The Limits of Security


16th February 2015

The War Studies 2015 Annual Lecture, Kings College London

John Sawers, Chairman, Macro Advisory Partners

Dr Strangelove came out in 1964.

US President Peter Sellers phones the Soviet President. He has bad news. And really bad news. The bad news?  A ghastly mistake has been made. An American bomber is on its way to the Soviet Union with orders to drop a nuclear bomb. The really bad news?  The plane can’t be recalled.

A brawl breaks out between the Russian Ambassador and the bellicose American General.  Peter Sellers steps in

Gentlemen, you can’t fight here. This is the War Room!

A triumph of dark satire. Yet it shows subtle, important wisdom. It shows US and Soviet leaders locked in bitter ideological rivalry, but sharing human understandings about security and survival. In the movie, that’s not enough. Events spiral out of control.  The film ends with nuclear obliteration.

The Cold War didn’t end that way. We stuck to dialogue.  We built on what we had in common. Meticulous diplomacy produced historic treaties. Non-proliferation. Nuclear arms reductions. The Helsinki Accords. Plus, in the end, unexpected personal warmth between leaders in Washington and Moscow.

That threat of nuclear confrontation – including by miscalculation or events running out of control – is still with us. We keep that in mind as we deal with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and watch North Korea. But today other threats feel more immediate. Terrorism. Cyber attacks.

* * * * *

One of the privileges of being a British diplomat is meeting wise people from other countries. One Chinese leader was asked about his biggest concern as China grew stronger. His reply has made me think.

400 million people were, he said, on the move. From China’s countryside to the cities. They’d find jobs.  Houses, schools and transport would be built. But his biggest concern was not those sprawling practical matters. It was something else.

Would these hundreds of millions of people hold on to their basic values? Values were central to his concept of China.  Without Values there could be no Order.

My theme this evening is about Values and Order.  Please forgive the occasional monumental generalisation.

After the disaster of two World Wars we set up international security arrangements based on shared global understandings about Order. We differed with the Soviet Union on Values. But we found enough common ground to co-exist.

Our new century is looking rather different. Long-standing ideas of Order and Values are being challenged, in many different ways. Building new understandings for Order and Values is the central task of our time for political leaders and diplomats. And, yes, intelligence agencies.

* * * * *

The relationship between the US and China will define the way that the 21st Century plays out.

The greatest power in the world – since we lost that title – is the USA, a country that shares our Values and is our closest ally. China has risen rapidly to the No2 position. Both the US and China believe they’re exceptional countries. That they are exceptions to the rules that apply to others. The Chinese are acutely sensitive to anything they construe as interference.  The US scarcely less so.

They are economic competitors but so far each has had more to gain by cooperating.   Investment.  Currencies.  Market access. But they have quite different instincts and traditions for Order and Values. If they find shared understandings on Order and Values, they’ll set a striking lead for the rest of the planet.

Over the past 50 years we’ve had no major miscalculations between Washington and Beijing. No diplomatic task is more important than keeping it that way.

Henry Kissinger has done more than anyone to define and lead US and wider Western relations with China. His latest book World Order came out last year. It’s packed with bold insight on the great themes of modern history. The state. The Westphalian system. The balance of power. Globalisation. Legitimacy. Order. Values.

His emphasis on the power of evolutionary rather than revolutionary change strikes a special chord for me.

Evolutionary change strengthens Order by building consensus around it.  Revolutionary change destroys the old Order and what freedom there was.  It is usually replaced with more Order and less freedom.

He tackles paradoxes and contradictions head-on

Vast regions of the World never shared in the Western concept of order, they only acquiesced in it.  These reservations are becoming explicit, for example in Ukraine and the South China Sea.

International order faces a paradox.  Its prosperity depends on the success of globalisation.  But that process produces a political reaction that often works counter to its aspiration.

Dr Kissinger captures the challenges facing today’s politicians and diplomats. Today’s practitioners have much to learn from him in the search for common ground on Values to sustain global Order.

* * * * *

My diplomatic career has seen powerful examples of diplomacy bringing together Order and Values.

I was First Secretary in South Africa as the Cold War ended. Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister.  She was no fan of sanctions.  But sanctions and diplomatic pressure helped break apartheid. Thanks to the arms embargo South African troops were being outgunned by Cubans and Angolans.

South Africa ran out of money.   After FW De Klerk came to power in 1989, foreign reserves covered just two weeks of imports. Drastic change was unavoidable.

On 11 February 1990, 25 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked free from prison.  Four years later I accompanied Douglas Hurd to Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as President. The ceremony marked a triumph for negotiation itself.

Negotiation worked because Nelson Mandela epitomised – as no-one else in world history has ever done – new Order based on new Values. Above all the Value of generous reconciliation.

South Africa stands out as a supreme moral example. Unflinching moral reckoning with past crimes. But also shared forgiveness. Shared optimism. This is a winning formula. It has helped South Africans move forward largely in harmony.

Compare South Africa to the fall of the Soviet Union and the communist system. Central Europe has confronted its past, and overcome it. Russia has not.

Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin did the World a huge service in ending the Cold War peacefully. I joined senior Russians many times after 1991 as they grappled with open markets and democracy.

Russia started well. It shouldered the full debt burden of the former Soviet Union. It proclaimed political freedoms.  It launched market reforms. Russia became a very different place.  But there has been no serious moral reckoning in Russia with the crimes of the Soviet era.  No assertion of new, healthy values. Russian politics have slipped back: less democratic, and more autocratic.

Russia at first welcomed the cooperative European security order. Then, step by step, it undermined it.  First in Georgia.  Now on a bigger scale in Ukraine. The West has responded with sanctions.

Sanctions never work quickly to change minds in a more positive direction. Even when carefully targeted, sanctions hurt ordinary people before they hurt the leaders causing the trouble. But over time sanctions do impose huge costs.  Costs have consequences.  A regime’s authority declines and its options narrow. South Africa, Serbia, Libya, Iran are all examples. Even in Iraq, Saddam had cut back on expensive military programmes.  Would that we had known it in 2003.

Sanctions on Russia are imposing costs. But the Ukraine crisis is no longer just about Ukraine. It’s now a much bigger, more dangerous crisis, between Russia and Western countries, about Values and Order in Europe.

Russia still has a formidable nuclear arsenal.  President Putin’s first priority when he could increase defence spending was to modernise it. He wants these ultimate weapons in his armoury in just this sort of confrontation, to project raw strength. To demonstrate this a Bear nuclear bomber flew up the English Channel three weeks ago.

Mr Putin insists that Russia’s own security is at stake in Ukraine. That European Values and European Order for Ukraine undermine Russian Values and Russian Order.

This position flatly contradicts all the agreements Russia itself has signed – and helped negotiate – supporting European order and values. But we deal with the Russia we have, not the Russia we’d like to have.

We could take on Moscow, stepping up our response. Provide weapons to Ukraine so it can defend itself. More stringent sanctions. But how would Mr Putin respond?

As long as Mr Putin sees the issue in terms of Russia’s own security he will be prepared to go further than us.  So he would respond with further escalation on the ground.  Perhaps cyber attacks against us. We have thousands of deaths in Ukraine. We could start to get tens of thousands. Then what?

The test for any policy option is not so much “Is this the right next step?” The more important test is: “Where will we be in two years’ time if we follow this path?”

Policies can be strong, principled, honourable.  But they also need to be wise.

A Chinese minister was asked recently about Ukraine.  He said, very aptly,

  • Ukraine has lost Crimea.
  • Russia has lost Ukraine.
  • The United States has lost Russia
  • We have all lost stability

Stability. Order. Values. It’s easy to pose dilemmas.  Sometimes there aren’t good answers

Ukrainians look to us to help them have their chance to embrace the Order and Values we enjoy here in modern Europe. We and they may end up with a new debilitating frozen conflict in Ukraine, for well into the future. That is a wretched outcome for Ukrainians.  But it may be the least bad attainable outcome.

For now, we can’t identify shared Values with Russia. Our attempt to find Order based on Values is giving us Disorder.

Events are moving fast.  Chancellor Merkel’s efforts to restore calm deserve our full support. Once we have calm - if we have calm – we’ll need a new approach to co-existence with President Putin’s Russia.

The convergence between Russia and the West which we had hoped for after the Cold War won’t happen while he is in charge. We now know that. Any foreseeable change of power in Russia may well be for the worse. Managing relations with Russia will be the defining problem in European security for years to come.

* * * * *

Values and Order across the Middle East?

I was Ambassador in Cairo in the two years after 9/11. We encouraged President Mubarak’s reforms, limited as they were. Economic reform boosted investment and growth.  But in the absence of accountability, it also boosted corruption. Mubarak’s security obsessed regime could not deliver political reform.

You might say that Western leaders indulged Mubarak for far too long. But abandoning him overnight generated distrust across the Arab World. Henry Kissinger in World Order makes a wise point: In international affairs, a reputation for reliability is a more important asset than showing tactical cleverness

The world was impressed by the Tahrir Square demonstrations.   Was this the opening to Middle Eastern-style pluralism we’d wanted for decades? No. Tahrir Square wasn’t Egypt.

Egyptians knew two sources of power: the regime backed by the Army; and the Ikhwaan, the Muslim Brothers. After the Army removed Mubarak, these two forces first tried to collude.  When that failed, they collided. The Army were never going to be seen off by the Ikhwaan. The Muslim Brothers made no serious attempt to co-exist. Now the military are back in power, under President Sisi.

President Sisi is trying to address Egypt’s deep-seated problems. He knows that Egypt needs to balance its books.  That means scaling back unaffordable subsidies on food and fuel. Not popular. But it has to happen.

President Sisi is also calling for Islam to face up to its own extremist elements.  That is important political leadership.

Egypt is finding its own path.  Evolution is better than revolution.  We should work with him and support his efforts to deliver change at a sustainable pace.

* * * * *

Further East, a massive diplomatic effort over 12 years has tried to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.

After the strong backing Britain had given Washington over Iraq in 2003, Jack Straw was ready to act without direct US engagement. I joined French and German colleagues as the original E3 negotiating team. Meeting after meeting in different cities culminated in November 2004: three days of exhausting negotiation in Paris.

By Sunday afternoon French hospitality had run dry.  We were down to tap water and crisps. Maybe this diet helped. We hammered out an agreement. Iran would suspend all nuclear enrichment activity, within a wider process to find a new relationship between Iran and Europe.

In diplomacy the effort that goes into reaching a deal doesn’t guarantee that the deal sticks. The deal was implemented but didn’t stick. Washington wouldn’t ease the trade restrictions needed to hold Iran to the bargain.

Timing makes such a difference in diplomacy. The second term Bush administration was ready re-think its policy on Iran and these E3 efforts.  But then Iran elected Mr Ahmedinejad as President. He scuppered the agreement before the US deployed new flexibility. This time there was an impressive shared international view that Iran’s policies threatened global Order and Values. The UN Security Council, with Russia and China in support, imposed sanctions. The US and EU added their own financial measures.

Iran denies that sanctions have had a political effect. All countries subject to sanctions do that. But slowly, painfully, sanctions have changed attitudes in Iran.

The Obama Administration is now pushing hard from the front. Agreement with Iran is possible, and highly desirable. But the politics need to work, in Tehran and in Washington.

* * * * *

The Iran example shows how under the right conditions a global consensus can form around threats to Order and Values. In the 1990s we had a good run with Russia and China to control dangerous problems in the Middle East, former Yugoslavia and parts of Africa. Iraq changed that.

I was in Cairo in the run up to the Iraq conflict, so not part of the internal British policy debates. But I saw the case for intervention in Iraq and I later supported our wider role in Afghanistan. I thought we would open the way to a more modern and tolerant Order, and better Values in these countries.

There has been real progress in Afghanistan, though the cost in lives and money was higher than we had ever imagined. Iraq?  The communities suppressed by Saddam – Shia and Kurds – fare much better.  But the country lacks the Order needed for any modern state, and has been knocked off course by chaos next door in Syria.

* * * * *

In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan Britain is pulling back from international intervention, just as America pulled back after the Vietnam war. When crisis erupted in Libya, we didn’t feel it right to sit by as Qadhafi crushed decent Libyans demanding an end to dictatorship.

But we didn’t want to get embroiled in Libya’s problems by sending in ground forces. After Qadhafi was ousted, no-one held the ring to help manage a transition to something better, as the US, Britain and other allies had done in Baghdad and Kabul.  Libya had no institutions.  Who or what would take over? The answer?  Those with the weapons. Result? Growing chaos, exploited by fanatics.

Syria? The same outcome. I was cautious in our UK discussions about intervening in Syria.  But I supported the case for responding hard when Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. A red line had been crossed.  But there was no public or parliamentary appetite to use force in response.  Parliament voted it down.

Yes, intervening has huge risks and costs.  Not intervening also has huge risks and costs.

Afghanistan and Iraq?  Or Syria and Libya?  Which outcome is worse?  Perhaps it’s too early to say.  We need to have that debate.

* * * * *

Russia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria. They each threaten wider security, and present our political leaders with far-reaching policy dilemmas.

But at least there are identifiable national leaders that we can work with, however tough or unpleasant. We can imagine hard discussion and make compromises about Values and Order. The essence of diplomacy is dealing with people we disagree with.

Diplomacy gets into quite new orders of difficulty when states lose control over their own territory. Thus Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State phenomenon.  What possible negotiation can you have with terrorists like them?

Back in 2010 I gave the first public speech by a Chief of MI6:

You, and millions of people like you, go about your business in our cities and towns, free of fear. Why? Because the British Government works tirelessly, out of the public eye, to stop terrorists and would-be terrorists in their tracks.

For a while, we in MI6, MI5 and GCHQ felt on top of the problem.  But since 2013, the terrorist threat has risen again.

Thousands of European citizens have gone to Syria to fight against Assad. Some of them are returning to fight against us, and emboldening others in their communities. The recent attacks in France and now Denmark were shocking.  But not unexpected, given the much higher threat we now face.

We have joined an international coalition to hit back against Islamic State. Here and there its advance is being slowed, even reversed. But as battles rage and atrocities are committed, what passes for moderate Syrian forces are squeezed out by both the terrorists and the Assad regime. The regime and Islamist terrorists find common cause in attacking moderate Syrian forces.

Christians in the Middle East, Jews in Europe, are being killed solely because of their faith as well.  And in the name of Islam.

This is part of a wider battle. A ferocious clash between different branches and interpretations of Islam.

Violent Islamist fundamentalism rejects our every Value. It rejects the World’s most basic unit of Order, the modern state. It uses our technology. Post-modern social networking, boasting about pre-modern savagery.

This phenomenon of Islamist extremism across the Middle East, in Nigeria and elsewhere is a disaster above all for Muslims. Muslims are the biggest victims of Islamist terrorism.

It isn’t for us to solve this problem within the Islamic tradition. That’s a task for the Islamic world itself.  We look to Islamic countries to stop these fanatics, denounce their ideologies and offer a better path for their youth.

Expect no quick fixes. Decisions and doctrines that Islam adopted centuries ago fall to be re-examined. Muslims need to find a modern Islamic framework for Values and Order, compatible with the Values and Order and freedoms of non-Muslims across the planet.

We in the West can best help what will be a long and arduous process by quietly supporting those in the Muslim world who step forward to lead it. Meanwhile, we do what we can to keep the terrorist threat at bay.  It can’t be defeated in any usual sense of the word.

* * * * *

How do we keep terrorism at bay? My final point: technological aspects of security.

When we lock our doors, we make assumptions. Assumptions about the risk of burglary. About the honesty of our fellow citizens. About the reach of the police. Rights to privacy. The small-print in our home insurance policies.

What if those assumptions are wrong? What if a criminal can just appear outside your front door from anywhere in the world, and try hundreds of thousands of keys in your lock every second? Welcome to cyber crime and cyber terrorism.

Thanks in large part to Mr Snowden, our intelligence picture is weaker.   All of us, you and me here tonight, are more at risk from terrorism and cyber attack. Why? Mainly because technology companies have scaled back previous quiet cooperation with intelligence agencies.

We all want – we all rely on – the amazing benefits of highly networked technologies. We want maximum freedom.  We want maximum privacy. And we want maximum protection from terrorism and cyber crime.

Our security agencies take privacy concerns really seriously. The rules governing use of data are strict. They’re tightly monitored. When staff breach those rules, the consequences are immediate.  People have been sacked, and escorted straight from the building.

I respect privacy advocates.  I want privacy as much as you.  Maybe even more. But privacy advocates tend to take security for granted. I respect technology companies. They do amazing things. They have all sorts of laws and regulations and reputations to balance.

But national security – your and my security as we gather here tonight – the security that allows every person across the UK to rest easy this evening – that security does not come from thin air or good intentions. It takes hard, diligent, principled effort by all of us. It can’t just be left to the intelligence agencies.

I have urged this before. I do so again tonight. Technology companies and governments and we the public have to work together, to counter those who menace us and our way of life. None of us can afford for terrorists to use Facebook and other social media to plot their next attack, confident that no-one can monitor them.

We have to develop a new Order for our new technological era. Maybe new Values too. This is hard. It’s hard procedurally. It’s hard conceptually.  But we will pay a much bigger price if we fail.

* * * * *

I’ve spent 36 years in public service.  I began and ended my public service in MI6. A career in public service remains unsurpassed in job satisfaction. You’re contributing to public goods. Peace and security. Each week, each month, each year. I commend it to young students here tonight.

Good intelligence underpins our freedoms.  It helps our leaders understand the intentions and instincts of people who want to hurt us. During the Cold War intelligence helped avoid Dr Strangelove’s Armageddon, when all those nuclear tests were happening. Both sides understood what was at stake, and made wise calculations.

Intelligence is even more crucial now. Penetrating terrorist movements.  Tracking cyber activists.  Understanding hostile foreign powers.

I have spent many a fretful weekend, concerned for our officers and secret agents deployed on high-risk operations. The men and women of MI6 and MI5 and GCHQ have extraordinary commitment and loyalty to our nation, and our nation’s Values.

The secret agents who work for MI6 are mainly not British.  Foreign nationals operating in their own countries, directly risking their own lives.

They work for us for different reasons. But for many of them one reason comes first. They believe in the British approach to Order and Values. Their courage sets us a towering example.

The greatest honour of my career has been to lead MI6.

My simple point tonight is this.  In our lifetime, the limits of our security have changed dramatically. From mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons, to risks of social breakdown through terrorism or cyber attacks.

Ideas of Order and Values are shifting too. The way we think about security needs to change accordingly.


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