Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

HC S: [East-West Relations]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [977/933-45]
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4298
Themes: Civil liberties, Defence (general), Defence (arms control), Trade, European Union (general), Foreign policy (Asia), Foreign policy (International organizations), Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Sport
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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jopling.]

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

Last autumn I expressed the view that the West would have to face in the next few years challenges and dangers more testing than any it had faced in the 1960s or 1970s. I called the 'eighties “the dangerous decade” , but the first challenge has come sooner than many expected.

We face a grave development in East-West relations. Abroad, the Soviet Union has shown that it is prepared to use force to impose its will on a small neighbouring country. At home, by arresting and exiling Professor Sakharov, it has shown once again that it will not tolerate dissent within its own borders.

The Soviet Government's actions reveal a brutal disregard for accepted rules of international behaviour, for world public opinion, and for the principles laid down in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—an agreement signed by President Brezhnev himself.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Does not the right hon. Lady recognise that the failure of the Attorney-General to prosecute the oil companies for their breaches of international sanctions and the reluctance to have an inquiry into how this House was misled have stripped the right hon. Lady of any right and authority to moralise on upholding the rule of international law?

The Prime Minister

As the hon. Member knows, anything to do with Sir Michael Haversthe Attorney-General must be raised with the Attorney-General.

I pick up the thread of my argument where I left off. I was referring to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—an agreement that was signed by President Brezhnev himself.

The development in East-West relations, the invasion of Afghanistan and the arrest and exile of Professor Sakharov follow a decade of detente which some people thought would make such crises impossible. [column 934]

“Detente” is an imprecise word. It reflects the common interest of all mankind to avoid a nuclear holocaust, which could come from military conflict between East and West.

For 10 years and more the West has built on that feeling to try to reach mutually beneficial East-West agreements on arms control, on Berlin and on Germany. East-West trade has grown, too. So have human contacts between the two sides.

Optimists in the West believed that this process would educate the Soviet Union about the outside world. They hoped that wider contacts and increasing prosperity would soften the harshness of the Soviet political system. They hoped that the Soviets would behave more moderately in the Third world, in Europe and in their relationship with the United States.

The Russians have a different interpretation of detente. For them, the word has meant the preservation of their security at the same time as they have enjoyed access to Western foodstuffs and technology on easy terms, and the chance to extend, by overt and covert means, their influence and political control wherever opportunity offered. They have proclaimed an unrelenting ideological hostility to all our ways, traditions, and institutions. They have meddled in our affairs at every turn, while angrily rejecting the thought that they should conduct their domestic affairs in a civilised and democratic manner. They have persecuted those of their citizens who have dared to think and speak for themselves. They have built up their armed forces far beyond their defensive needs.

In recent years they have gone further. They have instigated Cuba to intervene in Angola and Ethiopia on their behalf. They have provided arms, military advisers and financial support to the Marxist forces of subversion in the Third world—notably in the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East. They have worked directly and indirectly against Western interests wherever they could. They have claimed repeatedly that all this is compatible with the rules of detente as they define them.

Regrettably, many people in the West have been prepared to overlook these breaches of the rules in the hope that, with time, the Russians would come to behave more responsibly. [column 935]

The invasion of Afghanistan and the exile of Professor Sakharov leave no room for illusion. They seriously weaken the basis for the fruitful conduct of East-West relations. They are deliberate acts of policy by the Soviet Government.

Afghanistan is a symbol and a warning. It is not just a far distant country, which we can ignore because we face no local crisis in Europe.

This is not the first time that the Russians have used force to invade a neighbour, used it massively, swiftly and callously in a pattern that bears the Soviet hallmark. It is not the first time that they have claimed to have been invited in by a Government who, on closer inspection, turned out not to exist, or whose leaders they subsequently killed. But it is the first time since the world war that they have sent tens of thousands of soldiers, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, into a country outside the Warsaw Pact; an Islamic country, a member of the non-aligned movement, and a country that posed no conceivable threat to their country or their interests.

Who are the Russians fighting against? The newspapers call them “the rebels” .

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

This is a very important point. I should like to know what is the difference in principle between the situation that the right hon. Lady has described—of the Soviet Union's attack on Afghanistan—and that, for example, of the United States on Cambodia during the course of the Vietnam war.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman knows that the Vietnam war arose because the Geneva treaty was not honoured over a decade, and that the United States went in to try to protect South Vietnam against North Vietnam and Communism. But that was after the Geneva treaty. The two are totally and utterly different.

I was talking about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and asking against whom the Russians were fighting. I was pointing out that the newspapers called them “rebels” . It is a strange word to me of people who are fighting to defend their own country against a foreign invader. Surely they are genuine freedom fighters, fighting to free their country from an alien oppressor. [column 936]

Commentators speculate about the motives of the Soviet Union in moving into Afghanistan. It is argued that the invasion is a confession of Soviet weakness; and it reflects a defensive mentality; or that it flows from a fear of encirclement. But we cannot know the motives of the Russians for certain. What we know is what they have done.

The Soviet Union has driven a wedge into the heart of the Muslim world. If its hold on Afghanistan is consolidated, the Soviet Union will, in effect, have vastly extended its borders with Iran, will have acquired a border more than 1,000 miles long with Pakistan, and will have advanced to within 300 miles of the Straits of Hormuz, which control the Persian Gulf. These are the facts. They are a cause for alarm both to the countries of the region and to ourselves.

West of Afghanistan, Iran is now, more than ever, in the front line. The Soviet Union says that its intentions towards that country are benevolent, but who can believe them. After all, the Russians claim that the treaty that they signed with Persia in 1921 is still valid. That treaty says, among other things, that

“if a Third Party should attempt … to use Persian territory as a base for operations against Russia … Russia shall have the right to advance her troops into the Persian interior.”

I need hardly comment on the implications of such a text.

The revolution in Iran has stirred up feelings for ethnic autonomy among the Kurds, the Azerbaijanis, the Baluchis and many other ethnic groups. It has fostered ideological dispute, and it has led to differences even among the religious leaders themselves. The temptation to the Russians is apparent. There are signs that the Iranians themselves are increasingly aware of the danger.

At this point, I should like to say a word about the American hostages. We in this country respect the right of peoples to choose their own regimes and Governments. We wish the Iranians well in their search for the political system best suited to their needs. We hope that they will emerge from their present difficulties united.

The election of Mr. Bani-Sadr as the first President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, if confirmed, is an important new development. Our embassy in Tehran has previously had contacts with Mr. [column 937]Bani-Sadr in his capacity as Minister both of Finance and Economic Affairs and of Foreign Affairs. We hope that the continued detention of the United States hostages will be one of the first problems to which he devotes his efforts.

The hostages must be released. We admire and applaud the restraint that President Carter has shown in pursuit of this goal. We support him and shall co-operate in every way with policies that will contribute to the release of the hostages. In doing so, we shall bear in mind the situation in the region as a whole.

The Russians would be only too willing to pose as protectors of the Iranian revolution, or as the restorers of order in the country. We shall want both to avoid giving them any opportunity to do so and to make clear the consequences if they tried.

We shall need to be similarly clear about the importance that we attach to Afghanistan's eastern neighbour, Pakistan. The Soviet invasion has driven many Afghan people over the border into Pakistan. There are already half a million refugees in the country, and the number is expected to grow rapidly. These people will be resentful and aggrieved. They come in large part from tribes that in any case span the border of the two countries. The threat to stability is only too obvious, and President Zia 's concern only too well justified.

It is a concern that is shared by China and India. Premier Hua told us last year how seriously the Chinese regarded Soviet global ambitions, of which they saw Soviet activities in Afghanistan as a significant part. Mrs. Gandhi has said that the Russian presence in Afghanistan has increased tension and moved danger closer to the Indian border. This, I stress, has not happened because of rivalry between the super-Powers. The Russians are the only super-Power with massive ground forces in the area.

I hope that recognition of this fact will lead to the development of a better understanding between Pakistan and India.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Can the Prime Minister give an assurance that, whatever may be the short-term [column 938]pressures, efforts to help the London group of nations to deny Pakistan the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons will go unabated?

The Prime Minister

I know that the hon. Gentleman is pursuing a cause that he has pursued for a long time. We naturally do not wish Pakistan to obtain nuclear weapons. I should like to make that clear.

We were talking about a better understanding between Pakistan and India, which is vital to the future of the whole region. The threat from Afghanistan to her neighbours to west and east is plain and direct. The threat to the south is every bit as dangerous. From southern Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz is but a short distance. I do not need to stress the importance to the West of the States bordering the Gulf.

The oil that they produce is the life blood of Western industrial societies. The Straits of Hormuz are the artery through which it flows. If that flow were abruptly stopped in the years immediately ahead their would be real doubt whether our societies could survive in their present form. The threat is the more compelling when one recalls the control that the Russians can exercise over the entrance to the Red Sea through their client States in South Yemen and Ethiopia.

Of course, we cannot prove that the Soviet invasion is part of a deliberate drive to the Gulf, but we can point to the fact that in a few days the Russians have advanced 500 miles towards it, and, again to the fact that throughout the Third world they have worked consistently and patiently against Western interests when ever opportunity offered. To some, at least, the implications of their presence in Afghanistan are clear.

In this new situation, the nations of the free world must be resolute and united. We must bring home to the Russians how badly they underestimated the cost to themselves of the invasion and how serious would be the consequences should they try the same thing again. If we are to continue the painful attempt to build a safer world—as we would wish to do—the Soviet Government must abide by the normal standards of international conduct.

The Soviet action is an affront not only to the West but to the members of the [column 939]non-aligned movement, to which Afghanistan belongs. In the United Nations General Assembly earlier this month, 104 countries, most of them members of the non-aligned movement, condemned the Soviet Government.

Seldom has a great power been censured so publicly, so rapidly and so comprehensively. Russia's claim to be a champion of the developing world has been shattered. The Soviet proxy, Cuba, currently chairman of the non-aligned movement, was forced to withdraw as a candidate for the Security Council when support for her evaporated in the wake of the invasion. The truth is that the Soviet Union has had little to offer the Third world but weapons and dogma.

Such economic aid as they have given has always had ulterior motives. It is noteworthy that in 1954 Afghanistan was the first recipient of Soviet aid. Soviet tanks cross Afghanistan on roads built with Soviet money. Their aircraft land on airfields similarly financed. That is hardly aid without strings.

The countries of the Third world are awakening to the realities of Soviet foreign policy. They are recognising that Soviet ambitions are incompatible with their wish to determine their own destinies. But it is not for us to tell them how to carry forward the work begun in the General Assembly. We shall, of course, help if asked to do so, but, in the first instance, they themselves must develop effective answers to the threat of subversion in their own countries. Resistance to infection requires awareness and effort from the potential victim.

We in the West have our own response to consider. A number of immediate measures have already been taken. President Carter, in a move of great political courage, has banned further supplies of American grain to Russia. He has cut back on the supply of high technology, and reduced official contacts in a number of ways. He has said that the Olympic Games should be moved from Moscow, postponed, or cancelled if the Soviet troops have not left Afghanistan within 1 month. Both Congress and the United States Olympic committee have supported him.

The British Government have also responded. We have stopped aid to Afghanistan and have withheld recognition [column 940]from the new regime in Kabul. We initiated consultations in NATO and in the European Community. My right hon. Friend Lord Carringtonthe Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has visited the countries of the region and described in another place the talks that he had and the conclusions that he drew. We shall be reviewing our aid plans for Pakistan. We and our partners will do what is in our power to improve stability in the Gulf and to reassure our other friends in the Arabian peninsula.

Mr. Eric. S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Will the right hon. Lady explain a little more what she means by “reviewing” our aid plans for Pakistan? Does that mean that we shall be reviewing the whole policy of military aid to Pakistan? Does that mean that we shall possibly be creating a worse situation between Pakistan and India? The right hon. Lady has appealed for the two countries to get together. Aid to Pakistan of that kind cannot possibly help relations between India and Pakistan.

The Prime Minister

I meant exactly what I said; we shall be reviewing aid to Pakistan, and we shall of course be reviewing the military situation, for the reason which most people fully understand, that Pakistan is now right in the front line.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Answer the question.

The Prime Minister

I have answered the question. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not, or refuses to, understand it.

We shall also be developing our relations with China and we shall develop our co-operation with our Turkish allies.

We have announced the measures that we shall be taking with regard to the Soviet Union itself; measures to cut back political and official contacts, to cancel military exchanges, to refuse renewal of the Anglo-Soviet credit agreement which expires next month, and, in consultation with our allies, to tighten the rules governing the supply of high technology.

The House is already aware of the Government's concern at the prospect of the Olympic Games taking place in Moscow this summer. The Soviet Government hope, as another Government did in 1936, that the Games will give an [column 941]immense boost to the State's prestige internationally and to its own prestige domestically. In any circumstances the Olympics in Moscow would have been a political event, but to attend the Games now would be to give aid and encouragement to the Soviet Government in the immediate aftermath of its invasion of an independent country and its arrest and exile of one of the country's most distinguished citizens.

Of course I sympathise with the athletes who have trained so hard for so long, but surely Sebastian Coe is right to say:

“Athletes cannot have their heads in the sand. They cannot say, ‘I am a runner and, while I sympathise with the people of Afghanistan, that is not my problem.’”

The solution is to move the Games to a place or places where politics do not predominate.

Mr. Heffer

Where is that—on the moon?

The Prime Minister

This is a move that commands great support from many parts of the House. In response to the Government's request the chairman of the British Olympic Association has agreed to propose this to the International Olympic Committee. In the light of their decision, the Government will consider further what advice—it could only be advice—we should give.

The actions already announced by the Government will have effects stretching well into the future. It is important that we and our allies should persist in our efforts. We must not give the impression that our indignation is synthetic or short-lived. The most persuasive evidence of our determination will be our willingness to sustain our unity and defence effort. The House will know from last week's defence debate that the Government are resolved to do so. Alliance Governments recently decided to increase their defence expenditure in the years ahead. They have decided to modernise NATO's long-range theatre nuclear weapons. They must now demonstrate that they can carry out those decisions.

The new measures that the West has taken, or will take, do not imply that there can or should be a complete break with the past. The business of East-West [column 942]relations must go on. We have to live in the same world.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

The Prime Minister continually refers to “the West” . Is she claiming that there is a unanimity of view, for example, among the United Kingdom, France and West Germany?

The Prime Minister

I am coming on to deal with the West as Europe and as the larger definition of the Western alliance. I have just come to the point—having analysed the position of Russia in what she has done in her invasion of Afghanistan and defined what we have done—of saying that, nevertheless, we must continue to exist in the same world, and that therefore the business of East-West relations must go on.

There are, for example, a number of arms control negotiations in which the West has a real and continuing interest. They are an integral part of our efforts to safeguard the nation's security. We do not propose to abandon them, but recent events once more call Soviet good faith into question and cast a shadow over the prospects for early progress. President Carter had no choice but to defer the ratification of the SALT II treaty but we hope that the treaty will be ratified in due course.

We will persist with our effort to initiate negotiations with the Soviet Union about theatre nuclear forces in Europe. Although it rejected the recent American offer, that offer remains on the table. We will pursue the negotiations in Vienna on mutual and balanced force reductions. Here also the alliance took a new initiative last month. We will carry on the negotiations for a comprehensive test ban. We will continue preparations for the meeting in Madrid in November about the next stage in the process begin at Helsinki, although of course much will depend on Soviet actions meanwhile.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend because I know that the House is listening with great attention and is welcoming the firm line that she is laying down particularly what she is saying about not letting up in our efforts to achieve agreed multilateral disarmament. However, will she take this opportunity, against the background of the forthcoming defence White Paper, to emphasise that this [column 943]would be the worst possible moment for this country to set an example to our allies by making any unilateral cuts in defence spending?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, we had a debate on defence last week. I hope that it is clear from that debate and from other statements that the Government are resolved to play their full part in NATO and to increase their expenditure by 3 per cent. over the outturn this year.

The West's efforts, whether in defence or in negotiations, can be effective only if we are united. Here I come to the point raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). We and our partners in Europe came together in the Community above all for political reasons. A greater ability to resist external pressure was not the least of those reasons. That shared interest lies behind the common action that the Community aims to develop in response to the crisis, in its relations with the Gulf, with Yugoslavia and with Pakistan. The Soviet Government doubtless think that they can detect differences among us. Indeed, some differences of emphasis are inevitable when a free association of nations deliberates on a problem of this magnitude, but the Soviet Government should pause before they conclude that debate is a sign of weakness. They would be making another miscalculation if they thought that their efforts to split us could succeed.

Nor should the Soviet Government expect to succeed in their attempt to persuade us that the interest of Europe in a sensible relationship between East and West is in some way different from that of the United States. The United States is the final guarantor of European security. It is demonstrating clear leadership, and we should back it.

I am reminded of the superb response that General de Gaulle gave to President Kennedy 's representative at the time of the Cuba missile crisis. General de Gaulle then said:

“You may tell the President that France will support him” .

Europe should send the same message today.

I began by speaking about the meaning of detente. If it means anything, it must mean a process whereby East and West [column 944]move away from the hostility and confrontation of the years after the Second World War. It is about the management of East-West relations, so that war is avoided while the legitimate interests of both sides are protected.

The process cannot be confined to Europe. In an interdependent and oil-hungry world the interests of East and West are affected by events everywhere. Detente is indivisible, or it is nothing. So long as the Russians refuse to accept this—so long as they go on trying to defeat the West by all means short of war—we shall do whatever is necessary to counter their policies.

We shall strengthen our relations with the whole non-Communist world. We shall look to our defences, but we shall continue to negotiate——

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)

The right hon. Lady has, not unnaturally, spent a lot of time dealing with the political and strategic aspects of response. Will she tell the House what is the Government's view of the aid aspect of response? We are battling for the hearts and minds of men and if the West responds in strategic and military terms only we shall alienate the people whom we hope to defend.

The Prime Minister

I have said that we shall be reviewing aid to Pakistan. I have pointed out that Soviet aid is in terms of military advisers and dogma only and not in terms of genuine economic aid. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Douglas) knows, our record in aid still compares favourably with most countries in the world.

I had reached the point of saying that it is absolutely necessary and vital that the unity of the West is retained. The Russians have a view of detente totally different from ours. Our view is that with security the legitimate interests of both East and West must be protected. We shall do whatever is necessary to counter Soviet policies by strengthening our relations with the whole non-Communist world, and, above all, by looking to our defences.

We shall continue to negotiate with the Soviet Union from a position of balanced strength on issues where our interests are mutual. If we are vigilant and steadfast our democratic values will outlast the [column 945]sterile dictatorship and the spurious theories of Soviet Marxism.

We can gladly take on the Soviet Union in the struggle of ideas. This is an arena where the defeat, not the victory, of Marxism is inevitable. Meanwhile, we stand ready for co-operation in a search for mutual benefit in a true detente if, one day, the Soviet Union decides genuinely to take the path of peace. The burden of proof now lies with the Soviet Union.