Ex-MI6 Chief: Our values are under threat

‘Western Europe will not find a partner of values and morals in Vladimir Putin’, said Sir John Sawers, former Chief of MI6 in his inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor at King’s College London.

Addressing a packed War Studies annual lecture last night, Sir John offered a rare insight into decades of service for the British diplomatic and intelligence services, and the ongoing battle for ‘shared value and order’ in an increasingly unstable global landscape.

He discussed the ideological conflicts currently faced in Europe, where despite initial glimmers of economic, social and political reform, he said Russia has ‘not confronted and overcome its past’, and the foundations on which a post-Cold War society led by President Putin could hope to prosper have been undermined by a lack of ‘serious moral reckoning, and no assertion of new healthy values.’ Sir John warned: ‘Russian politics have slipped back: rather less democratic and more autocratic. Managing relations with Russia will be the defining problem in European security for years to come’.

Whilst European sanctions in response to the Ukraine have imposed costs upon Russia, Sir John said, ‘the 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. We may end up with a new debilitating frozen conflict in Ukraine...That is a wretched outcome for Ukrainians. But it may be the least bad attainable outcome’.

Risks and costs

On the Middle East, Sir John discussed his experiences of tense diplomatic negotiations in Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. But partial intervention in Libya and Syria has created ‘growing chaos, exploited by fanatics’ he said. Any diplomatic progress in these failed states, he said, has fragmented under the impact of extreme Islamic fundamentalists, making negotiations virtually impossible.

‘Intervening has huge risks and costs. Not intervening also has huge risks and costs. Afghanistan and Iraq? Or Syria and Libya? Which outcome is worst? Perhaps it’s too early to say.’

He stressed that Muslims are the biggest victims of Islamic terrorism. ‘It isn’t for us to solve this problem within the Islamic tradition, it’s for Muslim countries to step forward and lead , he said. ‘Meanwhile, we do what we can to keep the terrorist threat at bay. It can’t be defeated in the usual sense.’

Global security dangers are developing in new ways: cyber warfare and technological threats. Sir John said the intelligence services must focus work on these as the limits of our security continue to change dramaticallywhile simultaneously respecting privacy and freedom.

‘We have to develop a new order for our new technological era. This is hard...but we will pay a much bigger price if we fail.’


He ended with an emotional tribute to his father, a WWII pilot veteran who saw much active duty on the Atlantic convoys and in the Pacific. He said enrolling at King’s in 1947, while still traumatised by his war experiences, had helped his father immensely to rebuild his life and make a fresh start.

King’s President and Principal Professor Edward Byrne AC repsonded: ‘We are delighted to have such an eminent speaker here at King’s. Today’s talk has been a fascinating insight into the world of diplomacy and negotiations, and with powerful relevance to current world issues. We very much look welcoming Sir John in his role as Visiting Professor at King’s College London.’