to see the extent of that change till after German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down later this 12 months.

In order to create a coherent technique towards China, we have to have a gaggle of allies which the United States consults and engages. We all need American management, however American management solely works if there’s a followership from America’s allies which requires that allies’ issues and pursuits are taken into consideration within the formulation of American technique. That will probably be an enormous problem for Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan as they engineer the entire of presidency strategy that’s vital in approaching China so as to be efficient.

The Cipher Brief: How ought to the UK, U.S., and different allied nations be working collectively to know the totality of those Chinese relationships, financial initiatives, safety preparations, info operations, and its influence on Western affect and aggressive benefit? 

Sawers: We are good at figuring out some nationwide safety challenges like cyber capabilities, for instance. We are much less good at understanding what lies behind the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s BRI is a industrial financial mission and strategic mission on the identical time. China has among the identical targets with the BRI that the United States had with the Marshall Plan designed to reconstruct Europe after WWII whereas concurrently binding them right into a longstanding alliance with the United States. China needs to tie economies of nations alongside the Belt and Road into China economically and make them strategically depending on China. That doesn’t imply all BRI initiatives are undesirable as they’re serving to quite a lot of international locations develop their very own economies, however there’s a strategic objective of the BRI that we have to issue into our administration of China as a complete and the way it offers with many different international locations. These international locations should be open eyed in regards to the political and strategic targets that lie behind the BRI.

The Cipher Brief: Can you speak a bit in regards to the new management within the U.S. and the way you’re seeing each the alternatives and the challenges which can be offered beneath a Biden administration?

Sawers: I believe the Biden administration’s first, second, and third priorities are going to be home. It’s going to be about getting on prime of COVID, turning across the economic system, and attempting to reunite America as successfully as doable whereas in search of bipartisan consensus on the essential points going through America. The people who find themselves going to be dealing with nationwide safety points are acquainted faces everyone knows: Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Bill Burns, Avril Haines, and different acquainted figures. In that sense, there’s some continuity with the strategy that we knew beneath earlier presidents, particularly President Obama.

There’s confidence on this group.  But the most important problem this group goes to face is that for 70 years, there was a way that international coverage and worldwide safety was a nonpartisan subject in Washington, however over the past 10 years, it has turn out to be a partisan subject. This signifies that each buddies and hostile powers to the United States are going to search out it tougher to suppose when it comes to many years, realizing what the American technique goes to be. If the American technique goes to vary each 4 to eight years, it’ll be far more tough to deal with the United States and for the United States to exert a management position on a world scale.

The Cipher Brief: As the president is targeted on home points, there are additionally worldwide points that must be dealt with. Europe and the U.S. haven’t agreed on the best way to deal with JCPOA and the Iranian menace. What do you suppose that President Biden and Jake Sullivan, his nationwide safety advisor, ought to hold prime of thoughts in deciding on their coverage concerning Iran?  Is there actual potential for containment of the nuclear menace and what in regards to the historic variations between Europe and the U.S. over the best way to deal with it?

Sawers: When I used to be in senior positions in authorities dealing with the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, all of us prioritized the nuclear subject in dealing with Iran. We seen Iran as a foul actor in Lebanon, in post-2003 Iraq, and in terrorism, however a very powerful factor was to cease Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

In 2004, after we have been in a position to get Iran to conform to droop all enrichment and nuclear conversion exercise, we weren’t in a position to present the quid professional quo when it comes to lifting sanctions as a result of the Bush administration took a 12 months and a half to return on board for that course of. By the time they got here on board, the Iranians slipped off the opposite finish with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005. Ten years later, it took concerted sanctions led by the Europeans and magnified within the European Union to get the Iranians again on board for a diplomatic course of, which was then led by the United States. The JCPOA wasn’t pretty much as good because the 2004 agreements as a result of 10 years handed within the interim.

In 2003, we thought Iran was as little as three years away from a nuclear weapon. In 2015, it was one 12 months away from a nuclear weapon. If we get to subsequent summer season and the Iranians fulfill all of their commitments that they made outdoors the JCPOA, they’ll be as little as six months away from a nuclear weapon. There are shortcomings within the JCPOA: it’s timeline is simply too brief, and it doesn’t tackle the intense downside of missile functionality. But, if we throw all the things into the identical pot and intention to have a grand cut price with Iran, we’ll by no means get the constraints again on their nuclear program. I believe getting Iran again inside some type of negotiated framework to constrain their nuclear exercise is the primary subject. We then want to deal with issues like missiles, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, however these aren’t the identical precedence because the nuclear subject.

The Cipher Brief: Do you suppose the JCPOA – given the adjustments which have occurred because the U.S. withdrawal – continues to be one of the best car for nuclear containment with Iran?

Sawers: The JCPOA wants updating and timelines should be prolonged, however we’ve to be practical about what could be achieved within the close to time period. The Iranians are on the purpose of a severe breakout from the JCPOA, growing enrichment to twenty%. And there’s some backwards and forwards between Iran and the Biden Administration as to who makes the primary transfer on this.

Iran has presidential elections arising and whereas the Supreme Leader will nonetheless finally be in cost, negotiations have at all times been beneath the path of the president, so there will probably be new management on this subject. There must be an early transfer to in some way stabilize points on the a part of the Americans to cease Iran from a serious breakout from the JCPOA. We must stabilize issues, deescalate tensions, and get some constraints again on them. Outside of that, within the wider Iranian agenda, there’s some low hanging fruit there like Yemen. We might clear up the Yemen disaster within the subsequent six to 9 months which might doubtless enhance confidence between Iran and Saudi Arabia and provides a bit extra weight behind the efforts of the Biden administration and their European companions on the nuclear subject.


Join The Cipher Brief March 23-25 for a three-day Virtual Cybersecurity Summit that includes leaders from the private and non-private sectors, together with Microsoft President Brad Smith, FireEye CEO Kevin Mandia, and a bunch of different private and non-private sector consultants.  The Summit is being co-hosted by Cipher Brief CEO & Publisher Suzanne Kelly and former NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett.  Attendance is free and registration is required.  Sign up immediately.


The Cipher Brief: Let’s speak about Russia.  Given the five-year extension to the brand new START arms management treaty with Moscow, is there a necessity for a brand new INF treaty that may be monitored and verified to deal with a possible proliferation of tactical nuclear weapons?

Sawers: We have to convey nuclear proliferation again into the middle of our strategic pondering. It’s not nearly Iran and North Korea, although these are the 2 most harmful international locations that are outdoors some form of framework, but additionally Israel, Pakistan, and India. There is an actual hazard that nuclear weapons can proliferate horizontally to new international locations and vertically into new weapon techniques and turn out to be that rather more harmful.

We have to have some arms management governing this, however arms management was tough sufficient when it was between America and Russia. It is much more tough when you need to lock in China as effectively which instantly will get into the Taiwan subject as a result of it’s a strategic precedence for China.

Arms management went out of trend for 20 to 30 years after the tip of the Cold War. Many of the treaties just like the anti-ballistic missile treaty and among the different lower-level treaties have been taken over by developments. We have to get again right into a dialogue with different main powers on nuclear and missile points and make it central to offer stability. Russia is now not a fantastic energy, however it’s a nice army energy and may trigger huge injury. It needs to be concerned within the negotiations as effectively. These can’t be bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and China the way in which it was binational between America and Russia.

The Cipher Brief: Saudi Arabia has at all times been an necessary companion to the West, however that relationship has had its challenges, most prominently maybe with the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. How ought to the Biden administration strategy Saudi Arabia, contemplating each the challenges and the alternatives?

Sawers: The Saudis are crucial companions and have helped us counter the terrorist menace and our ties with Saudi intelligence have prevented a number of main terrorist operations. Saudi Arabia is a vital energy that’s largely on our aspect, so we have to discover methods to work with them. At the identical time, Mohammed bin Salman has indulged in silly stuff, just like the Yemen battle, detention of the Lebanese prime minister, the rift with Qatar, and essentially the most egregious, as you talked about, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

The Biden administration must be abundantly clear that there could be no extra wild operations and if there are, there will probably be a excessive value to pay. If they perceive that, the United States and different main European powers can work with Saudi Arabia to deal with problems with frequent concern.

I ought to be aware that throughout the Trump administration, using the intelligence channel for political functions fell out of trend. Intelligence relationships have been centered on intelligence operations and intelligence sharing, however not on managing a wider relationship. I believe Bill Burns goes to vary that as director of the CIA and that he’ll use the CIA to play a number one position in managing nationwide relationships. This could be very doable in international locations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, and Columbia. There will probably be a giant position for the U.S. intelligence neighborhood in serving to handle strategic relationships with necessary international locations.

The Cipher Brief: Let’s speak about expertise as a result of it far outpaces the rest together with coverage, and the power to handle rising threats. How do you see the event of expertise persevering with to influence world and nationwide safety points?

Sawers: From the time of MI6’s inception in 1909, to 2005, the tactic of spying was pretty comparable. Technology modified that. In 2010, after I grew to become chief of MI6, we began a mission throughout the service referred to as Spying within the Network Age, to have a look at how expertise was altering all the enterprise of espionage.

We have been already utilizing knowledge analytics, significantly in counter terrorism, however we would have liked to extend our engagement in knowledge and using synthetic intelligence. One of the conclusions we got here to is that the essential participant in intelligence was the case officer, however with the event of expertise, that individual was now the info analyst who tells the case officer what to do, what their vulnerabilities are, and who to focus on. It wasn’t a random cultivation within the discipline anymore, it was an analytical strategy from head workplace.

Since 2010, that has solely accelerated. One different factor expertise has completed is modified the engagement between home safety of nations we need to conduct intelligence operations in and international intelligence – as a result of using knowledge, facial recognition, and the lack to make use of false identities – signifies that the benefit has shifted in favor of home safety companies which can be hostile to our targets. That has made the duty of international intelligence much more tough.

The Cipher Brief: What are your views on the idea of working undercover within the age of the web?

Sawers: One of the conclusions we got here to in our work on espionage and expertise is which you could now not use these false identities. They merely don’t rise up particularly if you wish to conduct operations in hostile territory.

You want to search out methods to counter the power of home safety companies to trace what you’re doing. That is the artwork of modern-day espionage as a result of your intelligence officer is just not going to have the ability to go off and have conferences in darkish corners or automobile parks or talk by the previous techniques. You’re going to have to search out very other ways of contacting and recruiting brokers and speaking again house on the intelligence they’re offering. It has modified dramatically. Technology is morally neutral- it doesn’t work solely for the great guys or the unhealthy guys. We must make expertise our ally and a central technique of how we do enterprise.  Technology is the place to begin of an operation now. The precedence and standing of case officers has modified. The case officer was the fighter pilot of the service, however they’re not anymore. They’re the deliverer and the individual on the bottom, however they’re not as central as they have been earlier than we have been spying within the networked age.

The Cipher Brief: In closing, what do you see as the highest security-related points over the subsequent 12 months?

Sawers: Both our international locations have been by way of a interval of political upheaval and division over the past 5 years. I believe the most important precedence for rebuilding Western power and cohesion is placing our techniques at house in good order. In Britain, we’ve to soak up the prices of Brexit and discover a new means of benefiting from it. In the U.S., there needs to be a rebuilding of American polity- a typical strategy to the world- in order that the remainder of the world, each buddies and foes, know that there’s a consistency and sturdiness to America’s position on this planet. If it swings backwards and forwards each 4 years, America will decline.

Our first step to rebuilding our roles on this planet is to rebuild ourselves at house. One factor we realized painfully is which you could’t exit bristling with army {hardware} and clear up the world’s issues. We’ve realized that in Iraq and Afghanistan and we’ve seen it in Yemen and in Libya. Military intervention transforms one downside into one other set of issues. We have to make use of our army energy as a pressure for shaping the world in the way in which we need to see the world. As Sun Tzu taught, one of the best use of army energy is to govern and form your opposition in order that they provide in with out a struggle.

I don’t suppose Russia or China are going to present in with out a struggle, however good intelligence offers the premise for sound policymaking. It is a foundation for sound choices, and it shapes the safety setting as a result of you are able to do issues by way of intelligence, be taught issues by way of intelligence, and construct partnership by way of intelligence. That’s what we’ve to think about when it comes to utilizing our nice strengths as free Western international locations to advance our position on this planet and ensure it’s as protected for us within the 21st Century because it was throughout the second half of the 20th Century.

Read extra expert-driven nationwide safety information, evaluation and perspective in The Cipher Brief and acquire entry to personal Cipher Briefings with the world’s most skilled nationwide safety consultants by turning into a member immediately. 

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