Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1978 Jun 23 Fr
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Les Grandes Conferences Catholiques ("The Sinews of Foreign Policy")

Document type: speeches
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Brussels
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: The press release (846/78) was embargoed until 1930 UK time. In working through the speaking text MT made stylistic changes to the text released to the press. Annotations to the speaking text show where television filming was due to begin and end (see editorial notes in text). The Times published the press release in full (24 June 1978). A section of the text has been checked against BBC Radio News Report 0700 24 June 1978 (see editorial notes in text).
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4102
Themes: Civil liberties, Commonwealth (Rhodesia-Zimbabwe), Commonwealth (South Africa), Conservatism, Defence (general), Trade, European Union (general), Foreign policy (general discussions), Foreign policy (Africa), Foreign policy (Americas excluding USA), Foreign policy (Asia), Foreign policy (development, aid, etc), Foreign policy (International organizations), Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Foreign policy (Western Europe - non-EU), Religion & morality



It is an honour as well as a great pleasure to follow today the many people of distinction who have spoken in this series of lectures. The tradition of Christian thought which you uphold has decisively influenced my own political thinking and that of my Party. It has helped to shape the Europe to which we all belong. It is an essential sinew of our foreign policy in the Western World.

Recently, we in Britain watched with anxiety the invasion of Shaba. We understood that our anxiety was as nothing compared with that felt here in Belgium. [end p1]

We admired the speed and success with which the French and Belgian forces carried out their mission.

But the events in Zaire also served as one of the many warnings that both the analysis and the policies of the West may sometimes be defective.

We were caught by surprise. The invasion of Shaba and the savagery and destructiveness which accompanied it form part of a pattern which we had not anticipated. We lack a common policy towards Zaire and other countries threatened by the Soviet scramble for Africa.

We must see how to reshape our policies to meet the needs of a changing situation. [end p2]

But this in turn depends on our total view of world affairs and Europe's part in them.

Let me begin with the principles which guide our approach to foreign affairs, then consider in turn the promising signs and the worrying signs, before coming on to a number of key issues and policies.

Part 1—Principles of Foreign Policy

One of the difficulties about foreign affairs is the gap between the bland, unexceptionable but platitudinous statements usually enunciated when principles are called for AND the immense complexity, and hasty improvisation, with which policy is usually carried out. [end p3]

The difficulty is not new. A 19th century Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, one of the best we have ever had, when asked to define his policy could go no further than say that, so far as he knew, British foreign policy was “to float lazily downstream occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collision.”

That definition hardly did justice to the subtlety and wisdom of the actual policy of Salisbury. But in the 19th century, matters of foreign policy, though complicated, at least did not have to be worked out under the shadow of nuclear arms. [end p4]

A modern Prime Minister in Europe can hardly avoid realising that the decisions to which he may have to be a party will be far harder than those taken by statesmen at any previous time, [Start of first section filmed for television] which brings me to my first principle which is that as long as we have potential enemies, we must recognise that peace can only be maintained through strength. Our first duty to freedom is to defend our own.

Foreign policy and defence policy must be interlocked, the first dictating the second.

There is no case whatsoever, as has happened too often in history, for military men to dictate diplomacy. There must be political control. As the same time, foreign policy must be supported by adequate military strength and understanding. [end p5]

We are concerned to defend not only our sovereignty and that of our allies, but the way of life which enhances that sovereignty's value. In that context, and this is my second point, we have to distinguish between the 30 or so sovereign states in the world which are democracies and the 20 or so which are not.

It is true that none of our democracies are perfect. Most of our time and effort as democratic politicians is spent on trying to improve them.

But we have nothing to apologise for when dealing with the despotisms which seem to threaten us in Europe and elsewhere. [end p6]

Here in the western community of democratic nations war between us has been renounced as an instrument of foreign policy. Not so the Communist states. Democracies in the 20th century have never been engaged against each other in warfare in any major way. [Manuscript addition by MT] In the First World War, remember that we (Britain and Belgium) were fighting authoritarian monarchies; in the Second, Nazi and Fascist tyrannies. [Typescript resumes:] To reduce the risk of war therefore we must work for steady progress towards more democracies. With the advancing tide of democracy, the risk of war recedes. If the tide of democracy recedes, the risk of war advances. End of first section filmed for television.

Of course, we have to have relations with a great many countries which are not democracies:

—Our antipathy to communism will not diminish our efforts to reach whatever understanding we can with Russia and other communist states. [end p7]

—It would be naive to suppose that many African states will move very far, very quickly towards democratic government. But that is no reason for slackening our endeavours to help them achieve the prosperity and quality of life needed to underpin national political stability.

But we should never hesitate to proclaim that democracies are morally superior to all states which are subject to tyrannical governments. [end p8]

The third principle is that foreign policy commitments are not to be made and unmade at will. We are bound by past commitments. We have a respect for past contracts, both as governments and as ordinary citizens. We cannot expect others to keep their word to us unless we keep our word to them. When Chancellor Bethman Hollweg of Imperial Germany tore up the guarantee of Belgium's neutrality in 1914, dismissing it as a scrap of paper, he was tearing up something far more important than he seems to have known.

Continuity does not of course stop the evolution of policy nor the proper renegotiation of commitments in the light of changing circumstances. [end p9]

Fourth, although some foreign policy will be a matter of dealing with new situations as they arise, we should have a picture of the world as we would like to see it in twenty five years time, and try to work realistically and patiently towards it.

Of course, we may be diverted, but I think that we have suffered in the last few years by not thinking enough about, for example, the sort of Europe which we should like to see at the end of the century or the kind of relationship which Africans and Europeans should develop.

We sometimes seem all too like Plutarch 's description of the population of Syracuse in the days of the tyrant Dion when he said: “They had forgotten they were able to make things happen around them rather than always wait for things to happen to them” . [end p10]

The fifth point is simply the need for information and its intelligent interpretation. Again, referring to the last century, it was doubtless possible for some European statesmen to affect a lordly ignorance about the rest of the world. Today, largely due to the revolution in communications and a growing interdependence, nobody can afford to ignore even minor political trends in other parts of the world.

What at first sight may appear to be an innocuous minority movement in any country or continent can suddenly become a focus for international passions, propaganda or exploitation; as for example with Cuba at the time when Castro came to power. Or Angola after the Portuguese withdrawal. [end p11]

We now know that the Russians and Cubans achieved a decisive victory for the Marxist faction there in Angola. Some Western leaders then believed that the Cuban involvement in Africa would stop. But what did we see? We saw the Cuban action repeated in Ethiopia, probably Zaire and they may have designs on Rhodesia and Namibia.

We must be careful not to choose the interpretation of the facts which arises only from our previous experience. We must approach them with a more open mind, and take into account any new context which may have arisen.

As Robert Conquest has said: [end p12]

“The chief problem today …   . lies in the relationship between our own political culture and ones quite alien to us, with their own history, attitudes, motivations: and the main danger is of applying our own assumptions to quite different mentalities and thus finding ourselves radically misunderstanding the world and conducting policies founded on fantasy.”

My sixth point is that the national character of a people may give a nation historic goals which persist through changing political ideologies.

Russian imperialism, for example, was not born in 1917. The history of Russia since the fifteenth century has shown a constant drive to accumulate territory and influence beyond her frontiers. [end p13]

The revolution and civil war barely interrupted this process. Russia was expansionist before, she is expansionist still. [end p14]

Part 2. Promising Signs

Because any review of foreign policy must of necessity identify the most urgent problems, the picture tends to seem gloomy. Good news is no news. But in fact there are many encouraging signs.

First, the heroic actions of a number of Russian dissidents over the past few years have brought home to us and to some Iron Curtain countries how deepseated is the desire for liberty and how much can be achieved through resolve, courage and ideals. [end p15]

Solzhenitsyn could not be ignored, nor could his quiet disappearance be arranged. In some ways the pen is still mightier than the sword. Then we have seen a growing realisation by China of the threat that Russia poses to them as well as to us. Indeed, the Chinese criticisms of Russia have been even stronger than some of our western ones. [Beginning of section checked against BBC Radio News Report 0700 24 June 1978:] China is, of course, very far from being a member of the golden club of democracies. In philosophical terms, we're as different from her as we are from Russia. But we can recognise that China is not an expansionist power like Russia and she doesn't pose a threat to us. So our present friendship with China can have only beneficial consequences, both for our people, and hers. End of section checked against BBC Radio News Report 0700 24 June 1978. [end p16]

Another good sign over the last year or so has been the political evolution in three Southern European countries, Spain, Portugal and Greece, which, five years ago, still had tough dictatorships. The transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain and Portugal in particular is one of the few really encouraging things which have occurred.

Again we should not forget that many Third World countries are sympathetic towards the West. In so far as they trade with us and make use of our education, technology and culture, they absorb the customs of political democracy. [end p17]

Democracy depends on private enterprise as well as on the ballot box and countries which have the first are more likely to be able to move towards the second. Free enterprise has historically usually preceded freedom, and political freedom has never long survived the end of free enterprise.

Next, among favourable signs, we should not forget that Western technology remains much more inventive than that of the communist bloc. We may be bad sometimes at following up our own good ideas, bad at keeping secrets, but, looking back over the last generation, it has been Western inventiveness which has shaped the pattern of industrial advance. [end p18]

Finally in the West we have a closer alliance than has ever been achieved between sovereign states in time of peace. In NATO and the European community, we have forged new associations between old enemies which have transformed the nature of European politics. [end p19]

Part 3.: Worrying Signs

Against the background of these encouraging developments we can identify set-backs and dangers.

The Soviet Threat

First, although we have been the most economically successful countries the world has ever seen, we are not spending enough on defence in relation to the threat we face. Russia has established the largest armoury the world has ever seen, able to challenge the West increasingly by land, sea and air in every part of the world.

Not only does the Soviet Union maintain this vast armament, it maintains it on the basis of an economy incomparably weaker than those of the democracies. Western Europe alone more than matches the GNP of the entire Soviet bloc. [end p20]

Further, although in the West we have the liberties of which I spoke, we have less of a spirit of resolve, and less of a sense of mission than we used to—less than the communist countries, which openly boast of their desire to establish their own narrow and tyrannical system throughout the world.

Perhaps the poet Yeats put it best when he said: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’

I do not believe that this feeling will endure, but it is a weakness we must face and cure. [end p21]


When we look at what is happening in the European Community, we find that some of the hopes we have always had for Europe's future are not being fulfilled.

The idea of European unity is a grand concept. But the cause of unity is surely not advanced by hundreds of petty internal regulations, such as on the content of ice cream or the activities of doorstep salesmen.

Moreover, we need far better machinery for ensuring that Community decisions in matters of trade and finance are in harmony with our European political interests, for example, as they affect Turkey, Yugoslavia, Australia or New Zealand. [end p22]

To us in Europe these Community decisions may seem detailed economic matters about levies, tariffs and quotas, to be settled as best we can to suit the economic interests of European producers. But these decisions affect, often substantially, the ability of some of our friends overseas to continue as our friends.

We have created an instrument but not yet learned how to use it in our own vital interests.

The Commission and the Council of Ministers need to be more farsighted, more political in their approach. The Soviet Union would not dream of taking such decisions on technical grounds only. [end p23]

Perhaps this would be the point to sound a warning about the trend to increased protectionism. This would harm economic growth and political stability in the West and the underdeveloped countries alike.


While we in Europe have our problems, the United States has been through a difficult period in her great history.

The experiences of Vietnam, the traumas of Watergate, the open discussion about the activities of the CIA, have meant that our predominant ally has been through an understandable period of doubt and introspection. [end p24]

But we should be encouraged by what President Carter said at Annapolis. We should applaud every evidence that the United States, having taken risks and suffered tragedies which we did not share, is still determined to play a positive and imaginative part in the world. [end p25]

Part 4: Some Key Issues

I want, in the last part of my talk, to discuss some of the major problems that we face and how we should approach them.

Defence and the Community

Defence must be our first consideration. As we have seen in Britain and elsewhere, there are always politicians ready to neglect defence in favour of other expenditure which is more immediately rewarding and which they suppose will therefore be more popular.

I believe that such politicians underestimate those whom they represent. [end p26] Start of second section filmed for television.

Our people are ready to accept the need for stronger defences because they see these defences not as a provocation likely to lead to war but as a necessary condition for peace between East and West. The motorist who fastens his safety belt cannot be accused of trying to provoke a crash. It is not firmness but feebleness on the part of the West which could put a question-mark over the chances of a peaceful world for our children. End of second section filmed for television.

Peace is not best secured by pretending that all is well when it is not, by saying that Soviet leaders are other than they are, and that their aims and practices are quite different from what we know them to be. [end p27]

The NATO Alliance will always be our best source of security. Indeed the United States, who will remain the foremost member of that alliance, has taken the lead in increasing her own contribution to our joint defences. [end p28]

But should we not also recall that we have in Brussels the headquarters of two great organisations, the EEC and NATO, both concerned with the protection and prosperity of Western Europe but which have little to say to one another. Can that be right?

I understand the difficulties—the membership of the two organisations is not identical, though overlapping. The position of France must be respected, the Treaty of Rome does not cover foreign policy or defence.

The friendship of Turkey, for example, is crucial to the West. She has an association agreement with the EEC which needs revising. She might one day become a full member. She is a member of NATO, and it is vital that she remains so. Should not these things be considered together? [end p29]

The expansion of the Community, to include Spain and Portugal might cause certain constitutional problems, but from a defence, as well as a political, point of view their entry seems a very different matter. It is essential. Yet who is there in the EEC deliberations to speak up for defence?

I feel no assurance that all these connected matters are being looked at together. Where there is so much at stake we cannot tolerate confusion of purpose in the West. [end p30]

East/West Relations

I said earlier that the West should take every opportunity of realistic debate and negotiation with the Soviet Union. I hope that the contacts which exist will in time become more fruitful. As I said publicly in Peking last year, we should continue day by day dealings with the Soviet Union and the search for balanced agreements which are of genuine advantage to both sides.

But among ourselves we should be realistic about the conditions of success. The main condition is clear enough. We shall not reach lasting understandings with the Soviet Union until she realises that the West is capable of coherent and resolute protection of its own interests. It is precisely because we wish to avoid confrontation that we need to strengthen our policies. [end p31]

To that end, we must see our relationships with the Soviet Union as a whole. The supply by the West of credit, grain, and technology; the negotiation of different aspects of security and disarmament; Soviet and satellite activities in Africa, Asia and the Pacific—these are all features of one landscape.

Unless we learn, as the Soviet Union has learnt, to look at the landscape as a whole we shall be consistently out-manoeuvred. [end p32]

Human Rights

Our relationship with the Soviet Union cannot be separated from the issue of human rights.

Respect for human rights is the foundation of our democratic way of life.

So accustomed are we to this thought that we regard as normal in our countries a degree of respect for human rights which is unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Among the world's sovereign states authoritarian regimes are easier to find than democracies and among the authoritarian regimes there is an immense variety of attitudes towards the rights of the individual. [end p33]

For example, a characteristic of marxist states is the depth and thoroughness of the control exercised over their subjects.

They aim to govern thought and faith as well as action. They regard no belief as private, no emotion beyond their reach, whether about this world or the next, the past or the present.

I have previously mentioned Russian dissidents,—the heroic actions of a number of Russian dissidents, like Yuri Orlov, have brought home to us yet again the real nature of the Soviet regime in this post-Stalinist age. Even the Communist parties of Western Europe have criticised it. [end p34]

There is of course a connection between this thoroughness of control and the long life of these regimes.

We have seen this recently in Europe. Six years ago alongside the Marxist authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe there were three other dictatorships, in Spain, Greece and Portugal. It is no coincidence that all the Marxist regimes remain, while the others have vanished and have given way to democracy. The former rely not only on military support from the Soviet Union but also on a much more pervasive system of controls.

We must be free from double standards. We must not blind ourselves to contempt for human rights wherever it occurs. [end p35]

The name of Steve Biko is well known as a man who died in the custody of the South African police and there are numerous accounts of prisoners' sufferings in Chile and Uganda.

But why is the United Nations not examining the atrocities in Cambodia and Ethiopia and the prison camps of Cuba, which no outsiders from the Red Cross or Amnesty International have ever seen?

Africa and the Third World

Any discussion of human rights takes us naturally to consider some of the problems of Africa. [end p36]

Peace and prosperity in the world in, the future will be influenced by our ability to solve the problems of Southern Africa. In this, we in the West have a constructive part to play, for we and the countries of the African continent are deeply interdependent.

To ensure her future prosperity Africa needs to develop her raw materials and expand her trade; we need both to maintain our standard of living and our way of life.

I believe that there is not only much good-will towards us but a greater understanding in many countries in Africa of the value to them of trade, technical assistance and investment from the West. [end p37]

In particular, some of them recognise the need to keep in their countries the Europeans whose skills and technology have contributed so much to their economic advance and who are so important to their future.

This is all in marked contrast to the destructive Soviet and Cuban military intervention in Africa and their complete failure to provide any economic assistance.

Let me take Rhodesia as an example of a problem in which we need Western and African understanding. [end p38]

The history of Rhodesia is unique because it has never been under direct rule from Westminster. We have had responsibility with only tenuous power over the years.

In spite of this, the world looks to us even at this late hour to take the lead in helping black and white Rhodesians to reach peaceful independence based on majority rule.

It is an African and Western interest to see a successful settlement. It is a Soviet and Cuban interest to see failure. [end p39]

But what needs to be recognised by all who seek peace is that the fundamental principle of majority rule was conceded in 1976 after Mr Smith 's discussions with Dr Kissinger. The objective of the Executive Council and the four parties to the Salisbury Agreement is to see this principle of majority rule fulfilled. After all, it is black and white Rhodesians who have to live with each other in an independent Rhodesia and it is they who have reached their own internal settlement in Salisbury.

Black Africans in Rhodesia fully acknowledge that the prosperity of their country depends largely upon the willingness of the whites to stay in that country. It is therefore the views of black and white Rhodesians that really matter. [end p40]

Here we have the foundations of a lasting settlement. It is a tender plant but one which we must do everything in our power to nourish. Failure to do so will encourage those who believe that they can achieve their objectives only by violence.

Time is running out, but we must do everything in our power to help the Rhodesians to hold free and fair elections by the end of 1978 and to end racial discrimination. And the Patriotic Front must realise that it is in their best interests and those of their country to stop fighting and to participate in these elections. [end p41]

A peaceful solution in Rhodesia would also serve as an encouraging example to South Africa in tackling her own racial problems. [end p42]


My theme today has been the need for resolution.

Resolution to face, not shy away from the opportunities, as well as the risks, of a troubled world.

Resolution to see international problems as they are and not as we would like them to be, nor as they seemed to be a year, or a decade ago.

Resolution to keep our friendships in Europe and across the Atlantic, as Dr Johnson put it, ‘in good repair’. [end p43]

To falter would be to break faith with our heritage.

In the past, Europeans have carried free commerce, scientific discovery, the Rule of Law, and democracy itself to the ends of the earth.

But we are more than just an economic or cultural entity, we are a spiritual force or we are nothing. For hundreds of years our story has been bound up with Christianity. It is our taproot to the history of civilisation and our link with the future. From it springs our belief in the essential dignity of man and his right to decide his own destiny; our belief in liberty, responsibility, duty and justice. [end p44]

Together let us resolve to work for these things, fight for them, live for them.