Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to UN General Assembly ("Disarmament with Security: Towards Peace with Freedom")

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: UN Building, New York
Source: Thatcher Archive: Foreign and Commonwealth Office pamphlet text
Editorial comments: 1050-1120. MT was addressing the 2nd UN Special Session on disarmament. A printed text was published by the Foreign Office.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2272
Themes: Defence (general), Defence (arms control), Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (International organizations), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states)

Mr President,

This is the first time I have spoken in the General Assembly. It is an honour to be here and to speak under your Presidency, Mr Kittani, and in your presence Perez de CuellarMr Secretary-General

Peace—the Purpose of Disarmament

The stated purpose of this Special Session is disarmament. The underlying and more important purpose is peace: not peace at any price. But peace with freedom and justice.

As President Roosevelt commented during the last war: ‘We, born to freedom and believing in freedom, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees’.

Leaders of countries from every part of the globe come to this Session in search of surer ways of preserving that peace. Ways that enable the peoples of each sovereign state to lead their lives as they choose within established borders.

If arms control helps us to achieve those central aims more surely and at less cost we must pursue it vigorously. But if it is carried out in a way which damages peace we must resist it, recalling that there have been occasions when the known or perceived military weakness of an opponent has been at least as potent a cause of war as military strength. The true definition of disarmament should be the balanced and verifiable reduction of armaments in a manner which enhances peace and security.

Weapons of War

Discussion on disarmament inevitably turns to the weapons of war.

Our generation faces a special responsibility, because the march of modern technology has made ever more deadly the weapons of war. We are most keenly aware of that in the case of nuclear weapons because of their terrifying destructive power which my generation has witnessed and which none of us will every forget. However alarmed we are by those weapons, we cannot disinvent them. The world cannot cancel the knowledge of how to make them. It is an irreversible fact.

Mr President, nuclear weapons must be seen as deterrents. They contribute to what Winston Churchill called ‘a balance of terror’. There would be no victor in a nuclear exchange. Indeed, to start a war among nuclear powers is not a rational option. These weapons succeed insofar as they prevent war. And for thirty-seven years nuclear weapons have kept the peace between East and West. [end p1]

That is a priceless achievement. Provided there is the will and good sense, deterrence can be maintained at substantially reduced levels of nuclear weapons.

Of course we must look for a better system of preventing war than nuclear deterrence. But to suggest that between East and West there is such a system within reach at the present time would be a perilous pretence.

For us the task is to harness the existence of nuclear weapons to the service of peace, as we have done for half a lifetime. In that task the duty of the nuclear powers is to show restraint and responsibility. The distinctive role of the non-nuclear countries, I suggest, is to recognise that proliferation of nuclear weapons cannot be the way to a safer world.

Nuclear weapons were a major concern of the 1978 Special Session; and they must remain so for us. But they may mask the facts about what we sometimes call, too comfortably, conventional weapons and conventional war. Since Nagasaki there have been no conflicts in which nuclear weapons have been used. But there have been something like 140 conflicts fought with conventional weapons, in which up to 10 million people have died.

Nuclear war is indeed a terrible threat; but conventional war is a terrible reality. If we deplore the amount of military spending in a world where so many go hungry and so much else need to be done, our criticism and our action should turn above all to conventional forces which absorb up to 90 per cent of military spending worldwide.

We are all involved—we all have conventional forces. I am convinced that we need a deeper and wider effort throughout the non-nuclear field, to see what we can do together to lighten the risks, the burdens and the fears.

Causes of War

But in a crucial sense, Mr President, we have not reached the root of the matter. For the fundamental risk to peace is not the existence of weapons of particular types. It is the disposition on the part of some states to impose change on others by resorting to force. This is where we require action [end p2] and protection. And our key need is not for promises against first use of this or that kind of military weapon—such promises can never be dependable amid the stresses of war. We need a credible assurance, if such can ever be obtained, against starting military action at all. The leaders of the North Atlantic Alliance have just given a solemn collective undertaking to precisely that effect. They said: ‘None of our weapons will ever be used except in response to attack’.

Let us face the reality. The springs of war lie in the readiness to resort to force against other nations, and not in ‘arms races’, whether real or imaginary. Aggressors do not start wars because an adversary has built up his own strength. They start wars because they believe they can gain more by going to war than by remaining at peace. Few, if any, of the 140 conflicts since 1945 can be traced to an arms race. Nor was the World War of 1939–1945 caused by any kind of arms race. On the contrary, it sprang from the belief of a tyrant that his neighbours lacked the means or the will to resist him effectively.

Let us remember what Bismarck said, some seventy years earlier: ‘Do I want war? Of course not—I want victory.’ Hitler believed he could have victory without war, or with not very much or very difficult war. The cost to humanity of disproving that belief was immense; the cost of preventing him from forming it in the first place would have been infinitely less.

The causes which have produced war in the past have not disappeared today, as we know to our cost. The lesson is that disarmament and good intentions on their own do not ensure peace.

Disarmament in Context

Mr President, there is a natural revulsion in democratic societies against war and we would much prefer to see arms build-ups prevented, by good sense or persuasion or agreement. But if that does not work, then the owners of these vast armouries must not be allowed to imagine that they could use them with impunity.

But mere words, speeches and resolutions will not prevent them. The security of our country and its friends can be ensured only by deterrence and by adequate strength—adequate when compared with that of a potential aggressor.

Mr President, I have explained why in general I do not believe that armaments cause wars and why action on them alone will not [end p3] prevent wars. It is not merely a mistaken analysis but an evasion of responsibility to suppose that we can prevent the horrors of war by focussing on its instruments. These are more often symptoms than causes.

But I have made these points not in any way to decry disarmament and arms control—I believe in them both—but to make quite clear what they can and cannot achieve. Excessive claims and demands have too often been not an aid to practical measures, but a substitute for them. Arms control alone cannot remove the possibility of war. Nevertheless the limitation and reduction of armaments can still do a great deal. They can reduce the economic burden of military preparation for legitimate self-defence. They can diminish the inhumanity of conflict. They can restrict the military use of advancing science and technology. They can ease tension between states and lessen the fears of people everywhere. To do these things, and to do them in a way that is balanced, verifiable and dependable, is worth sustained and persistent endeavour.

Disarmament in the Past

Critics too often play down what has already been done through arms control agreements, whether formal or informal. Such agreements as those on Outer Space, the Sea-Bed, Antarctica, the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the various Geneva accords over the years.

My country was among the architects of some of these successes. Although a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has not been signed and the recent review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty was unproductive, there has been no additional nuclear weapon state since 1964.

We also contributed substantially to the banning of biological and toxin weapons in 1972.

We all wish that the achievements had been greater. But to suggest that what has been done so far is insignificant, is both inaccurate and unhelpful to further progress. We have a useful foundation upon which to build. Now we must go a stage further.

Measures for the Future

In the nuclear field, the hopes of the world lie in direct talks between the United States and the Soviet Union, the countries which have by far the largest arsenals. These could be greatly reduced in a way which would not endanger security. Decisive action is needed, not just declarations or freezes. I welcome the radical proposals made by the United States for substantially cutting strategic weapons, and for eliminating a whole class of intermediate range systems (the zero option). The negotiations deserve the whole-hearted support of us all. [end p4]

We are also deeply concerned about the dangers of chemical warfare. When the world community decided in 1972 to ban the possession of biological and toxin weapons, we all looked forward to corresponding action next on chemical weapons. It has not happened. Moreover, there is reason to doubt whether every country which signed the 1972 Treaty is observing it. There have been disquieting and well-documented reports, which urgently need investigation, that chemical weapons and toxins have been used in some countries in Asia. The Committee on Disarmament needs to give renewed and determined impetus to a properly verifiable convention banning development and possession of such weapons.

I spoke earlier about the huge weight of conventional forces. The biggest concentration and confrontation of such forces anywhere in the world lies in Europe. But it is heavily weighted on the side of the Warsaw Pact. This situation is in itself a cause for concern. But there is the more fundamental question whether the Warsaw Pact can or wishes to sustain a stable relationship with the rest of the world. Do not the events in Poland and Afghanistan call this into question, the one by revealing deep disillusion within the Soviet Empire, the second by demonstrating the Soviet propensity to extend its frontiers? Both are evidence of an underlying instability. Thus, the need to secure a better balance in conventional arms becomes even more imperative.

For nine years we have pursued patiently talks in Vienna on Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions. Our diplomats involved in those talks must be the most patient of all, but they know that their work is of vital importance for peace. Fresh proposals are being made and we hope that this time we shall see some progress.

Britain would also like to see a special effort made to agree on new mandatory confidence and security-building measures in Europe. These would be a valuable complement to action in Vienna on force levels.

Through all these many negotiations there runs a critical factor—verification. How can we be sure that what it is said will be done, will be done? Where national security is at stake we cannot take agreements on trust, especially when some states are so secretive and such closed societies. Agreements which cannot be verified can be worse than useless—they can be a new source of danger, fear and mustrust. Verification is not an optional extra in disarmament and arms control. It is the heart of the matter. [end p5]

Differences over verification have often proved a stumbling block in arms control negotiations. But we note that the Soviet Union is now prepared to open part of its civil nuclear installations to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency—a step that the United Kingdom took years ago. I note also that the Soviet Union now seems ready to accept the need for systematic on-site inspection in respect of a chemical weapons treaty. We need to redouble our efforts to bridge the gaps that still remain.

Britain's record over the years in work on disarmament and arms control stands up to any comparison. We wish to do more–not by rhetoric, still less by propaganda postures, but by steady, relevant work going step by step through these difficult and complex matters. This is a long, patient and unspectacular business. There is no short cut if we are to retain security and peace. These are the considerations which I suggest the Special Session needs to have in mind in considering a Comprehensive Programme of Disarmament and in its review of progress since the First Special Session.

Mr President, the message I bring is practical and realistic. It is the message of a country determined to preserve and spread the values by which we live.

It contains nought of comfort to those who seek only a quiet life for themselves at the expense of the freedom of others, nor to those who wish to impose their will by force. Peace and security require unbroken effort. —We believe that the human values of civilisation must be defended. —We believe that international law and the United Nations Charter must be upheld. —We believe that wars are caused not by armaments but by the ambitions of aggressors and that what tempts them is the prospect of easy advantage and quick victory. —We believe that the best safeguard of peace lies not only in a just cause but in secure defence. —We believe in balanced and verifiable disarmament where it can be the servant of peace and freedom. —We believe that the purpose of nuclear weapons should be to prevent war and that this can be achieved by smaller armouries. —We believe that a balanced reduction in conventional weapons could create greater stability. —We believe we have a right and a duty to defend our own people whenever and wherever their liberty is challenged. [end p6]

Mr President, my country seeks the path of peace with freedom and justice. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his second Inaugural Address: ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right … Let us strive on to finish the work we are in …’.