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1987 Dec 7 Mo
Margaret Thatcher

Press Conference after meeting President Gorbachev (talks at Brize Norton)

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Editorial comments: Between 1420 and 1545.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4940
Themes: Civil liberties, Defence (general), Defence (arms control), Trade, Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states)

Prime Minister

Ladies and Gentlemen!

It has been a very great pleasure to meet Mr. and Mrs. Gorbachev again and to have a talk with Mr. Gorbachev, if only for two hours, on his way to what will be an historic summit in Washington. I may say the two hours went all too fast and we could have done with a lot more.

We are, of course, on the eve of the first ever agreement between the major powers to reduce and indeed eliminate certain classes of nuclear weapons and as one who has discussed the approach to this agreement with both President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev, I shall share their sense of achievement tomorrow.

My concern, therefore, in picking up my long talks with Mr. Gorbachev in Moscow at the end of March, was primarily to look forward to see how we can build on an INF agreement and to look forward in two ways:

first to see how we can develop East-West relations to secure further reductions in armaments and forces on the balance of balance and mutual confidence; and [end p1] second, to hear from Mr. Gorbachev of the progress he is making with his historic and courageous undertaking in the Soviet Union, namely petestroika, the restructuring of Soviet society to try to make the system deliver more for the Russian people. We had a very good discussion about that.

I must say, that as on previous occasions, I have had a thoroughly valuable and, of course, stimulating talk with Mr. Gorbachev and the atmosphere was very good and very warm, as we have come to expect.

We ranged widely, under the two broad headings, but also to take in human rights, where I welcomed what has been done and asked him to step up his efforts and Afghanistan, where I expressed the hope that there would be a Soviet withdrawal in 1988.

We also talked about Anglo-Soviet trade, because we signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Moscow about the scale of trade. It has not been quite lived up to yet and there are some contracts on which efforts now will be stepped up and we hope that the action that we want will be achieved.

You all know my position, as indeed does Mr. Gorbachev, as a staunch and loyal ally of the United States within NATO and in no way a go-between. That is the whole basis of our very frank but very friendly discussion, and in looking forward to the development of the arms control process I made broadly four points: [end p2]

First, I want Mr. Gorbachev 's summit with President Reagan to be a great success, and we welcome the INF agreement which they intend to sign tomorrow.

Second, I see as the next step a START agreement cutting strategic nuclear weapons by fifty percent, the elimination of chemical weapons and the establishment of a conventional balance and I think Mr. Gorbachev understood what I was saying, that I think the next steps following the INF and the fifty percent START, which I hope will come about, should be on the conventional and on the chemical side.

Next, I see no scope for further reductions in nuclear weapons in Europe until there is a balance in conventional forces and chemical weapons have been eliminated. That is really substantially the same point.

Next, as I said in Moscow on 30 March, I support SDI and I see the most promising way forward here towards a START agreement as a commitment by the United States and the USSR not to withdraw from the ABM Treaty for a number of years, together with indications by both sides of their intended research programmes. This, I hope, will build confidence between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Mr. Gorbachev, I am sure, appreciated what I had to say and I found his account, particularly of the progress of perestroika, absolutely fascinating. He is a bold, determined and courageous leader and I hope that he succeeds in his colossal task, for in doing so he will enlarge the sum of human freedom and happiness. [end p3]

The Geoffrey HoweForeign Secretary has had similarly useful and interesting talks with Mr. Shevardnadze and I am delighted to see that Mrs. Gorbachev has thoroughly enjoyed her visit to a nearby school. She talked to me a lot about it over lunch and I think she had a wonderful time, and I hope they have both had a day they will never forget.

I hope that they will soon return for a longer visit. I did mention it and I believe that Mr. Gorbachev will return for a longer visit, because we both find two hours much too short.

[end p4]

Question (BBC)

…   .a non-nuclear world. Do you share that hope and do you think it is achievable within your lifetime?

Prime Minister

No. I do not think that you can ever disinvent the knowledge of nuclear weapons. I think that if you attempted to do without some nuclear weapons you might enhance the risk of conventional war—and do not forget there are still many chemical weapons and they are very fearsome weapons—and that if conventional or chemical war ever started, the race would be on, as it was with Hitler 's war, as to who would get the nuclear weapon first, and I say to you, as I have said to many people who have put this question to me: had Hitler got the nuclear weapon first, the history of the world would have been different. He did not, fortunately, but if by lowering the guard and deterrence of nuclear weapons a conventional war were to start, the same race would be on and possibly we do not know what the result would be. The point about nuclear weapons is they deter and have so far prevented war in Europ! e.

So that is my reason and those are the reasons.


Was Mr. Gorbachev sympathetic to your view that there should be a reduction in conventional forces in Europe and did you get any hint from him that there might be some unilateral move on his part? [end p5]

Prime Minister

No. Mikhail GorbachevHe was sympathetic to the viewpoint which I was putting—that conventional weapons were also extremely important—and, of course, so are chemical weapons, and that there should be further moves on that front, and indicated that he is willing to take part in such further moves.

There is, of course, the conference in Vienna.

Question (Pravda Newspaper)

Could you please give us a very brief characterisation of British-Soviet relations at the present moment?

Prime Minister

A very brief characterisation?

I think British-Soviet relations are good. I think that they are better than they have ever been before since Mr. Gorbachev 's enunciation of perestroika and glasnost, because it is quite clear that some of the things which we believe in—greater personal initiative and personal responsibility—are also being exercised in the Soviet Union and we wish those efforts well.

When it comes to the arms control front, I think we both understand that each country has the right to defend itself and wishes to be secure in its own defences, and therefore, although trying to bring that about at a lower level of weaponry, you wish to have a balanced reduction at all levels, because balance brings the stability and security that goes with it. [end p6]

And thirdly, I think that we are living in historic times. First, because of the bold initiative within the Soviet Union, but secondly, because the treaty which is about to be signed is not only a treaty to reduce weapons and reduce nuclear weapons, but is a promise that the very cooperation, hard work, detailed work, that has enabled that to come about can also be applied further to nuclear weapons, on intercontinental ballistic missiles, then to chemical and possibly conventional. So it is an indication that where there is the will, the way will be found, and I draw great comfort from the way in which they have worked extremely hard on the verification clauses of the Intermediate Nuclear Weapon Treaty. You will be familiar with them, but they are very interesting.

It will be a new experience for both sides, as Americans in the Soviet Union and Soviets in Britain and the United States and in Germany and wherever the Cruise missiles are stationed, will come and inspect and that inspection will go on not only for the three years during which the missile part of the weapon is going to be destroyed, but also for ten years after, to see that it is being adhered to.

So there are many reasons why it is that times are much better and as I said to Mr. Gorbachev, and I do to so many politicians and so many audiences: it is only twelve years to the end of the millenium. That too, will have its sense of history, its sense of purpose, and I think what is happening now shows up the [end p7] difference between two sets of politicians in whichever country you are: one that says: “We cannot do this, because the difficulties are immense; look at them all!” and then enumerates them and gets no further, and the others who say: “Yes, the difficulties are immense, but the opportunities are even greater and we are going to drive on through the difficulties so that we achieve the opportunities!”

I am sorry that was rather long. Can you get it all in “Pravda” ? (laughter)

Chris Ogden ( “Time” Magazine:)

Prime Minister, you said you are not a go-between, but at the same time, did you hear anything new today from Mr. Gorbachev that you would intend to pass on to President Reagan personally today, and if you do feel that you have something to pass on, could you enlighten us all about what some of it might be?

Prime Minister

Well, if I do have anything to pass on, I would rather pass it on first, but let me say what I can pass on.

The atmosphere today has been very very good indeed. It usually is when Mr. Gorbachev and I get talking, because we talk certainly in quite animated debate as always. He is a powerful personality and I do not think I am anything other than that too! So, it is quite animated, but that way you got to gripe with the issues very quickly. The atmosphere was good. [end p8] Of course, I am not a go-between. I am quite an important part of the NATO Alliance, and I am a very reliable ally, and no-one has any doubt where I stand, but I believe that other people have a right to defend their own way of life and I understand the need for them to feel secure in that defence. But then, you see, the new difference is perestroika, the increasing freedom, the personal initiative, the slight going away from central control, in the realisation that that will not produce a satisfactory standard of living for Russia, but in that enlargement of freedom it also has so much greater significance for wor! ld relations, because every enlargement of freedom, I believe, will bring us closer together.

Since the last World War, when democracy has made such enormous strides, there has been no war between two democracies and it tells you a lot about trying to get towards genuine democracy.

Chris Ogden

On the first point though, Prime Minister, did you hear anything new from him today? [end p9]

Prime Minister

I think you usually, when you talk things through, hear different aspects and hear emphasis put on different aspects and you begin to understand what are the difficulties as they see them, but I think what was outstanding was the intention to drive on with the glasnost and perestroika inside and the intention to apply the same recipe of determination on reduction of armaments to what is still to come as to what we have so far achieved. [end p10]

Question (Nik Gowing ITN)

…   . just an airing of views or was there any element of negotiation, and if so, where was there progress on all these issues you discussed?

Prime Minister

No, I think—and I think you might have got it from some of the things that I have said—that it is trying to see the way forward and plan for the way forward in the belief that what has so far been achieved is the promise of more to come on reduction of armaments, always so long as it is in a balanced way, and that is why I am so keen on extending by a number of years the ABM treaty, because again it gives security and also why I said that now that we know that both the Soviet Union is doing research on SDI as well, that it might help for confidence building measures and confidence building; you need the confidence as well as the balance for security if each side indicated the kind of research which they are going to do on SDI, not consult but inform.

Question (Charles…)

Did Mr Gorbachev actually indicate whether he does hope to come to Britain again next year? [end p11]

Prime Minister

I think Mikhail Gorbachevhe was wanting to come to Britain again on a full and official visit. Of course he has not been on a full official visit since he has been Secretary General and I am sure that he will try to come as soon as he can. I would not say that it would necessarily be next year. I would hope so but we did not set a date for it but I am certain that the wish is there.

Question (Nick Ash, The Independent)

On Afghanistan, did he in any way indicate that he might be able to fulfil your hope and withdraw troops next year?

Prime Minister

Mikhail GorbachevHe did not indicate it; that he might be able to fulfil it. We had this brief discussion on Afghanistan and I expressed our views, because I think that until the Soviet Union is out of Afghanistan then obviously they will here say, “But you are still occupying another country” and therefore we have to judge you partly by that as well as by other things and until you are out of Afghanistan, we shall always look at you with that kind of external policy of yours in mind, because one has to look back, you see, and look at the whole philosophy of Soviet external policy from the time of Lenin onwards, which was of course the triumph of socialism by one means or another. And of course, so long as they are in Afghanistan, the triumph of socialism there was by force and that is totally unacceptable. So I might say is that triump! h of socialism, but we have no fear of that.

Question (James Morrison, Washington Times)

Did you say that you have not contacted President Reagan yet? [end p12] I am wondering whether you planned to talk to him later today and secondly on the issue of human rights, what did you say to Mr. Gorbachev and what was his response?

Prime Minister

I have talked to Mr Gorbachev on human rights on each occasion when I see him. As you know, far more people have been able to leave the Soviet Union and as far as we are concerned we note in particular the reunification of families appears to have been right at the forefront of their mind in the number of people they have let leave the Soviet Union; what I have said it is that I hope that that will be stepped up. As you know, the numbers are vastly increased this year over last year but they are nothing like up to where they were when Mr Brezhnev was in power shortly after the Helsinki accords and therefore although we are pleased that more have been allowed to leave we hope that the policy will be stepped up very considerably.


Prime Minister, on the question of not withdrawing from the ABM treaty, where do you stand on the question of interpretation, do you support the narrow interpretation that Gorbachev supports or do you prefer the broader interpretation that has adherence in Washington?

Prime Minister

Do you know that when I first went to Camp David to see President Reagan, the phrase “narrow and broad interpretation” just were not in common parlance at all. They were not. It is the sort of, as far as the general public is concerned, I think that perhaps [end p13] as far as commentators are concerned, it is a new sort of interpretation and I have always made clear we were not signatories to the treaty but I go through it extremely carefully. It has got the six months notice of withdrawal and then it has got—as you know—that provision where it could understand that one day there would be new weapons of a totally different kind and as I have looked at the treaty—and clearly it permits research, clearly it says that any deployment must be a matter for negotiation, then there is this gap in the middle which has now got referred to as the narrow or broad, and I have always said that I ! would take the common sense view—and not always in the forefront of some people's minds—that you cannot possibly negotiate on deployment until you know whether what you have been researching on is feasible, and it seems to me so long as you make it clear that if you do any experiment, it is to see if it is feasible, so long as you let other people know what you are doing, that there is no question of being able to negotiate on deployment until you know it is feasible but equally there is no question of deploying without negotiation.

Now there is that six months withdrawal clause; but it is for withdrawal only under certain, I think, quite limited conditions. But I think that the six months is of itself making for uncertainty. I think there is no question of any possibility—scientific possibility—of deployment for at least seven years and maybe longer and therefore because I understand how destabilising uncertainty can be and would like to see the ABM treaty made more certain for many more years and an undertaking and a re-undertaking, reaffirmation that there would be negotiations before deployment but [end p14] on whether it is wide or narrow, you need both to look at the treaty and you need to look at the notes. I mean there are some who will say very firmly that it was always intended to be wide and others say that, “No, some people wanted it to be narrow” . I do not stand on that. I stand on common sense and before you deploy, you must negotiate and please extend to get rid of the unce! rtain times.


… expose what is left of that dispute?

Prime Minister

I would have thought so, yes. Or are you saying that even supposing you extend for seven years, you have still got the query as to whether you can test? The timetable idea does not, but the common sense idea does. And also the information does. I think the information about what each is doing. You see if someone says, “Look we are researching on SDI” . The Soviets as we know have been doing some, they say they have. It does help if you know what kind of research is going on, so it is the time and knowledge and the common sense solution and the undertaking that you negotiate before you deploy that I think taken together, those build up the confidence and the sense of security which I understand. I think to feel insecure is not good for the cause of peace. So at every stage you have got to get that security and respect the other person's desire, need to defend themselves and feel that they are secure behind their own defence. That is wh! at we expect, therefore we must apply the same feelings to other people.


Robin Oakley, the Times …   . [end p15]

Prime Minister

Can I say that I enormously enjoyed that interview we had at the end of my visit in Moscow?


Prime Minister, did Mr. Gorbachev press you as to at what stage you would be willing to have Britain's nuclear deterrent involved in arms reduction talks and what response did you give him if he did.

Prime Minister

I made perfectly clear that I regard our nuclear deterrent as a last resort and really as an irreducable minimum and therefore until the negotiations on nuclear weapons had gone a lot further than a 50%; reduction—a lot further there was no question of even thinking of bringing ours in. If it goes enormously further, then we have always said that we would consider it. But you see if you look at it Mr Oakley, we have only got four submarines. You really must have two on station pretty nearly most of the time so that everyone knows that you have got an effective nuclear deterrent and I do not really think for that purpose you can go below the four submarines and certainly by the time we come to have modernised with Trident, the Trident in relation to the reduced 50%; of the Soviet Union nuclear weaponry would be about the same proportion as Polaris was when we started with the number th! at the Soviet Union had then. The proportion will not have altered and that of course indicated the enormous increase in numbers that has gone on since 1970.

Question (Charles McClean NBC News)

Prime Minister, you said earlier you told Mr Gorbachev you [end p16] welcome what has been done in human rights, but just yesterday some KGB agents allegedly beat up some Refuseniks and some news men in Moscow. Did you bring that incident up with Mr Gorbachev in your talks today and do you think the timing of that incident is going to have any effect on the summit?

Prime Minister

No, I did not. We are on the very broad issues as I have indicated the whole time and when you are translating—this is why I say two hours is much too short because part of it of course was over lunchtime—so I did not bring up that particular incident. I spoke about the generality of human rights. May I say this to you?

From time to time there are things—and that was tragic—one must keep the broad progress and the direction of the progress in mind and not sacrifice the progress and the possibility of further progress and increased progress and acceleration of human rights. One must never sacrifice that when these tragic occasions do occur. The important thing is that the progress on human rights goes on. The important thing is that Perestroika and Glasnost succeeds. The important thing is that this new spirit of arms control continues. It is perhaps the slight difference between the media and politicians that inevitably the incident of the day when it is tragic can dominate the news, but what matters in the term of enhancing the sum of human freedom and human happiness that where you are together going in the right direction, do everything both of you, all of you to ensure that that direction continues.

Geoffrey HoweForeign Secretary

If I could just add on that that human rights was a topic [end p17] that took up quite a lot of the time in my discussion with Mr Shevardnadze. It is, I suppose, the fifth or sixth time that we have discussed it. And the point that I emphasised that if one is to secure the necessary steady improvement in confidence that is going to secure further progress on arms control, that is going to make it easy to get verification of the INF agreement then manifest continued progress on human rights is also important. They are closely linked. They all help to underpin confidence.

Question (Steve Cads, Associated Press)

Prime Minister, after the Reykjavik summit there was some concern in western Europe over what had been talked about there and nearly decided. After the Reykjavik summit there was some concern in western Europe among the allies. I am wondering after your talks today with Mr Gorbachev and your communications with President Reagan are you sure that after this summit there will be no surprises for the allies?

Prime Minister

I do not think there will be any surprises after this summit. I obviously hope and believe that as Mr Gorbachev and I were talking about the way ahead, I am sure that the Ronald ReaganPresident will be talking the whole time about the way ahead, both on arms control and on the larger human relationship because it is even more important with Perestroika and Glasnost. But I have always taken the view that when you go to summits, they need to very well prepared and after all the one on the intermediate nuclear weapon is very well prepared and they are getting on quite well, very well with the 50%; reductions. And then, in the course of the summit, new ideas may [end p18] come up. After all that is what often happens when you are talking. You see things either from a different aspect or you see things—you lay stress on di! fferent things which makes new possibilities of you have a wholly new idea. That is good if you do get them but then you do not make any commitments. You go away and work them up and work them out. So I am not expecting any—when you say “surprises” —I am not expecting any shocks; you are meaning surprise in that sense. If there are new ideas which are hopeful then I will be the first to welcome them and be the first to try to help work them out.

Question (Karen de Young, Washington Post)

Prime Minister, you first made your timetable proposal to both President Reagan and Mr Gorbachev early this year. That whole issue seems to have got a bit lost in the shuffle this year with the tension on INF. Do you believe, at this point, that there is reason on both sides that that can in fact be a viable compromise in the near future that will resolve the ABM, SDI issue?

Prime Minister

I think it is a possible way ahead. It is, as I was just explaining a moment ago, each nation—and we will never let down our guard, I am a staunch believer in defence, and just as I know that we must defend our way of life, so I understand why other people want to defend their nationality, their way of life. If you get a sudden uncertainty coming into that, and if at the same time you are having more negotiations and the world is getting a smaller place and therefore you are, I think, getting closer with the number of discussions you have, then I think you must make every attempt to [end p19] resolve uncertainty in the sense that you can say, “For a number of years ahead, these things will be predictable because we will lengthen the time of the treaty and inform one another of the kind of research that is going on.” Yes, it is the predictability that gives you the extra certainty and I think that those proposals do form a way ahead.

You know, a year is not very long, I only went to Moscow in March didn't I? It has been quite a busy year. That is not very long to take up and pursue the idea particularly bearing in mind that they have been very busy on other ideas at the same time. It is a way ahead in my view.


Did you get the impression from Mr Gorbachev today that this in fact would be responsive to some of his own concerns about the ABM treaty?

Prime Minister

I have the impression that it is not only being considered but has been talked about. It has been talked about quite a bit, the lengthening of the treaty. Indeed it came up of course also as you know at Reykjavik. So the lengthening of the treaty is not a new idea. I think how you deal with the SDI programmes, not consultation, you cannot consult on research. You cannot stop research. You should not try to. You cannot stop it, you cannot verify it, and you do not consult others on what research you are going to do. You never know where a piece of research is going to take you. When Rutherford first smashed the atom, he did not think it would have any use for mankind of any kind. You cannot see where [end p20] it is going, so you cannot verify it, you cannot control it, but you can inform about the kind of research that you are doing, both sides because what you expect to do yourself, what you expect others to do you must expect ! to do yourself.

Question (John Dodman, CNN TV)

Do you feel that President Reagan needs some urging, perhaps by you, to share your view of Mr. Gorbachev, his sincerity about the changes he is making, that the changes are real and need to be responded to by the West?

Prime Minister

No. Mr Reagan has had very long talks as you know with Mr Gorbachev and I think both President Reagan and I would take the same view that Mr Gorbachev is a quite different leader from any other kind we have ever had in the Soviet Union and that you can talk and discuss easily and debate over a very wide range of things. I do not think we would take any different view of that and I think that we would both hope that an enlargement of human freedom within the Soviet Union would succeed. After all we are talking about human rights. We are urging more. You cannot be urging more about human rights and then not support Glasnost and Perestroika which is an enlargement of human responsibility, is saying that less central control because you are not really going to get results unless ! the individual is involved. You cannot say, “Please have more human rights” when you are trying to modify your economic system in order to get increasing significance of the role of the individual. You cannot say then, “We do not support it” . You have got to support it. They are both part and parcel of the same thing. [end p21]

Question (Maureen Johnson, Associated Press)

If you could just go back to SDI. Did Mr. Gorbachev tell you whether or not your ideas on SDI would help him trust the United States on this matter, that it was a runner?

Prime Minister

No, Mikhail Gorbachevhe did not. I indicated my views as I have told you, but do not forget that in his last interview he did say that the Soviet Union was doing SDI research which we had obviously known about and deduced for some considerable time and I think that of itself was a quite significant step which makes further arrangements of the kind I have indicated possible.