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Former U.K. Intelligence Chief Speaks at Kennedy School

Sir John Sawers (middle), former chief of MI6, Ashton B. Carter (right), former U.S. secretary of defense, and R. Nicholas Burns, professor at the Kennedy School of Government (left), discuss national security.
Sir John Sawers (middle), former chief of MI6, Ashton B. Carter (right), former U.S. secretary of defense, and R. Nicholas Burns, professor at the Kennedy School of Government (left), discuss national security. By Lu Shao
By Meena Venkataramanan, Contributing Writer

UPDATED: February 27, 2018 at 3:45 p.m.

Sir John Sawers, the former chief of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, discussed intelligence and national security at a Kennedy School event Monday afternoon.

Sawers is one of the Kennedy School’s Fisher Family Fellows, experts who have worked in government and reside on campus for a period of time to speak with Harvard affiliates and the greater public about their expertise and experiences .

Monday’s talk was part of the ongoing “Future of Diplomacy Project,” an initiative at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of international politics. The event was moderated by former Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, who now works at the Kennedy School, and Professor R. Nicholas Burns.

Sawers began his talk with a discussion of geopolitics and the merits of the Western model, moving on to argue that the U.S. and the U.K. are no longer the only dominant nations.

“We live in a world in which the West has been the dominant player. But the preponderance of the Western world has now passed,” Sawers said. “The Western model is now challenged because the performance of autocratic societies is tilted against our interests.”

According to Sawers, China has edged its way up in international relations, posing a threat to Western hegemony.

“China doesn’t rely on stealing our secrets. They are as innovative an economy and society as our own,” Sawers said. “We have to come to terms with their economic power, their technological innovation, and the reality that they are already an economy that surpasses the United States, and their investment in military capabilities will follow that path,” he added.

Sawers highlighted examples from the U.S. and the U.K.—specifically, the election of President Donald Trump and the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union—to back his claim that Western dominance and political stability are facing a variety of new threats.

“The Conservative and Labour parties are going out and embracing populist policies on the right and left, just as the Democrats and Republicans are doing in the U.S.,” he said. “What has for generations been a source of pride and stability in the U.S. and U.K.—the two-party system—has now become a vulnerability.”

Despite these global threats, Sawers said it is most important to focus first on domestic challenges.

“We must solve the problems at home before we can take on the greater problems facing the world. If you’re running an organization as big as the U.S. Army or as modest in size as MI6, keeping your institutions fresh and open to the world is important,” Sawers said.

The second half of the event involved a question and answer period, during which Sawers, Carter, and Burns fielded queries from among the roughly 100 audience members.

In response to a question about his decision-making process, Sawers emphasized the value of complying with legal and regulatory frameworks to maintain trust as a leader and retain the ability to make future decisions.

“I once almost had to resign from the MI6 because my decision-making process failed me,” Sawers said.

Sydney V. McDonald ’21 said she attended the event to supplement her classroom experiences. McDonald asked Sawers a question about contemporary value-oriented terrorism.

“Hearing his views on that, and getting to consolidate my preconceived notions with his perspective was cool,” she said. “I also enjoyed hearing how his opinions compare to those of some of my professors, and how different interpretations of foreign policy can come about through dialogue.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: February 27, 2018

A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Professor R. Nicholas Burns. In fact, Sir John Sawers—not Burns—said he "almost had to resign from the MI6 because my decision-making process failed me."

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