Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to North Atlantic Council at Turnberry

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Turnberry Hotel, Turnberry, Strathclyde
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Editorial comments:

Over lunch, between 1315 and 1435. Unusually, the transcript contains headings, likely drawn from the speaking text which the transcriber will have had to hand.

Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2761
Themes: Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Foreign policy (Western Europe - non-EU), Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (International organizations), Defence (general), Defence (arms control)

Manfred WörnerSecretary General, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.


First, may I welcome you very warmly to the United Kingdom. We are delighted to be hosting this important occasion and we look forward to seeing many of you again at the NATO Summit in London next month.

You may think it slightly strange that we chose Turnberry, which is geographically on the outer fringes of NATO, to hold a meeting to discuss issues which are central to NATO's future.

So let me tell you a little of the local history to show that, far from being some remote and, today, windswept shore, Turnberry has played its part in defence and in the affairs of Europe over many centuries—with a few lessons for NATO even today. Turnberry Castle whose ruins you will see nearby, was home in the 13th Century to the Earls of Carrick. It was from here that one of them left for the Crusade in 1268 under the banner of King Louis IX [end p1] of France only to die in the Holy Land two years later. An early and not entirely successful example of Franco-British defence cooperation.

His widow subsequently married a member of the Bruce family, and their son was Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland. He inflicted a certain amount of damage—or a crushing defeat, depending on your point of view—on the English forces at the Battle of Bannockburn in the year 1314.

For the English, it was an early example that forward defence does not work unless backed up by an adequate deterrent, kept up-to-date as necessary. I would also point out that the victorious Scots forces were armed with pikes, while the defeated English horsemen had lances—perhaps there is a moral there too.

Subsequently Scotland and England came together by the Act of Union—that was in the days before you needed a Two-Plus-Four group to deal with the external consequences. And since then Britain has led the way in having the sort of multinational forces which are only just now coming into vogue in NATO.

So you see, Secretary General, we may be on the fringes geographically, but the tradition of strong defence and involvement in Europe really does go back a long way in this part of the world.

NATO's Success

Manfred WörnerSecretary General, this meeting takes place shortly after President Gorbachev 's visits to Canada and to the United States for the very successful Summit with President Bush. President Mitterrand visited the Soviet Union just before that and I am on my way there now. [end p2]

Such an intense series of high-level meetings between Western and Soviet leaders would have seemed quite remarkable only a couple of years ago. Today it does not seem unusual—a measure of how far we have come in a short time and of how much we have to thank NATO for.

I think the simplest explanation for NATO was given by one of its great architects, President Truman: “We hope that it will prevent World War III” , he said, and it has.

But it has done more than that. NATO has surely been the most successful Alliance in history. It has deterred war without ever having to fight a war. It halted the spread of communism. It has demonstrated unprecedented unity and resolve amongst its members, reaching a high point in the decision to deploy Cruise and Pershing 2 in 1979, despite Soviet intimidation. It kept the hope of freedom alive in the hearts of millions beyond the Iron Curtain and it finally convinced the Soviet leaders that the Cold War, which they had instigated, had done far more damage to their own country and cause—economically, politically and morally—than it ever did to the democratic nations.

All this required something in addition to weapons. In addition to an Alliance we had to keep our faith, our resolve and our nerve. And we did.

As a result, we are probably more secure now than we have ever been. NATO has been the foundation for everything else we enjoy: our freedom, our rule of law, our prosperity. [end p3]

In this centenary year of President Eisenhower 's birth, we pay special tribute to the staunchness and generosity of the United States and Canada in stationing their forces in Europe through all these years. We in Europe have been fortunate to have such allies.

New Challenges

But of course success creates new problems. For much the greater part of NATO's existence, our task has been to defend our way of life against an aggressive enemy with an expansionist ideology. The issues were stark. We knew where we stood and what we stood for.

Now the landscape with which we became so familiar as we looked Eastward is changing radically. Communism has crumbled, it has lost all credibility, even among nominal believers. The countries of Eastern Europe are reaching out to the West. We no longer think of them as potential enemies or as part of a wider threat to our way of life. They are friends in need of help, wanting to return to their rightful place in Europe.

Soviet forces are withdrawing from almost all of Eastern Europe. Politically, NATO no longer has a clear front-line. Militarily, the Defence Planning Committee concluded in its recent communique: “The implementation of a CFE Treaty will virtually eliminate the possibility of a surprise attack on NATO.” Not an attack, note, but a surprise attack. In short, things look very different from a year ago.

This does not diminish the need for NATO. Confronted with the sort of turbulence and uncertainty about the future which we see in the Soviet Union and parts of Eastern Europe, it would be folly [end p4] to believe disarmament could never again become re-armament, that ploughshares could not be re-fashioned into swords or worse.

The Soviet Union still has a formidable military capability and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And there could be new threats to our security originating from outside Europe altogether. We must keep our capacity effectively to deter and defend ourselves. You do not cancel your home insurance policy just because there have been fewer burglaries in your street in the last twelve months. To anyone who asks: “Has NATO a future?” , we reply with a resounding “Yes” .

But that does not rule out changes to face a new situation—indeed it strengthens the case for them. The eclipse of other defence organisations like SEATO and CENTO illustrates what can happen if an Alliance fails to move with the times once it has fulfilled its immediate purpose. [end p5]

The task of your meeting and the NATO Summit which we shall hold in London next month is to strike the right balance between preserving the essentials of NATO as it is now, and adapting it to new circumstances.

We need to consider how to extend NATO's role from preventing war to building peace; to identify the threats we shall face in future and the forces and strategies we need to meet them; and to look at how NATO will fit with the many other organisations which will be managing Europe's future.

If we succeed, we ensure that NATO remains as relevant, indeed as pivotal, in the next phase as in the past.

NATO's enduring Principles

Some absolutely fundamental elements of NATO we must take with us into the future and I believe there are four:

First, we must maintain secure defence. Past history, in particular our experience with the Leage of Nations, has shown that political commitments and undertakings alone cannot provide security. [end p6]

Our predecessors in 1919 were idealists, but they led us into dreamland. At this new turning point in Europe's history—even fuller of promise than 1919 and 1945—we must not make the same mistake. Sufficient forces and weapons keep us secure, not fine words.

And second, we should continue to provide for our defence and our security collectively. Stability in Europe depends upon the Western countries standing together. Were we to let NATO's integrated structure fall apart because the military threat is no longer pereceived as so acute, we should take a big step backwards towards the bad old days of European power politics, pursued ultimately by force.

A very important part of this collective approach will be to ensure that a united Germany is a full member of NATO and its integrated military structure. The people of both parts of Germany want that; NATO's members want that; and most of the countries in Eastern and Central Europe want that.

There will need to be transitional arrangements for Soviet forces in the former GDR, together with other safeguards to meet Soviet concerns—and we shall have to work at those. But once we have all accepted the right of the German people to determine their future and unite, we cannot dictate their associations or alliances. Indeed, the Helsinki Agreements specifically reaffirm the right of countries to choose whether or not to belong to an alliance.

And the third point: we must preserve the United States' presence in Europe—in both conventional and nuclear weapons. President Bush 's strong commitment to America's continuing role is [end p7] is very welcome indeed. The presence of United States forces in Europe is essential to balance Soviet strength, even after recent changes, but more than that, the Atlantic Community, the drawing together of the United States and Europe, is the very heart of NATO. If the price of reconstructing Europe were to be the disintegration of that Atlantic Community, I for one should fear for the future.

The fourth point: our defence will continue to require nuclear weapons in Europe. Without adequate nuclear weapons, kept up-to-date and based forward in Europe, our defence would be very much less secure. The lesson of the last forty years is that nuclear deterrence in Europe works. It remains the best guarantee of our defence and security and that applies particularly for those who would be in the front-line if there were to be a new conventional war.

We should keep the numbers of nuclear weapons and the types of delivery systems which we need under review. President Bush 's decision to terminate work on the successor to Lance and on modernisation of nuclear artillery showed that we are ready to take account of changed circumstances. We can also start to think about our objectives in negotiations to reduce short-range, ground-launched nuclear missiles. But we must retain sufficient nuclear weapons, and the means of delivering them, to meet our long-term security needs. Our job, as Ministers responsible for our countries' defence and security, is to take the long view. That is what our predecessors in the 1940s and 1950s did and as a result, we have enjoyed peace. [end p8]

New Directions

Those principles—secure defence and collective defence, the transatlantic connection and credible nuclear deterrence—should be strongly reaffirmed by the Summit. They represent the enduring pillars of NATO, as important for the future as they were in the past, but there are other areas where we can and should adapt NATO to the new situation it faces and I have identified three military elements and two political ones. The three military ones:

First, should be ready to update NATO's military strategy to deal with the new situation created by Soviet troop withdrawals and the prospect of a CFE Agreement.

There are many questions to be answered. Does forward defence in the Central Region still make sense in these circumstances? Or should we think more in terms of defence in depth and greater reliance on mobility, flexibility and reserves? Such a change would have implications for the size of the forces which a country like Britain stations forward in Europe.

The second military point: ought NATO to give more thought to possible threats to our security from other directions? There is no guarantee that threats to our security will stop at some imaginary line across the mid-Atlantic. It is not long since some of us had to go to the Arabian Gulf to keep oil supplies flowing. We shall become very heavily dependent on Middle-Eastern oil once again in the next century. With the spread of sophisticated weapons and military technology to areas like the Middle East, potential threats to NATO territory may originate more from outside Europe. [end p9]

Against that background, it would be only prudent for NATO countries to retain a capacity to carry out multiple roles with more flexible and versatile forces.

The third military point: we shall need to look afresh at NATO's organisation and structure. The arguments for ratiionalising military production, with a greater role for competition, will become more compelling. We should examine the feasibility of making NATO forces more multi-national. As we reduce our forces, NATO must remain at the forefront of new military technology.

I believe that President Reagan 's Strategic Defence Initiative and his determination to keep it going had an important part in bringing about the change of approach in Moscow some years ago.

All these matters need to be considered and they amount to a very full agenda, but while NATO's primary role will remain defence, we should also be thinking about how to give the Alliance a more effective political role, because that, too, can contribute to our security, and there are two points on this:

First, we should make NATO the main forum for transatlantic dialogue. I remember many years ago President Kennedy proposed a Declaration of Interdependence of the two sides of the Atlantic and I hope we could revive that spirit.

We owe a very great debt to the United States for the enormous contribution which they make to preserving peace not only in Europe and the Atlantic, but in the Pacific and indeed, right around the Globe. We should do everything we can individually and [end p10] collectively to support and underpin them. As part of that, we should give greater weight to political consultation on wider world problems within NATO as the forum which brings together the United States, Canada and Europe.

Indeed, I would like to see us build up the transatlantic relationship in other areas as well, such as trade and finance, as we are doing between the European Community and the United States, so that the network of common interests linking the two sides of the Atlantic is strengthened as we go into a new Millenium.

The world is changing faster than our ways of thinking. We need to be more imaginative and to work on a bigger canvas. More emphasis on NATO's political role and activities such as arms control and verification should make it easier for the Soviet Union to come to terms with NATO's continued existence and German membership of it, while at the same time helping us to maintain public understanding and support for NATO in our own countries.

The second aspect of that political role: we need to help the Eastern European countries feel more secure. By keeping NATO intact, we risk making them feel excluded at the very time that we want to draw them back into the mainstream of Europe, yet NATO cannot itself offer them security guarantees nor is it realistic to think of extending NATO's membership at present. What we can do is to build up the CSCE as the body within which political and security issues affecting Europe as a whole can be discussed.

President Mitterrand has spoken of a Confederation of European States. I have myself called for a Great Alliance for [end p11] Democracy, which would one day extend from the Atlantic to the Urals and beyond. I think we are all after the same objective: an area of political stability and economic progress, in which democracy and market economies are firmly rooted.

That is the best guarantee of the sovereign independence of the East European countries. The CSCE can never be a substitute for the defence guarantee that NATO provides, but it can provide a framework of growing trust and confidence which will make both East and West feel more secure—from the Atlantic right to the Urals.

In this way, Europe's future would be determined by three principal institutions:

the European Community, with a network of Association Agreements with Eastern Europe, as the engine of Europe's economic development and prosperity;

NATO as the guarantee of our security and the focus of the transatlantic partnership; and

the CSCE as the wider forum bringing in also the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for full discussion of all East-West issues. That would be a sturdy construction to ensure continuing peace and stability.


Secretary-General, I am leaving this meeting to travel to Moscow to meet President Gorbachev. The message I shall take is that NATO flourishes and will continue to do so, not as an alliance against anyone—NATO has never attacked anyone and will not in future—but as an alliance for freedom, justice and democracy, principles and values which are now ever more widely accepted across Europe. [end p12]

I hope your endeavours here and those of our Summit in July will enable us to preserve the best from NATO's successful past, while ensuring that our Alliance is just as strong and influential in the new world of the future.

I wish you a very good Conference! (applause)