Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Radio Interview for BBC World Service ("The World Today")

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: No.10 Downing Street
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Journalist: Mark Brayne, BBC
Editorial comments:

1045-1130. The interview fell into two parts: see also Radio Interview for BBC World Service (visit to Turkey).

Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2653
Themes: Foreign policy (USA), Defence (general), Defence (arms control), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Foreign policy (Middle East)

Mark Brayne, BBC

Prime Minister, the Americans and the Russians have now named a date for the Moscow Summit between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev.

It is known that after Reykjavik, you yourself were rather concerned about the direction that super-power relations might be moving - perhaps too great a willingness on the part of the Americans to accept the idea of denuclearisation - a nuclear-free world.

Do you now feel that as the Americans and the Russians move towards the Summit in Moscow in May that super-power relations are moving in a correct - and for Europe - safe direction?

Prime Minister


We had the NATO meeting; we had the NATO communique. The United States and all members of NATO in Europe accept the need to have a nuclear deterrent, that it is a vital part of one's defence, and that we really want a war-free Europe, and that means keeping the nuclear deterrent, that it is a vital part of one's defence, and that we really want a war-free Europe, and that means keeping the nuclear deterrent. [end p1]

So we understand that and we all agreed that the next phase in negotiation is a START agreement. That is a complicated one. People just say rather quickly: “fifty percent down either side!” and somehow think it is simple. It is not. There are different kinds of weapons, some from the air, some from the sea, some land-based. It is a very very difficult verification process and as you negotiate, both sides will want to feel that they are keeping their defence balance and if it becomes lop-sided it would not add to security at all; then it would make either side feel unsafe and that would not be a good thing. So you have got to see that it is carefully negotiated and to keep the balance of weapons at a lower level, and that you can verify. Now that is not easy and they are coming up against certain complications and I think they will both try to get at any rate a Memorandum of Understanding signed by that Summit, but I think they both realise that it is more important to get the right safe, secure agreement at a lower level of weapons than it is to get a hurried agreement which might give us problems later. We are both approaching it from the same angle.

Whether we agree with the Soviet Union on her system or not is not the point. She has a right to a secure defence and the West has a right to a secure defence, and we must keep it secure at a lower level of weaponry and we are not going to be taken in by any attempt to denuclearise Europe because that would give the Soviet Union an enormous advantage and make us unsafe. [end p2]

Mark Brayne, BBC

Is there not perhaps a sense in that sense(sic) that Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Reagan ought to be talking in Moscow not so much about nuclear disarmament, a fifty percent cut, but about conventional weapons?

Prime Minister

Certain proposals are being formulated now. That, also, in a very complicated process. You know, we have been at it with the Mutual Imbalance Force Reductions in Vienna, for about ten years! We have not even got the precise figures in numbers under arms of the Soviet Union. They will not give them to us.

You have to look at the precise numbers in their armies, the precise numbers in the satellite countries, and we have never got a precise number because they have said these are not actually in the front line - they are in reserve - but, of course, their reserves can be brought up very very quickly whereas ours have to be brought across the sea.

It has to be done and I believe we shall go into conventional negotiations and into chemical. Do not forget, we in Britain gave up our chemical years ago and the Soviet Union did not respond. They in fact went on modernising and stockpiling theirs. [end p3]

The important thing is to keep going in the right direction, to keep a balance the whole time, and to make certain you can verify, and I think we are both doing that. I think both sides have that very much in mind and both sides understand and, I hope, respect the need for the other to feel secure after these negotiations, because these negotiations are not to undermine security - they are to keep your security at a lower level of weaponry, and I certainly think that there is a much greater understanding about that on both sides now than there has been for a long time.

Mark Brayne, BBC

If START does come off this year - the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty - how long will it be before Britain is brought into the process in discussing Polaris and in the long-term?

Prime Minister

Oh, a very long time, a very long time. Certainly not until we have satisfactory arrangements on conventional and on chemical weapons. Only then would we begin to look at any further nuclear weapons as far as we are concerned, and I have to point out that even after a fifty percent reduction in nuclear weapons - even after that - and even when we have Trident fully on station, we shall only have the same proportion of Soviet nuclear strategic missiles, after all that, as we had when Polaris entered service in 1970. [end p4]

Now that shows you the enormous increase in numbers of strategic weapons in the Soviet Union that have taken place since then, so the proportion of Polaris to the Soviet strategic weapons in 1970 will be about the same as Trident on-station to the present Soviet Union less fifty percent. So you just have to remember that.

And also, if I might say, ours really are an irreducible minimum. We only have four submarines and you want really two on station because one is being serviced or repaired and the other on its way into being serviced or repaired, so you cannot really go below that. Otherwise, you do not have an effective deterrent.

Mark Brayne, BBC

Afghanistan is another issue that will certainly come up in Moscow and there had seemed to be some movement towards agreement in Geneva and that process now seems to be in a certain amount of trouble.

You, yourself, Prime Minister, have said that you believe Mr. Gorbachev when he says he wants to leave Afghanistan. With these problems in Geneva, do you still have that optimism?

Prime Minister

I think the important thing is to take up the Soviet Union on her offer - and I believe her wish - to get out of Afghanistan with all her troops - she has said she is willing to do that - and not in [end p5] fact to determine the kind of government that is left in Afghanistan. The important thing is to take her up on that offer and nothing must get in the way of that.

Where they are at at the moment in the Geneva negotiations is that one side is saying that the other must not leave any weapons for either the existing government in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union are therefore saying: “Well, you must not in fact give any help to the resistance!”

That is very very difficult and it would be better if there has to be symmetry, if the Soviet Union is going to give or leave any weapons behind for the government in Kabul, then there have to be weapons on the part of the resistance. There has to be symmetry and that really is where we are now.

I think it is very very important that we take up the Soviet Union offer to leave Afghanistan, but then the Soviet Union, if she is going to supply weapons to the government in Kabul, simply has no right to say that the West must not supply weapons to the resistance, and I must make that absolutely clear. It is both or nothing!

Mark Brayne, BBC

So if there is not agreement on the symmetry, then you feel that it would be worth risking a delay in the Soviet Union leaving Afghanistan? [end p6]

Prime Minister

I think the important thing is to take up the Soviet Union on her offer to leave Afghanistan with all troops and if she is going to leave weapons with the Kabul government, then she simply cannot put a constraint on other people supplying the resistance with weapons, because do not forget, it is the staunchness of the resistance that in fact has led to the Soviet Union leaving Afghanistan.

Mark Brayne, BBC

When the Soviet Union moved into Afghanistan in 1979, there were many in the West - yourself included - who saw this is an extremely dangerous broader strategic move, a push perhaps towards the warm waters of the Gulf, yet here the Soviet Union is now leaving Afghanistan.

Do you think the Russians have changed or did the West get the Soviet Union wrong in 1979?

Prime Minister

I do not think that the Russians have necessarily changed. I think there is a great demand from the people in the Soviet Union to have their boys back from Afghanistan. I think that demand has come about because of the staunchness of the resistance and because outside Kabul the resistance are giving the occupying forces a tremendous amount of trouble; they are unnerving the soldiers in [end p7] Afghanistan and their morale is low and therefore it is the staunchness of the resistance and the trouble that has caused among the Russian people, knowing some of the circumstances which their own troops are meeting in Afghanistan, and also the fact possibly that quite a number of the Soviet troops are of oriental origin and that they do not particularly like what they are doing.

All that has led to it being in the Soviet interest to withdraw, and it is that we must take up.

I am certain that Mr. Gorbachev wishes to withdraw and that he wishes to get it done within a reasonable time and I think that these other negotiations must not stop that expressed intention on his part.

Mark Brayne, BBC

The question of the Gulf, Prime Minister: there has been a great deal of publicity in the last few days to reports of further Iraqi use of chemical weapons and the Iranians have even accused Britain of supplying Iraq with some of the ingredients, but what should the world do now to try and stop this horrendous war?

Prime Minister

I see no ground whatsoever for accusing us of supplying some of the ingredients. We have been very careful in watching the export of chemicals that could be used for that purpose. [end p8]

What has happened is totally at odds with the Geneva Convention of 1925 - totally at odds - and it is very serious indeed, because it is the first time, really, since World War One, that chemical weapons have been used and hitherto one always felt that the effective deterrent was if one side used them the other side would use them - that was a deterrent for not using them.

It is extremely serious. We had reports, as everyone has, that it is mustard gas and nerve gas - some say cyanide; we do not know whether that is so or not - but it is extremely serious and really accelerates the need to bring about the United Nations Security Council Resolution to bring that war to an end. It is very serious indeed.

Mark Brayne, BBC

Is progress being made to bring the Russians round on the question of a follow-up Resolution on an arms embargo on Iran?

Prime Minister

I think we are making some progress, but let us face it, it has become more difficult to have a follow-up Resolution with what is called the “War of the Cities” with missiles and with chemical weapons. Those two things have made it very much more difficult [end p9] they have made it, at the same time, more important to get a truce and a cessation - at the same time, more difficult to go against one party when there are missiles. It seems as if they are Soviet-origin missiles being fired from one city to another city and from the other city back, and the use of chemical weapons has made it more difficult.

Mark Brayne, BBC

It seems that the Soviet Union is now willing to play a rather more constructive role in helping bring an end to the Gulf War, for example. Is there a role, too, perhaps, for the Soviet Union to play in bringing peace in the Middle East, perhaps in the framework of an international conference?

Prime Minister

Incidentally, the constructive role is to see that weapons - those missiles - do not reach the combatants. I mean, that is something practical that can be done by all members of the Security Council - not to supply the missiles.

Mark Brayne, BBC

The American Secretary of State, George Shultz, is going back to the Middle East in a few days time - a second go to try and get the American peace initiative working. Do you see prospects that this is actually going to work? [end p10]

Prime Minister

I am very pleased that the United States and George Shultz have given new impetus to this process, because it was just getting extremely serious.

You know the view that I always take: if there is a legitimate grievance - and there is as far as the Palestinian people are concerned - and you do not make strenuous efforts to get negotiations started, then there is always a danger that some people will take to violence, and that is what has happened, and I always dislike it intensely when people get, as a result of violence, something which they do not get as a result of negotiations, and that always strengthens the need - it is just the same with South Africa - all the time to urge people to negotiate where there is a legitimate grievance.

So I am very pleased that George Shultz is making strenuous efforts. I think he has met with a reasonable response from King Hussein. I think he is having difficulty with getting Mr. Shamir to accept the conditions to get negotiations started, but the interesting thing is that I think everyone realises that they will have to start and no-one wants to stop them from starting.

You have to take comfort from very small things sometimes in diplomacy and I most earnestly hope that George Shultz will persist. [end p11]

There are two things really: one is the international conference as a framework. It seems very difficult that anyone really could be very much against that. It is not as a mediator. It does not have a veto. It is a framework. It is really the world saying: “Look! It is about time the two nations concerned got together to sort out these problems on the basis of United Nations 242!” which of course is territory for peace and it is the world saying: “We believe you should get together!” and that is the function of an international conference and the basic formula is territory for peace and then the question is which Palestinians should negotiate with King Hussein. I do not think that is insoluble. We were very near to solving it previously, so I hope very much the United States will persist in its efforts.

Mark Brayne, BBC

Prime Minister, this is Mr. Reagan's last year in office. He is leaving office at the end of the year. We may not be quite so certain about Mr. Gorbachev and his political position in the Soviet Union, but it is clear that the western world leadership, as the Americans settle in under a new President and come to the end of Mr. Reagan's eight years of presidency, there are some who would look to you to take the mantle of leadership of the western world.

Is that a role that you would be willing to take? [end p12]

Prime Minister

I think President Reagan is cantering up to a very strong finish. There is no sign of slowing down at all. If anything, it is a very strong finish.

There can be no substitute for American leadership - there just cannot. No other one person can take the same leadership role as the President of the United States - this enormous country, this enterprising country, whose people went there to be free and self-reliant. It is on the base of that fantastic statue at the entrance to New York: “Give me your huddled masses yearning to be free!” They are strong, they are enterprising, they somehow keep that country going through difficulties with elections. She is the largest, most prosperous nation in the world and let us be very thankful that she has taken a leadership role. None of us can substitute for it. We can all help with it, and Europe is coming much closer together. That is important.