Denis Healey – 1985 Speech on Foreign Affairs and Overseas Development

Below is the text of the speech made by Denis Healey, the then Shadow Foreign Secretary, in the House of Commons on 8 November 1985.

Like the Foreign Secretary, I want to concentrate on the forthcoming Geneva summit where the leaders of the two most powerful countries in the world will meet. Our survival will depend in part on how that meeting goes. I strongly endorse the Foreign Secretary’s closing words in that regard.

I shall not talk about the economic problems facing the European Community, although the outlook is as depressing as I can ever remember. The Foreign Secretary referred to Spain and Portugal joining the Community just six weeks from now, but the last meeting of Community Finance Ministers failed utterly to take account of that in arrangements for the budget next year. We shall have an opportunity to discuss the Common Market budget next week, I believe, so some of those issues can be left until then.

I shall not talk about South Africa, which we debated a fortnight ago. I am sure that we shall return to the subject many times in the new Session. I do not applaud the choice of Lord Barber as the British representative on the Commonwealth mission—I do not think that the chairman of Standard Chartered Bank can be regarded as ​ totally without bias in these matters. I can only hope that the noble Lord distances himself as much from the Prime Minister on South African matters as he did from the Prime Minister’s views on monetary problems when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I should like to say just a word about Argentina. Even The Times welcomed the recent meetings between my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, me and the leader of the Liberal party and President Alfonsin on the grounds that they had decisively broken the taboo on discussions of Falklands problems. I hope that, in spite of what he said today, the Foreign Secretary will exploit the opportunities that we have offered him to produce an environment in which we can at least reduce the heavy burden on our economy and defences imposed by the Prime Minister’s Fortress Falklands policy.

The Foreign Secretary must recognise that practical co-operation with Argentina on matters such as fisheries and communications with the Falkland Islands are bound to depend on our readiness to discuss all aspects of the Falklands problem.

Let me pass to the summit meeting. I deplore the tendency by newspapers and the Government to treat this essentially as a propaganda battle and to pay excessive attention to who is winning the propaganda war. I gather that when the Prime Minister last conversed with President Reagan she asked for a repackaging of the American proposals, as though they would be more acceptable if presented in gift-wrapping rather than brown paper.
The Foreign Secretary was curiously evasive in telling us whether the proposals which the NATO council discussed on Wednesday last week were the same as those put to the Soviet Union on Friday. My understanding is that they were not. The NATO council has not, so far, discussed the proposals as they were presented last Friday to the Soviet Government.

The real issues that underlie this so-called propaganda war are of vital importance to the people of Britain no less than to the people of the United States and the Soviet Union. Like the editor of the Financial Times, I could only see as a profound let down the speech at the United Nations in which President Reagan trailed his approach to the summit. Even as a propaganda effort it was clearly aimed at the right wing in his own Republican party rather than at world opinion.

Of course it is important that the Soviet Union and the United States should discuss regional problems that might bring them to blows. I welcome the talks on these matters which have already taken place, at least at official level, although I doubt that the President was wise to talk in September about joint Soviet-American “intervention” in the Third world. But in his United Nations speech the President’s choice of issues was gravely one sided and his description, especially of what was happening in Nicaragua, was ludicrously distorted. Above all, he left out entirely the regional problems of the middle east where the risks to world peace are the greatest and where the Soviet Union and the United States are already directly and militarily involved.
In half of the middleeast—the eastern half—Russia and the United States have reached a close understanding about the Gulf war which has already been responsible for the loss of one million lives. They should be trying to bring it to an end rather than acting simply as co-belligerents ​ with Iraq. Surely they need to reach an understanding with the other half of the middle east on how to get peace between Israel and her neighbours.

I shall mercifully draw a veil over the lamentable diplomatic shambles that attended the recent visit of two PLO representatives to London. I shall draw a veil also over the American achievement in undermining America’s two best friends in the Arab world—King Hussein, by banning a contract to provide him with arms, and President Mubarak, by skyjacking the Egyptian aircraft and failing to apologise for doing so.

Now that the dust has settled, it is clearer than ever that no progress on the problems separating Israel from her Arab neighbours can be made without involving the PLO —both King Hussein and President Mubarak restated that during the past few days—nor can progress be made without the acquiescence, if not the positive co-operation, of both Syria and the Soviet Union. Until, somehow, diplomacy can create a framework that takes account of those two facts, all purely Western efforts to encourage a settlement are bound to fail. I hope that the Minister for Overseas Development will tell us precisely what the Prime Minister meant at Question Time the other day when she talked about the need for a framework for a new initiative for such talks. I believe that the framework must include the PLO, Syria and the Soviet Union.
I welcome the indications that Prime Minister Peres is now in contact with the Soviet Union and is seeking diplomatic recognition of Israel and the release of more Jews who wish to settle in his country. I hope very much that the summit at least assists in that regard.

The central problem facing the summit—the problem which has made it the focus of interest for thinking people all over the world—is whether it will help to bring the nuclear arms race to an end. My concern, which I have expressed many times to the House, is that the nuclear arms race is moving into an area that will make arms control more difficult and war more likely, unless it can be stopped now. It is a staggering fact that the United States and the Soviet Union between them now have 20,000 strategic nuclear warheads and well over 50,000 nuclear warheads, if one adds the intermediate and tactical weapons that they possess. Those 50,000 nuclear warheads amount to more than 1·5 million Hiroshima-size atomic bombs. If those arsenals of nuclear weapons were ever used there would be an eternity of nuclear winter.

Yet neither side has gained one jot in its security by pursuing this arms race during the past 40 years. Both have wasted colossal sums of money which would have been far better spent on improving the lot of their peoples and, indeed, the lot of the world.

So far, the stability of the nuclear balance between Russia and the United States has proved invulnerable to wide variations in their relative capabilities. It is now universally recognised, even by Mr. Richard Perle of the Pentagon, that there is broad parity in strategic nuclear weapons between the Soviet Union and the United States. For this reason deliberate aggression by one or the other is well nigh inconceivable at the moment.

However, the colossal size of their existing arsenals has encouraged both Governments to think more and more about the possibility not just of deterring but of fighting a nuclear war. Each suspects the other of hoping to win a nuclear conflict if it can destroy sufficient of the enemy’s retaliatory forces in a first strike, so that each side is also thinking about pre-empting an enemy first strike. Mr. ​ Richard de Lauer, the Pentagon’s chief of engineering, recently recommended the Trident D5 missile to Congress on the ground that it was a counterforce weapon which might give the United States a pre-emptive capacity. That is the weapon that the British Government are planning to buy at colossal cost from the United States for Britain’s forces.

The Soviet Union and the United States are developing, and beginning to deploy in some cases, two or three new inter-continental ballistic missiles, new strategic nuclear bombers, new air-launched cruise missiles and new missile-carrying submarines. The United States is planning to replace its obsolete nuclear weapons in Europe with new nuclear missiles and artillery warheads, and no doubt the Soviet Union is doing the same.

Fears on both sides of a first strike are bound to increase rapidly if these developments continue. A report of the recently published unclassified version of the latest CIA national intelligence estimate stated that Soviet air defences would not be able to

“prevent large-scale damage to the USSR”

by United States nuclear bombers and cruise missiles for at least the next decade— that is bombers and cruise missiles alone. More important, Trident D5 is said to offer the United States for the 1990s the capacity to destroy 95 per cent. of Soviet inter-continental ballistic missiles if it strikes first. The same CIA assessment reports that, at least until the year 2000, Russia could pose “no significant threat” to American atomic submarines.

Those figures from American sources take no account of the enormous destructive power of America’s ICBM force, which is based on land. In addition, President Reagan is planning to equip the United States with a ballistic missile defence, through his star wars programme, and is inviting the Soviet Union to follow suit. He told a BBC correspondent that his message to the Soviet Union was:

“We wish you well with your defence plans.”

That is a different story from what the Foreign Secretary told us today and the President could have fooled me, because a welcome and goodwill for the Soviets’ ballistic missile plans are the last views I have heard from Secretary Weinberger or Mr. Shultz.

President Reagan’s personal attitude to star wars has not wavered since he first made a speech recommending it in March 1983, when he said:

“The human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence.”

The President said that he was determined

“to find a way of defence which will make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”

Bruce Kent and Joan Ruddock could not have put the case for nuclear disarmament more forcibly. The President added that if

“defensive systems were paired with offensive systems they could be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy—and nobody wants that.”

The tragedy is that that is exactly what the President’s star wars programme is leading to. When the President made his speech in March 1983, nearly all the experts in the United States believed that it was nonsense, but when he made it clear in the following months that he was not to be shaken, they all switched round. In fact, there has never been such a mass conversion since a Chinese general baptised his troops with a hose.

Today, no one who is involved in the star wars programme shares President Reagan’s view of it—not ​ General Abrahamson, who is in charge of the whole project, not Dr. Yonas, who is the chief scientific adviser to the programme, and not Dr. Keyworth, who is the President’s chief scientific adviser.

The State Department’s official pamphlet on star wars, published a few months ago, said that the project is designed not to replace nuclear deterrence, but to enhance it. In other words, it is designed to threaten the existence of other nations and human beings more credibly. Its purpose is not to make nuclear weapons obsolete or to give the peoples of the world immunity from nuclear attack; its purpose, as has been welt described in speeches by Dr. Keyworth and in a speech by Dr. Yonas that I heard in Ottawa recently, is to protect America’s land-based missiles, rather than to protect the American people. For that reason, it is bound to accelerate the arms race in both offensive and defensive systems and will lead exactly to the consequence against which President Reagan warned in his speech two and a half years ago. It will also lead to a situation in which, to use the recent words of Mr. Nitze, the

“growth of defences could support rather than discourage a first strike.”

That is why the star wars programme has been publicly opposed by the last three American Presidents—by Republican Presidents Ford and Nixon no less than by the Democrat President Carter—and by at least three of the last four American Defence Secretaries—by Republican Secretary Schlesinger no less than by Democrat Secretaries Brown and McNamara. In fact, the SDI programme in the United States is supported only by those who reject arms control in principle, such as Dr. Weinberger and Mr. Perle, and, of course, by those who cynically hope to get a lot of money out of it. As the House knows, star wars is described by the military and industrial community in the United States as pennies from heaven.

The President is sticking doggedly to his original vision, but he is alone. In spite of his words on the BBC, no one really believes that President Reagan’s successor —it will not be a decision for the present President—will give the Soviet Union the secrets of the star wars programme if it turns out to work.

After all, only the other day the American Administration forced the British Customs and Excise to take a child’s computer off the shelves of the duty-free shop at Heathrow because it might find its way to the Soviet Union.
Indeed, both American law and the ABM treaty forbid the United States to give information about ballistic missile defences even to its allies, including the United Kingdom. That fact casts an odd light on the idea of the Secretary of State for Defence that British firms could get great benefits from doing research for the United States into the SDI programme.

President Reagan told Soviet journalists last week that he would not deploy star wars until both sides had destroyed their offensive weapons, but on the very next day he was forced by his advisers to withdraw that undertaking. He then went to the other extreme and said that the United States would deploy star wars unilaterally if it could not get other world leaders to agree to an international system of defence against nuclear missiles. So much for the undertakings that the President gave to our Prime Minister in December. He now tells us not that he will consult or negotiate about deployment, but that if it proves feasible he will deploy unilaterally unless everybody else in the world agrees with him.

The European allies had grave misgivings about the star wars programme from the word go. Those misgivings were superbly listed by the Foreign Secretary in the speech to which he referred earlier and for which, I am told—I hope that I am wrong—the Prime Minister later apologised to President Reagan. If that is not true, I hope that we may be told so. The Foreign Secretary does not rise to respond to that challenge.

The tragedy is that the European allies did not make their position crystal clear in time. On the contrary, the Washington correspondent of The Sunday Times and The Guardian told us from American sources in September that the Prime Minister had used her support for SDI to try to get President Reagan’s support for buying the Ptarmigan project and threatened to withdraw her support for SDI if she did not get the Ptarmigan contract. The House will agree that The Times showed unusual innocence recently in asking why President Reagan delayed until this week publishing the decision, which must have been taken long ago, to buy the French system instead, even though President Mitterrand has openly opposed the star wars programme from the start.

Of course, the reason for the delay is obvious. The President wanted to be sure that he had our Prime Minister in the bag at the NATO meeting before he announced his decision. He took her for a ride. She gained nothing by sucking up to President Reagan except to explode the myth of a special relationship with the United States. Her only reward was another spillage of rancid bile from the Prince of Darkness, Mr. Richard Perle, who, according to The Sunday Times last week, accused her of following Baldwin and Chamberlain in appeasing the Soviet Union. He did so because she had dared to question Mr. Perle’s propaganda about certain alleged Soviet violations of the ABM treaty.

I agree with the Foreign Secretary that it is still possible for America’s European allies to exert a decisive influence on American policy in this area, provided that they are united and honest on a clear policy. There is always a power battle in Washington between the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and various parts of the Congress about almost every element of American foreign and defence policy. That power battle can be swung in Europe’s direction provided that Europe makes its views known in time. The best example of that was when united European pressure on the American Administration gave victory to Mr. Shultz over Mr. Weinberger on the interpretation of the ABM treaty on testing. I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the part that he must have played in mobilising European support for that interpretation.

I strongly support the Foreign Secretary’s view—I have said so many times—that a collective European approach to the defence and diplomatic problems facing the Alliance is essential if we are to proceed in the direction of peace rather than war. It is important that Europe should constitute an independent pillar within the Alliance. I shall devote my remaining remarks to what Britain and Europe should be pressing the United States for in relation to the arms talks and the forthcoming summit.

The greatest danger of the arms race lies in the quality of the new weapons being planned rather than in the quantity of the old weapons. By far the best objective in the arms talks would be to seek a freeze on the testing, ​ development and deployment of new nuclear weapons. A nuclear freeze already has overwhelming popular support on both sides of the Atlantic as well as almost unanimous support in the United Nations.

Of course, a freeze is not without its own difficulties. There is a problem in deciding the point at which one cuts off programmes already under way. I believe that, since the two sides enjoy rough parity, that problem should not be difficult to overcome. Certainly it would be much easier to negotiate a freeze than a reduction in existing weapons when the pattern of the two sides’ deterrence is so different. Moreover, a freeze would be much easier to verify than a reduction in forces because it is easier to tell whether a new weapon is being tested than to know whether a weapon photographed by satellite is within a permitted ceiling.

The Prime Minister has made a great deal in the House of saying that it is not possible to verify a ban on research. She said that again the other day. That is true in relation to research in brains or in laboratories, but it is possible to verify a ban on the external testing associated with research, especially since public sources tell us that western satellite intelligence photography has a resolving power which enables its possessor positively to identify objects as small as 150 cms. across.

The United States Defence Department has already published a list of the tests that it plans to carry out as part of its SDI research programme, because it knows that Russia can and will observe them. Surely our objective, which we should press on our European allies to press on the United States, should be to tighten the ABM treaty so as to ban all tests relating to space defence—on both sides. That would kill not only the SDI before its birth but the possibility of a Soviet breakout.

I agree with the Foreign Secretary that the Russians have indulged in a great deal of activity in space defence in the last 15 years, but none of that activity could come to fruition in a new space defence system if tests were banned now.

If one seeks a ban on observable tests relating to SDI, one must also ban the development of anti-satellite systems on both sides. I remember Mr. Richard Burt, when he was still working at the State Department last December, saying that the United States would be proposing such a ban. However, the United States has not put forward such a proposal and Mr. Burt is now ambassador in Bonn. One can only guess at the new American policy.

Surely the United States has a major interest in banning anti-satellite systems now because it claims that the Soviet Union is ahead. Indeed, as the Foreign Secretary said, the Soviet Union is the only country which has a working ASAT system, although I believe it is a primitive one. Moreover, nothing would be more dangerous than for each side to acquire the ability to rob the other of its eyes and ears in a crisis. Dr. Keyworth, the President’s main scientific adviser, pointed out the other day that if America develops an anti-satellite system it will enable it to test its technologies for each of the three layers of space defence. If we do not reach agreement on a ban on anti-satellite activity now it will soon become very difficult to verify because the Americans plan to carry their anti-satellite weapons on F15 aircraft. They will be difficult to detect by what the Russians call “national means”, satellite photography.

By far the most important single contribution to a freeze would be a comprehensive test ban treaty. No one would deploy new nuclear weapons if they had never been tested in real life. It is only three years since the Prime Minister told us that negotiations for a comprehensive test ban treaty were going, alas, far too slowly and should be speeded up and completed. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government are now pressing for a reconvening of the conference for a CTBT because it would command overwhelming support in the rest of the world. The non-proliferation treaty review conference in Geneva the other day called upon the nuclear powers to start negotiations for a comprehensive test ban in the next six weeks—before the end of the year.

The only excuse offered for not proceeding to the signature of a comprehensive test ban treaty is the alleged inability of science to detect very small underground tests. However, this week’s issue of Modern Geology contains a long article by the leading British seismologist, Dr. Leggett of Imperial college, in which he demonstrates that there is no chance of the Soviet Union successfully evading detection if it breaks a comprehensive test ban. That chance has been further reduced since that article was written by the fact that in the last few days India, Sweden and four other neutral countries have agreed to make their territories available for monitoring a comprehensive test ban and to man seismological stations in the Soviet Union —which in principle the Soviet Union has already agreed to accept as part of a comprehensive test ban treaty.

Another contribution which Britain could make, especially since the United States believes that the phased array radar at Krasnoyarsk is intended to control a ballistic missile system, is to take up the Soviet offer to stop the development at Krasnoyarsk in return for stopping work to produce a phased array radar at Fylingdales and at Thule in Danish territory.

If the American Government are worried about Krasnoyarsk, here is an opportunity to get rid of both. There is no question that if such phased array radars, whether in the Soviet Union, Britain or Greenland, were used as battle management stations for ballistic missile defence, they would be a flagrant violation of the antiballistic missile treaty. I suggest that the Foreign Secretary should immediately approach the United States and say that we insist that the United States should negotiate on the Soviet offer to stop development in Krasnoyarsk in return for stopping development at Fylingdales and Thule, and will refuse to proceed with the development until and unless such negotiations begin.

The correspondent for The Times in Washington reported last week that diplomats and politicians are asking two questions about President Reagan. Can he cope? Does he know what he wants? The second question is unfair. He knows exactly what he wants from the star wars system, and he described his desires eloquently in his interview with the BBC. The trouble is that nobody believes that what he wants is attainable. He has been deceived by his advisers on star wars as he was deceived by those who told him that there is no word in the Russian language for freedom. That is another remark that he made in his BBC broadcast. Those who share his yearning, as I hope all of us in the House do, to base the security of the human race on something other than mutually assured destruction know that star wars is not the answer. To pursue the star wars mirage means only an accelerating arms race in both offensive and defensive nuclear weapons.

The truth lies elsewhere. We need a freeze on all new nuclear weapons as the basis of our negotiation on the more complex but less urgent task of reducing the number of existing weapons. I agree with what I hope the Foreign Secretary implied, that that task, at least in Europe, could be achieved quite quickly, certainly if the British and French Governments would agree to let their forces be counted in the balance.

I regret that the Prime Minister, as the Foreign Secretary told us, has refused to talk directly to the Soviet Union about British weapons, but I welcome the fact that she has agreed to let the Foreign Secretary talk to Mr. Shevardnadze about wider aspects of disarmament on a bilateral basis. I am asking the British Government to take a lead in bringing the world back to sanity, to halt and reverse the nuclear arms race and to offer us a future to which out children can look forward with hope rather than with despair.