In conversation with With Sir John Sawers, Former Chief of MI6 and UK Ambassador to the United Nations

In conversation with With Sir John Sawers, Former Chief of MI6 and UK Ambassador to the United Nations

As final talks to secure a Brexit trade deal continued, the conversation focused on the broader geopolitical scene, the forthcoming Biden presidency, and the prospects for the UK’s global position in 2021 and beyond.


The likelihood of a Brexit trade no deal

Whatever the final outcome of the talks, it is important to realise that this has always been more probable than many in the political and media class have acknowledged. For instance: Angela Merkel, notionally the senior figure in the EU most sympathetic to the UK’s dilemma, has higher priorities than the smooth passage of Brexit (the European Recovery Fund, Poland, Hungary). Furthermore: though Boris Johnson fully understands the economic case for a trade deal, he has shown in recent weeks what many people did not fully understand about his convictions - that, forced to make a choice, he cares more about sovereignty (independence) than power (the capacity to get things done). The distinction is too rarely drawn and will continue to play a part in our relationship with the EU, however it is defined.

After the transition period ends

The first three to six months of 2021 will be the hardest, as the UK adapts to living in the shadow of the EU (much as Canada lives in the shadow of the United States). The logical consequence will be a greater focus upon trans-Atlantic relations - especially with respect to the performance of British technology and research in the US orbit, rather than in the present European context.

The Intelligence Services

MI6 will be the service least affected and will continue to collaborate with its counterpart agencies on the continent. MI5 and GCHQ are more likely to feel the consequences, especially with respect to data-sharing. This is not to say that there will be a sharp breach - but there will be new obstacles.

The UK’s permanent seat on the UN security council

this will not be immediately imperilled by Brexit (indeed, France is under greater pressure from Germany to ‘Europeanise’ its seat). A greater threat would be the break-up of the UK. It might be hard to justify a continued permanent presence on the P5 by, say, an England-Wales successor state.


If China grows as Xi Jinping hopes, we may find ourselves having, in various forms, to pay tribute to it as a fully-fledged super-power. It seeks not conquest, but unambiguous status. The appropriate response should be multi-layered. First, we should identify areas where we can cooperate with China: health and climate, for instance. Second, areas where we will inevitably compete: tech and trade. And third: issues that will necessitate resistance - Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia. The essence of diplomacy is the building of bridges. In the case of our future relations with China, this could scarcely be more urgent.

The Biden Presidency

It will not be as strong as is widely hoped, not least because it will face a divided Congress seeking to obstruct its nominations and legislative strategies. Biden is constructing an administration of competent technocrats rather than visionary heavyweights. That said, he is an instinctive Atlanticist, and a believer in Nato, who will seek to repair the damage to international multilateralism inflicted by Trump. The appointment of John Kerry to oversee climate policy is a measure of the importance the President-elect attaches to rebuilding friendships and alliances. He will also want to build a united front of nations to assist him in his construction of a new relationship with China.

The Middle East

The geopolitics of the region have been significantly altered by the withdrawal of the US (and its European allies) under Obama and Trump. During the last four years, Iran has shifted from a position where it was 12 months away from a full nuclear capability to one where it would need only six months, Israel’s alliance with the UAE is a measure of how much has changed. For now, Saudi Arabia is likely to conduct its warmer relations with Israel in private.