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1988 Mar 3 Th
Margaret Thatcher

Press Conference after Brussels NATO Summit

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Luns Theatre, NATO Headquarters, Brussels
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Editorial comments: Between 1130 and 1315 MT gave a press conference and interviews to the press.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4222
Themes: Civil liberties, Conservatism, Defence (general), Defence (arms control), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Foreign policy (Western Europe - non-EU), Famous statements by MT (discussions of)

Prime Minister

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have just concluded a very important and successful NATO Summit, the first we have held for six years and I feel that we have achieved all the objectives we set ourselves.

These were first to underline the continuing importance of the NATO Alliance to the defence of the West. It is as vital now for protecting our freedom as when it was formed in 1948/49.

Second, to confirm the unity and the resolve of NATO in the face of Soviet attempts to separate Europe from the United States and to de-nuclearise Europe.

Third, to re-affirm the validity of NATO's strategy of flexible response and the consequent need to keep all NATO's weapons—conventional as well as nuclear—modern and up-to-date.

I am particularly pleased that all the Heads of Government present agreed on—and I quote—

“a strategy of deterrence based on an appropriate mix of adequate and effective nuclear and conventional forces which will continue to be kept up to date where necessary” .

And fourth, to discuss President Reagan 's forthcoming visit to Moscow for the United States/Soviet Summit and to confirm NATO's priorities in arms control. [end p1]

Now let me say a word about the context in which NATO has met.

Since our last Summit in 1982, there have been important changes; most of all in the Soviet Union where Mr Gorbachev is introducing bolder reforms which hold out the prospect of more freedom and more choice for the people of the Soviet Union. We have perhaps begun to see some signs of change in the Soviet Union's external policies in the very welcome decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. At the same time, there has been no let up in the Soviet Union's military modernisation programmes which are going ahead as fast as ever—and I quoted some examples in my address to the Summit—nor has there been any change in its aim of the de-nuclearisation of Europe.

We have also seen very important developments in the arms control field, above all, a successful INF agreement achieved as a result of NATO's resolve. We now look forward to President Reagan's forthcoming visit to Moscow and hope that then or later we shall see agreement to reduce the strategic nuclear weapons of the United States and the Soviet Union by 50%;. Against this—in some respects rather promising background—it was important for the leaders of the NATO countries to come together and take stock.

The success of our meeting is evident from the declaration which we agreed this morning and from the separate statement on the conventional stability negotiations issued last night.

If you read those, you will find a strong message which I would summarise as defence, deterrence and dialogue. Those documents contain, first, a strong reaffirmation of the vital link [end p2] between the security of Europe and that of North America. It is particularly important to remind people of this in a presidential election year in the United States. We are all of course very grateful to the United States and Canada for the substantial forces they keep in Europe.

Second, our determination that NATO's defences should remain strong, recognising the crucial role of nuclear detterence provided not just by the United States strategic deterrent but also by the presence of effective and up-to-date nuclear weapons in Europe.

Third, based on confidence in our sure defence, a willingness to seek dialogue with the countries of the Warsaw Pact and a desire for further arms control agreements, particularly on chemical and conventional weapons. Any further reductions in nuclear weapons would only come about in conjunction with the establishment of conventional balance and the global elimination of chemical weapons. It is quite clear that there is no intention of trying to achieve a third nuclear zero. The conclusion which the Summit drew was that NATO's present strategy has kept the peace in Europe for forty years. We therefore came together to reaffirm the basic principles and policies which have served us well and to set our course for the future, including the commitment to modernise all our weapons, both nuclear and conventional, to which, as you know, I attach particular importance.

Taken together, with the recent successful European Summit, we have created a platform from which Europe can look with confidence to the future. I am very pleased with the outcome. [end p3]

Question (John Dickie, Daily Mail)

Prime Minister, you evidently won support yesterday for your warnings about the iron fist of Mr Gorbachev and the continued military doctrine of seeking to be able to take on NATO in the war and win. Today your arguments were more, I understand, for giving Mr Gorbachev time to have his reforms worked out and it was in your view, apparently, that they were in the interests of the West to have these reforms successful. Did you get the same sort of support for that argument as you got yesterday?

Prime Minister

The two are part of the same policy. They were part of the same conversation I had with Mr Gorbachev, when he first came to Britain before he was General Secretary, when I made it quite clear that I believed in strong defence in NATO because we were interested in peace with freedom and justice, that there was no point whatsoever in his trying to divide me from the United States or from NATO: that was our sure defence. At the same time I understood that although he has a totally different system from us, he too wants and needs a strong and sure defence. But we had one interest in common: we both wanted it on the basis of lower weaponry and that meant tough negotiations on the basis of strength.

So we started off with mutual respect and understanding of each other's needs of a strong defence.

Now if you are to have a strong defence, you have to see what the other person is doing and you know the extent to which the Soviet Union has been modernising both its conventional and its nuclear weapons. I gave some examples yesterday in my speech [end p4] because I thought people ought to be aware. If you are to deter, you have to be strong enough to the potential threat. It is on the basis of that sure defence, on the basis of that sure deterrence that I have always been willing to enter into dialogue and you will recall that I was the first one to say “This is a totally new kind of Soviet leader” which I recognised right at the beginning before he was the top leader but when he still had an important role. I remember the phrase ‘This is a person, a man I can do business with’. It went round the world. It has been picked up by everyone and followed by everyone.

When he became leader, he embarked upon what I regarded as a historic and bold reform. You will remember that I again was the first Western leader publicly to support that, to say that I thought it was courageous, I thought it was bold. I did so because I believed it not only to be in the interest of the people of the Soviet Union in giving more freedom, more personal responsibility, more initiative but the enlargement of freedom was also in the interest of the West so there has never been any change in policy. I can do it, NATO can do it because our defence, our insurance policy is sure. And so long as we keep it sure, we can welcome these changes knowing that if by any terrible happening they were to fall apart or there were to be problems, our defence is still sure. It is on the same basis that I welcome a decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Our defence is sure. The Soviet Union is doing what we have urged. What is the good of urging a course unless when people do it you actually say, “We think that is good, it is encouraging” . So there is no inconsistency. [end p5]

Question (Richard Owen, The Times)

You have referred to that part of the Summit declaration which speaks of the need to keep both nuclear and conventional forces up-to-date where necessary. But does that not represent a retreat from the repeated call you made for modernisation in this place two weeks ago and does the formulation not allow some countries, perhaps the Federal Republic of Germany, for example, to argue that certain modernisation measures are not necessary?

Prime Minister

You do not up-date weapons, whether they are nuclear or conventional, where it is not necessary to up-date them. You know full well that our defence ministers meet. They have met and I think that they have been probably much more detailed on the need to modernise and up-date and they will get a detailed agenda for it. No, I think where you might have been not fully informed is that everyone in that room recognises that you do not deter with obsolete or obsolescent weapons. That is what I said here just a few days ago. You do not deter with obsolete weapons and it is ridiculous to say that you do. But that applies just as much to nuclear as it does to conventional. Therefore everyone was agreed that to deter, you have in fact to modernise.

Incidentally I understand there is no difference between modernisation and up-to-date in German. They are both the same word. Is that correct? So I am told, so it does not matter whether we say ‘modernise’ or ‘up-to-date’; I use the word ‘up-to-date’.

But everyone accept the need to modernise. I think that there is a difference of view between how far you put it in [end p6] communiques. As you know, it has always been my policy to be open in the fundamental needs of defence. I believe that people have a great sense of what you have got to do and I believe that people, certainly in Britain—I would have thought mostly on the continent too and certainly in the United States and certainly Chancellor Kohl—know that the important thing is to have a sure defence and you take whatever steps are necessary to that end. This is what this communique says and do not underestimate it.

One of the reason why I wanted this Summit now, it is not only before President Reagan goes to Moscow but of course there is a spring meeting of defence ministers and they needed the political direction which this Summit could give.

Question (Gem Meach (phon) The Economist)

Prime Minister, the rather equivocal language in this declaration, with respect to this up-dating of nuclear weapons could be read and has been read by some people as indicating we might see a delay in the planned up-dating programme. Is this the case or would you now expect to see the planned modernisation go ahead on schedule?

Prime Minister

No, I do not think there will be any delay. I mean those of us who in fact have nuclear weapons and produce nuclear weapons—those of us who produce nuclear weapons—are not delaying. Trident will come on station 1993/1994. We had to take that decision way back in 1980. There are long lead times. We will have to look at some of our other nuclear weapons and consider up-dating them. We are already doing that. The United States is looking at Lance [end p7] because that will soon need up-dating. The Soviet Union is up-dating her own nuclear weapons. There are only a few countries who actually produce the nuclear weapons. For the rest, it is deploying and not producing. France, although not militarily integrated, is up-dating her nuclear weapons and we too are of course considering whether in a stand-off air to ground missile, we can have cooperation between France and the United Kingdom and also the United States. So the nuclear parts of NATO are already considering the modernisation.

Question (John Palmer)

Prime Minister, when you were here two weeks ago, you laid great emphasis on the fact that any attempt to negotiate short-range nuclear weapons in Europe, until there was effective agreement on chemical and conventional weapons—and indeed a START agreement—was something you could not accept. But this morning, in answer to your question about the significance of the decisions here this week. Lord Carrington said “nobody is saying that you cannot start one set of negotiations before another has ended” . Is that an interpretation you would subscribe to?

Prime Minister

Look, what we have got in this declaration is what was in the previous post-Reykjavik communique which the foreign ministers attended. It is word for word precisely what was in there and you will see that it is done—once you have got things set in stone, you just cannot alter them, and this was set in stone; you were there. It is this famous phrase “consistent with their security requirements, the fifteen allies concerned will make use of all [end p8] possibilities” , etcetera, “and for them the comprehensive concept of arms control and disarmament includes a 50%; reduction, global elimination of chemical, establishment of stable and secure level of conventional forces and then in conjunction with” —now this is the phrase.

We want the conventional forces and the chemical to be done and we would like those—the conventional to come down to parity and the chemical to be eliminated before there is any further negotiation on nuclear.

Now right back in Reykjavik they were not able to get it as clear as that and so it was that the conventional come down and the chemical be done in conjunction with the other things.

Question

Have you got it clear now Prime Minister?

Prime Minister

I am clear.

Question

Is your interpretation accepted by your colleagues?

Prime Minister

I am clear, the United States is clear, most other people are clear. It is not set out as clearly as I would wish here. It is set out in the former Reykjavik communique language which has come through absolutely unaltered.

Question (Richard Ingham, Agence France Press)

Prime Minister, there has been considerable domestic pressure on the West German Government to have short-range nuclear forces made a priority issue for disarmament. Does the Summit delaration [end p9] in your view, give Chancellor Kohl any help to ease this pressure?

Prime Minister

No, Chancellor Kohl has been very forthright in saying that there must not be a third nuclear zero. He said it before he came here. I think he said it is his own Parliament before he came here and of course he has said it here. I in my own speech said that I thought it would be most unwise. First, I do not want to enter into those until we have done conventional and chemical. Secondly, I said that I thought it would be most unwise to enter into negotiations on that because I was pretty certain that the Soviet Union would try to bring in such things as dual capable aircraft and it would be—and I think we should not get what I believe Chancellor Kohl would like—an agreement at equal levels—that I thought that the substance of the matter was such, it would be unlikely to get what he wanted and I thought it would be very unwise therefore to enter into negotiations. Now I have laid out my position very frankly. In the meantime we all agree that the next big priority is conventional and chemical.

Question

Prime Minister, you said that the Lance will soon need up-dating. Are you willing to see NATO postpone until the early 1990's a specific decision to modernise the Lance?

Prime Minister

Look, it is the NATO military authorities, in particular SACEUR who of course advise on the future of what it is most urgent to up-date. You cannot do it all at once. He will advise and those meetings take place with the defence ministers. I may say [end p10] I wanted defence ministers here but it seems so revolutionary apparently for this kind of meeting. It seemed to me common sense but I was told it did not happen so they will go off now at their Spring meeting and do the detailed agenda.

Question (Peter Hitchens, Daily Express)

You have today expressed support for Mr Gorbachev 's reform programme. Two questions if I might. First of all, is there a danger that a reformed Soviet Union will in fact present a greater threat to Europe precisely because it is a more efficient militarily powerful Soviet Union, and secondly, do you believe that Mr Gorbachev 's own personal position is secure especially given the protects he has recently encountered in Estonia, Armenia and Azerbaljan?

Prime Minister

First I have expressed, I have reaffirmed what I have said, been saying now for about a year—it is about a year since I went to Moscow—that yes, I thought that we supported what Mr Gorbachev was doing in the Soviet Union. We thought it historic and we supported it and we thought it would be good for the Russians.

Do not indicate that I have done it for the first time here, it has been done now for over a year.

Your possibility that the thing might fall apart and come into difficulty gives me my point that we have to keep a sure defence because if it does fall apart or they have difficulty in the satellite countries, our defence is still sure and you have managed to enable me to make that point very effectively.

I know that there is some sort of view around that Mr [end p11] Gorbachev is somehow an embattled leader. It is not a view I share. I believe that he has the support, the full support, of the politburo, that he is determined to go ahead with his reforms, that he keeps with him the support of the military and the KGB. I have always found him, and I know that the Geoffrey HoweForeign Secretary has done the same thing, we have always found him very confident and very resolute.

Now you mentioned the difficulty with the nationalities. If part of your policy is to free up the expression of public opinion and to free up responsibility and initiative, inevitably some of the criticisms will come first, inevitably those who have an identifiable grievance will take advantage of the greater freedom of speech to show it. Freedom of speech, so many people interpret it as freedom to dissent. It is much greater than that but that is what happens in a country where they have not had it before and I have given warnings and I did when I was in Moscow and I have continued to give them since that when you are making fundamental changes, the difficulties always emerge first for to your eye [sic] when one of the fundamental changes is greater freedom of speech and it will take you two or three years during which you have to keep resolute and keep your nerve through those difficulties before the real benefits in material terms show. Although in the case of the Soviet Union, I think the freeing up of what people are prepared to say is already showing not only in the problem of the nationalities but that people are enjoying very much greater freedom to express their views. That is a plus already.

The other problem is of course a problem. Sometimes when you [end p12] get these happening, you get one or two weak brethren in any Government. But I believe Mikhail Gorbachevhe is strong, I believe he has the politburo with him, I believe he has seen what needs to be done and that the Soviet Union cannot go on being strong only through military strength. So long as we stay sure, we have nothing to fear. So long as our defence is sure, we have nothing to fear from internal reforms in the Soviet Union. [end p13]

Question (W. German Newspaper)

Prime Minister, following up the distinction you just made between those countries who own and produce nuclear weapons and those who are expected to deploy them, if modernisation is being decided on, would you agree to the assessment that the modernisation of the Lance is actually already going on as planned by research, development and production of the Army Technical Missile System in the United States, and that the only question that is being left open is whether the Federal Republic of West Germany is willing to deploy it?

Prime Minister

The modernisation of any weapon, you know, takes several years—even one like Lance—and of course, one expects the requisite research and development to be going on. This is why I indicated right at the beginning how long it is taking us to do Trident—from 1980 to 1994. Modernisation is a very long time. There are long lead times, which is why you have to give the right signals early for SACEUR to interpret them. [end p14]

Question (Radio Liberty, Munich)

Prime Minister, you had the opportunity to meet Mr. Gorbachev several times—in December 1984, in Spring 1987 and in December 1987.

Could you observe some evolution in his attitude towards the arms control and the possibility of effective arms control agreements?

Prime Minister

There has been a change since I first saw him, of course. Mikhail GorbachevHe became the Secretary-General and therefore was able to have a much more influential part. I have not observed a great change, no. I think he does want a sure defence at a lower level of weaponry so do we.

What you have to watch is that in choosing certain weapons you do not upset the total sure defence of NATO or, I suppose, his. You have to watch that by taking out some weapons you do not fundamentally unbalance the defence you have, so you have got to have a look at the total concept as well as the particular weapons.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the agenda we have set now, I think, is the right one for NATO. I think also that it will probably be the right one for getting reductions in military weapons in the Soviet Union, because they have this enormous preponderance of very up-to-date conventional weapons.

The answer is that I have not myself observed any change in his stance on this. [end p15]

Nik Gowing (ITN, Channel 4 News)

Prime Minister, you talk about the encouraging signs of the Gorbachev reforms and you talk about him having the support of the KGB and the military, but there does appear to be a contradiction in terms of what you are warning about—the Soviet build-up, the military strength and particularly what Defence Minister Yazov and Chief of Staff Akhromeyev have been saying about future military strength in the Soviet Union.

Could you perhaps enlighten us on your view on that?

Prime Minister

No, I do not find any difference.

The Soviet Union's strength at the moment is in her military might. That is why she has become a super-power.

Other people become super-powers who are very strong because of their fundamental belief in human rights, which gives them a political strength. A fundamental belief in freedom of expression, ideas, initiative, enterprise, usually gives you much greater economic strength and a higher standard of living because it comes from the interplay of ideas and the freedom of enterprise, and that gives rise as well to your military strength and your need to defend those. So ours kind of builds up from fundamental principles. [end p16]

The Soviet Union: its fundamental principle was communism, which was totally central control, virtually no human rights at all and the central control did not result in economic strength. The central control enabled her to put so many resources—choose to put them right into military strength, ignoring the needs of her people for a much higher standard of living. She has come to the stage when she simply cannot ignore that any more.

We have to have enough strength to deter and so long as we do we are all right. That is why I watch very carefully what is going on in the Soviet Union.

But you know, a truly democratic people—a people interested in freedom and justice—are not a people who go and attack others. Ours is a totally defensive alliance and acts only if we are attacked and responds only to attack, and the greater I think the freedom you get, the more likely you are to be only a defensive alliance.

If you look at the post-War period, there has not been conflict between two democracies. There may have been conflict between a democracy and a country that is not a democracy. You have not had conflict—war—between two democracies, so the greater the greater the freedom and justice element that you manage to get, I think the less is the threat and not the greater, because you are fundamentally altering or setting out to alter—in our terms—the basic nature of society. [end p17]

Maureen Johnson (Associated Press)

Given the fact that the Defence Ministers were not here, as you wished, and that the communique does not address what “where necessary” means as far as up-dating is concerned, how can you be so confident that they have the right political direction that you want and that you have not just passed the West German problem down the line?

Prime Minister

No, we have not just passed the West German problem down the line at all.

The Defence Ministers have been meeting quite frequently in the Nuclear Planning Group and the High-Level Planning Group, and we have seen what they have agreed.

What they have now got is the go-ahead from all the political heads of state and government that nuclear weapons must also be modernised and there is nothing unusual about it. It is only a question of how much one says. It is not so much a question of getting on with it—it is how much you say in a communique—because everyone here recognises unless you modernise everything you have got, you have not got deterrence. Everyone recognises the difficulties with these reforms in the Soviet Union. I think most hope, like me, that they will come about and be successful, but if it falls apart you have still got to have the strength to deter, because of the long lead times of these weapons.