Over the clatter of a hovering helicopter and the ear-piercing explosions of stun grenades, I yelled to US Marine Corps General John Kelly: ‘I guess the President has seen this kind of thing quite often?’
General Kelly, an old friend, growled back: ‘First time. He likes parades.’
We were standing in the grounds of Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence, watching a Special Forces hostage-rescue demonstration, halfway through Donald Trump’s first official visit to the UK.
I was serving as both Cabinet Secretary and Theresa May’s national security adviser. Both sides of my job meant I was in a state of heightened tension while the most mercurial American president in history was on our territory.
With Donald Trump leaving the White House and Brexit done, it is time for Britain to shine
Lord Sedwill was told how much Donald Trump likes parades during his visit to the UK when he met with Theresa May
It was the morning after a sumptuous dinner at Blenheim Palace, an evening designed to be on a grand scale to impress a visiting American president. But instead of smiles, there were horrified expressions on the face of Downing Street colleagues as we read an interview in which Mr Trump rubbished Mrs May’s tactics in her Brexit negotiations with the European Union, blundering unapologetically into the most sensitive issue in British politics.
To her credit, Mrs May met this with her customary sang-froid, and elicited the only apology anyone could remember from a briefly sheepish Mr Trump.
But he wasn’t finished. That afternoon, during a briefing on national security threats, he bluntly challenged me as I talked about the Russian state’s reckless use of novichok to try to kill Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
Two days later, he upended a Nato summit by threatening America’s commitment to the alliance if the Europeans failed to spend more on defence, a threat General Kelly spent the rest of the trip trying to erase.
The whole European visit provided a stark example of Mr Trump’s capriciousness with allies, behaviour which culminated in attacking his loyal vice-president this month during the assault he incited on the US Capitol.
There is relief in Western capitals that normal diplomatic relationships will be restored once Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th president tomorrow. Those of us who regard ourselves as close American allies have badly missed US leadership over the past four years.
Based on my time working for Boris Johnson in Downing Street, I believe those who have said he would have preferred a second Trump term are mistaken. That would not have been to the benefit of British or European security, to transatlantic trade, let alone the environmental agenda to which the Prime Minister is so committed.
Joe Biden’s administration will reset priorities more in line with those of his former boss, Barack Obama
Mr Biden’s administration will reset priorities much more in line with those of his former boss, Barack Obama. He will re-engage with democracies and global institutions – such as the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation – that Mr Trump despised and disrupted. He will revive arms control negotiations with Iran and Russia, and rejoin the Paris treaty, which is crucial to the prospects for this year’s climate change conference in Glasgow.
But it would be wrong to regard the past four years as an alternative reality from which we will soon emerge blinking into the sunlight. Much will not change. Like all American presidents, Mr Biden will focus on domestic issues in his early months, principally on controlling the Covid pandemic while trying to restore harmony and dignity to American politics. And global events won’t let up. China dominates the foreign policy agenda in Washington DC as never before.
The incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has prioritised US solidarity with allies standing up to Chinese bullying of neighbours in the Asia Pacific region. Examples of this recently have been China’s clampdown in Hong Kong and its punitive sanctions against Australia in retaliation for that country doing no more than protecting their own interests.
Meanwhile, the Biden team is deeply unhappy that the EU rushed through a new investment agreement with Beijing late last month. Might President Biden or a future president take at face value EU talk of ‘strategic autonomy’ outside of the traditional Nato umbrella, and leave them, and us in Britain, to handle the threats to European security ourselves?
As Mr Trump’s first defence secretary, Jim Mattis, put it, Americans cannot care more than Europeans about European security. Despite repeated demands from Washington, the EU’s defence expenditure is only half Britain’s rate and a third of America’s, fragmented across 27 countries, despite an ever-growing threat in our own neighbourhood from Russia and instability to Europe’s south and east. We need our continental partners to invest more in effective security and defence.
My views about how to deal with Putin’s Russia were reinforced by my experience of the Salisbury poisoning. From the beginning we treated it as a terrorist attack, and moved with an unprecedented speed once it became clear it was a Russian state action.
We slapped targeted financial sanctions on Russians close to Putin, and expelled the 23 agents we knew to be working covertly in London for their foreign military intelligence agency, the GRU – sending a signal to Moscow that we knew what they were up to and that they weren’t as good as they thought at hiding it.
I also made a point of meeting my counterpart in the Kremlin to reinforce face to face the message that there could be no repeat of that attack, and certainly not on British territory. When you confront, you must also communicate.
We must be ever vigilant about Russia, even as its economic power diminishes, but the challenge of China is of a different order. Bluntly, the West needs to find a better path than lurching between ‘Project Kowtow’ and the ‘Evil Empire’, between conciliating China and confronting them.
The arguments for a hardline approach have certainly strengthened as the uber-confident President Xi has launched the Belt and Road Initiative to extend Chinese influence worldwide, asserted China’s ‘core interests’ to bully their neighbourhood, cracked down at home and exploited the Covid crisis.
Meanwhile, as the 21st century’s workshop of the world, the Chinese economy is the engine of global economic growth, with Chinese companies competing both above and below the belt, investing more in both research and development and industrial espionage than any competitor.
Before I worked in Downing Street, I served in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember an incident in the 1990s in Iraq when I was part of a team searching for evidence of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons at one of the presidential palaces.
A fervent young guard thrust a gun in my face with a shaking hand. What scared me most in that moment was how scared and inexperienced he was. I felt he might shoot me even without intending to do so. That thought has never left me; that it is possible to blunder into conflict through fear and misunderstanding, rather than as part of an evil-doer’s grand plan.
Diplomacy isn’t just about talking to your friends. We need a consistent, coherent and comprehensive allied consensus in a new relationship with China. We must contest their behaviour when it disrupts global security, breaks international trade rules, breaches our own anti-slavery measures – particularly in relation to goods we believe have been made by forced Uighur labour – or violates the human rights of the people of Hong Kong.
But we must also cooperate with them on climate change and the other big environmental challenges. And we must ensure our companies can compete fairly in their markets as we allow theirs to compete in ours.
You could call it détente, but with Chinese characteristics.
Our timely leadership of the G7 gives the UK the opportunity to shape a new consensus. For all the talk of growing Chinese hegemony, we must not forget that America, Britain, and the EU, allied with other advanced democracies such as Japan, Canada, South Korea and Australia, still account for two-thirds of the global economy. And our values are shared by people across the world.
The key is for the western democracies to put the frictions of the past few years behind us, remember that what unites us far outweighs our differences, and recognise that if we present a united front we can ensure our values and interests prevail in the 21st century just as they did in the 20th.
With Brexit accomplished and the Biden administration ready to re-engage, this is the moment for ‘Global Britain’ to step up to that challenge.