Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to the Aspen Institute ("Managing conflict - the role of international intervention")

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Aspen, Colorado
Source: Thatcher Archive: press release
Editorial comments: Embargoed until 1830.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4141
Themes: Civil liberties, Defence (general), Foreign policy (Asia), Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (International organizations), Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Science & technology

Managing Conflict — The Role of International Intervention


It's five years almost to the day since George Bush and I met here in Aspen on the morning after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

Speaking from this platform five years ago, I said that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait defied “every principle for which the United Nations stands. If we let it succeed, no small country can ever feel safe again. The law of the jungle would take over from the rule of law” . And I concluded: “a vital principle is at stake: an aggressor must never be allowed to get his way.”

The Gulf War which followed was a superb example of how best to manage conflict. It was marked above all by the closest cooperation between Britain, the United States and of course our host country, Saudi Arabia.

The policy worked but it has been abandoned in the case of Bosnia.

I will return to this matter later.

In the meantime I do not much like the expression “managing conflict” . It reminds me of Harold Macmillan's maxim that Government is not about problems you can solve but about situations which you have to live with. I have never accepted such a complacent or frankly defeatist approach. In my view you don't manage conflicts, you do all you can to prevent them by always being strong and resolute; and if you have to go to war, you prevail in defence of liberty and democracy.


The end of the Cold War was the most significant political event of my lifetime: but it did not mean the end of conflict.

There will always be conflict: it is part of human nature, part of the eternal battle between good and evil.

There will always be those who are prepared to use force to attain their objectives — dictators will not suddenly become an extinct species.

Legacies of the century…

Moreover, the history of this century, with its two world wars, its great ideological struggles and its scientific discoveries, has created its own legacies which affect our calculations today and will continue to do so well into the future.

First, unprecedented scientific advances are putting more powerful weapons than ever before in the hands of evil men.

The temptation for them to make sudden unexpected strikes against neighbouring countries with the expectation of success is growing. But not only are the weapons more advanced, the ability to deliver them to any target has also been greatly extended. In the age of ballistic missiles the battlefield has ceased to have a specific geographical limit.

The second legacy of this century has been the break up of empires: whether through defeat in battle, as in the case of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Italian and Ottoman empires; or through political change and evolution, such as the French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Belgian, and British empires. We have seen and in some cases are still seeing, the often bloody aftermath of their demise in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Third, the collapse and decay of these empires was matched

by the creation of artificially constructed states, put together by the map-drawers of the Twentieth Century after World War One, often with little regard to the natural aspirations of the populace or their ethnic and religious differences. Yugoslavia and Iraq were two such new countries.

Fourth, when Lenin seized power in Russia, in 1917, having lost the election, a new despotism was born: communism. And so began the first ideological empire with global ambitions. It took seventy three years for the Soviet Union to implode and break into 15 separate states, but the effects of this oppressive regime continue to haunt its peoples' progress towards freedom and democracy. Stalin's ethnic management, the transportation of whole peoples thousands of miles from their homelands, the redrawing of internal borders, all have left millions displaced and bitter.

These several upheavals of our century have resulted in a world of nation states, speckled with minorities, many splintered from their “homelands” . The world's borders can't be redrawn by force to give each minority independence, or to return them to their “parent state” . In a well governed, reasonably prosperous state in which individual rights and, where appropriate, local autonomies are respected, there is no reason why national minorities should suffer oppression or have a destabilising effect. Under freedom and democracy, differences can be resolved peacefully — as in the case of Czechoslovakia which by agreement separated into two independent states.


In the post-Cold War world the nature of the conflicts we are most likely to face is changing.

The good news is … that we, the nations nurtured in freedom, have won the ideological battle of this century against a system of total central planning and control, ruthlessly enforced.

For we must not forget the toll which Communism has exacted. Professor R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii has observed that while this century has seen 36 million people killed in battle at least 119 million more have been killed by government genocide, massacres, and other mass killing — as many as 95 million by communist regimes.

Democracy is spreading the world over, throughout Latin America, the former Communist Bloc, and into Africa and Asia. Freedom House, an organisation which monitors these things, reports that there are now 75 free nations. Instant information, rising prosperity and the appeal of individual freedom are proving to be a powerful combination. And history shows that genuine democracies do not go to war with each other, so the spread of true democracy not only fulfils our ideals, it serves our security interests as well and makes it less likely that we shall have major conflicts in the future.

The newly independent nations of Central and Eastern Europe which were once part of the Warsaw Pact now look toward NATO for their defence. After their terrible experiences this century, invaded and occupied both from the west and the east, we owe them NATO membership — and a welcome. It is not for others to dictate or attempt to veto our actions. These nations need the assurance of greater security.

With the demise of the Soviet Union the prism of East/West rivalry through which the world was viewed for forty years, has gone. Problems which once seemed intractable are now being resolved: South Africa, the Middle East, and across Central America and South East Asia.

The risk of nuclear conflict in the European-Atlantic area has all but disappeared. Nevertheless, we should not forget that large numbers of the nuclear weapons which once threatened us are still in place.

Nor do I fear a major conflict between the principal powers in Asia, despite the rising military strength of Japan and China, provided always that the United States remains engaged in the Pacific, acting as the crucial balancing force to check conflicting ambitions there.

The bad news is … that ironically, we shall find ourselves in a more disorderly world because the “certainties” of the old Cold War world are over. But let me say that I for one feel no nostalgia for those times.

It was because of Communism's ambition of global hegenomy that the arsenals which now furnish the means of bloody conflict in the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa were first built up.

We also face the increasing dangers of nuclear proliferation as Soviet materials and expertise find their way to regimes which would have fewer scruples about their use.

At the same time the discipline which the Communist powers exerted over their Third World client states has decayed, paradoxically giving such international outlaws as Saddam Hussein and North Korea greater freedom to cause trouble.

And we will have to deal with what a recent article in Foreign Affairs described as, “wars of national debilitation, a steady run of uncivil, civil wars sundering fragile but functioning nation states” . These are the Somalias, the Haitis, the Rwandas, internal conflicts whose consequences extend beyond their borders, either because television pictures of atrocities and deprivation move people in our own countries to demand intervention, or because their victims and refugees spill over into neighbouring countries which lack the resources to cope with them.


In the nineteen-twenties the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega Y Gasset, complained that his was the first generation in which educated men knew no history: not only did people not know the past, but they had lost a sense of history and of history's relevance to the present and future.

So what does history teach us?

Never appease an aggressor…

To me the most significant lesson is: never appease an aggressor. If we do, he will only grow stronger and more confident, and to secure his ultimate defeat will require greater effort and greater sacrifice. The longer you put off the needed decision and action, the higher the price in blood which has to be paid.

In the Gulf War we remembered that lesson and the aggressor was defeated.

Bosnia …

But, as I have said, it has been abandoned in the case of Bosnia. The Serb aggressor is being appeased, while we do not even allow the Bosnians to be supplied with the arms with which to defend their homes, their women and their children. It is not just temporary interests but abiding principles which are at stake in Bosnia. Feeding and evacuating the victims rather than giving them the means to resist aggression makes us accomplices, rather than good samaritans.

Those governments with troops in Bosnia have not been using the full powers available to them under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, to keep safe havens safe, to see that humanitarian aid gets through, and to repulse the aggressor — all of which are covered in Resolutions 770, 816, 824 and 836. Let me emphasise the point because some politicians and commentators do not seem to have grasped it: these Resolutions are enforcement mandates, not consent mandates. They allow UNPROFOR to use force to achieve certain specific tasks. The failure to do so positively encourages the aggressor and other potential aggressors. Indeed, our weakness in the Balkans could have dangerous and unpredictable consequences elsewhere.

In the history of injustice the Serb aggressor has descended to depths of brutality we never thought to see again, let alone in the heart of Europe. Moral conscience alone should have prompted us to respond differently. But even national self-interest would suggest the same conclusion.

Greater Serbianism, hatched, reared and nourished in Belgrade, is the force which has unleashed this terrible war. Only when it is defeated and the Serbian nation looks at the world differently in the wake of that defeat will peace and order return.

That strategic judgement requires lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia and its Croatian allies and then providing them with the heavy weapons and training to reverse the aggression. The arguments deployed against this proposition are as logically flawed as they are morally repulsive.

First, it is suggested that if the victims were properly armed that would prolong the conflict. This not only implies that victory for the aggressor is the best possible outcome; it also implies that the Serbs are bound to win. In fact, that is wrong. Anyone who believes that peace will be achieved at the expense of the rape of Croatia and the murder of Bosnia deludes himself: their populations will fight on. But by contrast, if given access to sufficient weapons to match the Serbs on the battlefield, the Bosnians and Croats are capable of winning back most or all of their land . That is both the just — and the quicker — way to end the conflict.

Thank goodness that great Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when asked by Churchill to “Give us the tools and we'll finish the job” , didn't reply “Oh no, that'll only increase the fighting and lengthen the war” !

Second, it is suggested that lifting the arms embargo and allowing the Croats and Bosnians to retake their territory would lead to some wider Balkan War. This too is nonsense.

Serbia is the only likely aggressor in the Balkans. The more the Serbs are pinned down in Bosnia by a well armed Bosnian army, the less they will be able to concentrate on exterminating or expelling the populations of Kosovo and Sandjak; the less inclined they will be to force the Hungarian minority out of Vojvodina; the less they will be tempted to walk into Macedonia. So the less likely it also is that Albania, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece or Hungary would become involved. All the metaphors about “containing” the conflict and “avoiding throwing petrol on the flames” are, as is so often the case with metaphors, an excuse for muddled thinking. The bully of the Balkans is Serbia — no-one else. And only by cutting that bully down to size will peace in the Balkans result.

Third, we are told that a military solution is impossible and that these matters have to be settled by negotiation. Doubtless at some point negotiation will be necessary — but only when the aggressor has been finally convinced by military means that his aggression will no longer pay. For let us have no doubt about the nature of these men with whom we are exhorted to negotiate. Mr Karadzic, reassuring Bosnian Serb military personnel of his regime's tactics, said: “Pay no attention to what we do at the conferences, as all maps are transient, and only what you hold is eternal. Hold every village of ours, and do not worry.” Or listen to General Mladic, when he described diplomacy as just one more tool to achieve unchanged objectives: “In order to succeed, you have to be devious; tell them one thing one time, and another thing at another time.” Those who negotiate with war criminals have only themselves to blame when they serve, in Lenin's words, as “useful idiots” .

So the essential condition for bringing the war in Bosnia to a quicker as well as a just conclusion is the lifting of the arms embargo, as the US Senate, Congress and the Islamic countries have seen. Moreover, that embargo is not just immoral but quite possibly illegal. The evidence is now overwhelming, as Mr Mazowiecki's damning reports show, that Bosnia has been the scene of genocide. The embargo prevents the Bosnian Government taking action to protect its population. It is bad enough to prevent a sovereign state from defending itself. It is far worse, and surely against any proper understanding of international law, to force it to acquiesce in genocide. Yet this is what the United Nations Security Council is effectively doing. The time has come for individual states to break with this hypocrisy and arm the victims.

Keep your defences strong…

The basic problem as regards our failure in Bosnia is lack of resolve rather than lack of means. But if we are to resist future tyrants and dictators, it is vital that the democracies maintain their military strength and keep up their technological lead. It is not strength which causes wars, but weakness.

But on that count, too, I fear that we are failing to heed the lessons of history. If present trends of reducing defence spending continue, I doubt whether any European country will have sufficient properly structured and equipped forces to make it possible to intervene effectively in distant conflicts, which are the sort most likely to face us in future. And even the United States, traditionally the bastion of NATO and the free world, has downgraded efforts to secure an effective defence against ballistic missiles, thus exposing itself to future threat. I believe that to be short-sighted. It is vital for the democracies to keep technological superiority at all times.

Don't rely on the United Nations…

It was premature and far too euphoric to announce the emergence of a new world order in the wave of relief which swept over us following the defeat of Communism. New world orders don't just emerge, they have to be painstakingly created. Personally, I don't believe there will ever be a new world order. We delude ourselves. The search for such an order becomes an alibi for inaction on the real problems.

We have also expected the United Nations to fulfil a role for which it is ill-suited. The UN is a noble ideal but, many of its members — possibly a majority of them — are ambivalent about the principles on which the UN is founded built. So it is not an organisation in which integrity and objective standards always prevail.

The mistake has also been made of assuming that only the UN can confer legitimacy and moral authority to intervene in conflicts. We had that argument over the Gulf War: I remember it very well. We obtained a Security Council Resolution requiring her to withdraw from Kuwait. It was necessary to secure a further Resolution for the use of force. That right was there, in Kuwait's inherent right of self-defence, which existed long before the UN and which is affirmed but not created by Article 51 of the UN Charter. For some governments it was politically convenient to have the endorsement of the UN for action, but it was neither legally nor morally necessary.

Nation states must take the lead…

There will always be situations where we must be ready to use force. And it should be nation states rather than the UN which take the lead. Only nations are capable of acting with the necessary decisiveness and purpose, provided always that they have strong leadership. There is a tendency which has recently grown up to regard the source of all ills as nationalism. Nationalism, if untamed by respect for human rights and unchecked by democracy, can be a force for evil. But this has nothing to do with nation states with a long history of liberty, justice and democracy. You need such states because they are the only real deterrent to violence and aggression, and because it is their armed forces which actually defeat tyranny.

In most cases when it comes to action there will be no substitute for the leadership of the United States, which must be able to rely on the practical support and goodwill of those who believe in liberty. Multinational force is almost always preferable to UN force: we saw that in the Gulf.

There will be those who say that the US and its allies are acting arrogantly as a sort of self-appointed Sheriff's posse, and who wring their hands about lack of legal and moral justification for intervention. But a policy which sets out to defeat an aggressor does not need the sanction of the UN. The UN does not have to tell us where we should spend our treasure and spill our blood if the cause is liberty and the reversal of aggression. Legitimacy does not come from the blessing of shifting majorities at the UN but from the justice of our cause.

I have tried to outline the principles which should underpin our approach to future conflict. May I now offer some guidelines by which we should test our response.


How we act in any specific situation, where we draw the line between intervention and abstention, between unilateral and multilateral action, will always be a matter of judgment. By that I mean honourable judgement, not frightened and expedient judgment. None of us can accept unlimited responsibilities and geography must play a part. If Governments are to ask their people and their armed forces to accept major risks and sacrifices, they must be able to convince them that real national interests and important principles are at stake.

They will be helped in that task if we set ourselves some ground-rules for intervention.

First, and let me repeat it, never forget that the inherent right of self-defence precedes all international law and convention.

Second, it is not necessarily right to be impartial when intervening in a conflict. The UN's greatest failure in the case of Bosnia has been its seeming inability to distinguish between right and wrong, between victims and aggressors. This was partly because we mistakenly allowed the humanitarian objectives to become paramount. That may have seemed attractive as a means of obtaining wider international support. But it condemned the operation to a fundamental confusion of purpose from which it never recovered. As a result, the democratically elected government of the sovereign state of Bosnia and its forces were treated as on a par with the para-military thugs who held up convoys and demanded their cut.

Third, we should only intervene in conflicts when we have a clear idea of the outcome which we want to achieve. We knew exactly what our purpose was in Kuwait, though I am still troubled that we did not set our sights high enough and insist upon Saddam's surrender. But in Somalia, let alone in Bosnia, there has been no equivalent sense of purpose, no clear objectives for outside intervention, and consequently in both cases intervention has failed. The rule should be that when we commit ourselves, it is with the determination to achieve a clearly defined objective, knowing that we have available the military means to prevail.

Fourth, governments should never again agree to hybrid missions like the one in Bosnia where responsibility is divided between the United Nations and NATO. If the UN wants to contract a task out to NATO, it must leave NATO to get on with it instead of indulging in second-guessing and back-seat driving. There must be a clear structure of command and control. You cannot be half-responsible for military operations: it must be all or nothing.

Last, pre-emptive strikes can in some circumstances be the only effective method of deterring or preventing the use of force by others. There are outlaw states whose intentions are demonstrably evil, whether supporting terrorism or developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons which will be used to threaten us. We are entirely justified under the right of self-defence in using force to prevent them from realising their ambitions. If it can be done by negotiation, of course that is better. But negotiations are rarely satisfactory with regimes for whom truth and honour mean nothing. Israel showed the way by its pre-emptive strike to destroy Iraq's nuclear potential in the early eighties. Just imagine what would have been the prospects for peace in the Middle East if Iraq had acquired nuclear weapons. Even so we had to deal with Iraq's nuclear capacity again in 1991. And the action taken by President Reagan against Libya, when Qadhafi was caught red-handed in acts of terrorism, proved remarkably effective in restraining its subsequent activities. The use of force in this way is never to be undertaken lightly. The risks will always be great. But if we give up the option of pre-emptive action, we deprive ourselves of the only language which evil regimes understand and the only effective measure to protect ourselves from their schemes.


With your indulgence, ladies and gentlemen, I have tried to set out and to justify some of the ground-rules of managing — or better, preventing and resolving — conflicts. I am not in the least embarrassed to admit that some of these require the application of moral principles: for where better to re-affirm that statesmanship ultimately has a moral purpose than here in America, a nation built on belief in the rights of man? Other guidelines I have suggested about when and how to intervene in conflicts are more directly practical. These do not contradict the moral principles: they merely help apply them. But, however great our indignation, some evils which occur are truly beyond our power to solve. Nevertheless, just because we cannot intervene everywhere, it does not follow that we cannot intervene anywhere. Both conscience and calculation are required to establish our duty in any set of circumstances.

I should add that in my experience this issue of whether and when to intervene is a great deal simpler in practice than in theory. If you have the right facts, the right instincts, the right habits of mind, and the right experience you should (if you aspire to be a statesman) know what you have to do.

That is why the failures of Bosnia are so alarming. If a minor, though well armed, aggressor can be left to commit genocide with impunity and, through our humiliation, put at risk the cohesion of the Western Alliance and the credibility of the United Nations, what else can go wrong? It is now vital that we learn the lessons of this failure; for other still more powerful would-be aggressors will have learned their own lessons from our weakness.

Not six years on from the end of Soviet domination in Europe, not four years from the Soviet Union's own collapse, we might have hoped for a better prospect than that which now unfolds before us. The atmosphere is of doubt, distrust and unease. And not without reason, for who knows what threats and turmoil the future holds? Who can now be confident of political leaders' willingness to confront them?

But they can be overcome. Our weaknesses are not inevitable. Our errors are not irreparable. Our sickness is not terminal. It is a crisis of the spirit, not a depletion of resources, that cripples us. Ours is the superior system, the victorious creed, the best, indeed the only, hope for a free and just, peaceful and prosperous world. Let us recall our principles — and live up to them.