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About this book

How does one of the world's greatest powers preserve its status and influence when international conditions are unfavourable and its resources do not match its commitments? This was Britain's burden in the 1970s and 1980s when the international order was transformed. Much became unsettled and Britain had to adapt policy to suit new needs and opportunities.

Michael J. Turner elucidates the efforts that were made to maximise Britain's role on those matters and in those parts of the world that were of special importance to British strategy, prosperity and security. He examines key decisions and their consequences and places British policy-making in an international context, suggesting that British leaders were more successful in preserving power and prestige on the world stage than has sometimes been appreciated.

Table of Contents

Introduction: ‘Doomed steadily to diminish’?

Abstract
To Margaret Thatcher, who served as Britain’s prime minister from May 1979 to November 1990, and to her colleagues and supporters, the Falklands War of 1982 marked a resurgence of British power and prestige after thirty or more years of decline. ‘The significance of the Falklands War was enormous’, Thatcher insisted, ‘both for Britain’s selfconfidence and for our standing in the world’.1 In offering this version of events during her premiership, Thatcher had necessarily to contrast the recovery of the 1980s with what had gone before. Yet the political and economic problems of the 1970s and the limits they imposed on Britain’s international role and influence were not as debilitating as was claimed, and similarly the increase in power and prestige of the 1980s was less dramatic and far-reaching than many contemporaries thought. These years present no simple trajectory of weakness and difficulty displaced by strength and success. What they present is a mixed record, but this is not to deny that there was something behind the idea that Britain’s standing in the world was much higher than it might have been, and higher than it should have been in view of Britain’s economic situation and military capabilities relative to the other great powers of the late twentieth century.
Michael J. Turner

1. Accommodating Change

Abstract
At the time and afterwards, some commentators regarded the 1960s as years of retreat for Britain, and this pattern appeared to carry on into the 1970s. The British had to contend with a growing number of challenges in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Far East and in the organizations and relationships that had become so important to Britain’s international role and status, not least NATO, the Commonwealth and the ‘special relationship’ with America. At home and abroad, debates about Britain’s place in the world centred not only on specific regions and institutions but also on the foundations of power, especially economic performance and military capability.
Michael J. Turner

2. Questions of Defence and Détente

Abstract
The needs and opportunities associated with defence and détente became increasingly important to British policy-makers. As the international order changed, security concerns remained constant, although they had to be addressed in new and sometimes unexpected ways. Despite moments of pessimism of the 1970s, the Helsinki Accords of August 1975 inspired hopes that détente was really working and that the world was a safer place as a result. The West recognized Soviet interests in Eastern Europe and the Soviets agreed to open up the eastern bloc for trade and to respect human rights. This appeared to represent a significant breakthrough. Yet there was no end to ongoing controversies within Britain. The most immediate and pressing issues included the modernization of the nuclear deterrent, the wish to preserve the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, and the difficult and connected tasks of improving Britain’s economic position and sustaining high levels of defence spending.
Michael J. Turner

3. The Beginning of a New World Order?

Abstract
In the early and mid-1970s, many observers thought they were witnessing the construction of a new world order based on bargaining, tolerance and mutual respect. The Americans and Soviets were serious about negotiating with each other, and SALT produced important agreements. Superpower détente affected and was affected by the thaw in Europe, where the status of Berlin, links between the two Germanys, and diplomatic, economic and other contacts between Western Europe and the USSR and eastern bloc were all being addressed. Britain’s international role and relationships began to change in line with these developments, but the change should not be exaggerated. The Cold War in Europe and beyond was certainly not ended, and hostility and suspicion were never eradicated. Western governments quarrelled with each other on a range of issues. In Asia there was a war between India and Pakistan. There was a coup in Chile. The Middle East saw war and an intensification of long-existing rivalries. The United States and Soviet Union went on competing with each other even while pursuing détente.
Michael J. Turner

4. Quarrelling with Allies

Abstract
However virulent the enmity and discord between East and West during the most difficult periods of the 1970s and 1980s, div isions within the West were sometimes just as pronounced. Britain was both a participant in these disputes and a would-be reconciler. Western leaders found a lot to argue about. The slow progress with SALT II was a concern; the Helsinki process, the pros and cons of East-West trade and the human rights agenda were much debated; and superpower détente and the thaw in Europe presented problems, as states and peoples struggled to find an eligible way forward. How could East-West links be stabilized when the two sides also saw the need to go on competing with each other? Outside Europe there was continuing unrest and violence, especially in the developing world. Inside Europe tension increased, primarily as a result of the political and economic rise of the FRG and the many points of friction in US-European relations.
Michael J. Turner

5. Confronting the Soviets

Abstract
In London it was thought that, although it could rise and fall, the threat posed by the Soviet Union was ever-present. The danger had many manifestations: direct and indirect, European and extra-European, military and strategic, political, ideological, diplomatic, economic and even, to some observers, social and cultural. Within Britain, and within the alliances and organizations to which Britain belonged, there were differing answers to the question of how to meet this threat. Discussions took in NATO’s ‘dual track’ policy and the relationship between defence enhancement and disarmament talks, the course of European détente and US-Soviet bargaining, the several elements of CSCE, the prospects for reform in the USSR and communist bloc, East-West trade, and what crises in Africa, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and elsewhere revealed about the nature of the international order and how it might evolve in the future.
Michael J. Turner

6. Multipolarity and Nuclear Weapons

Abstract
Among the many challenges facing Britain during the 1970s and 1980s were those connected with multipolarity and nuclear weapons. New diplomatic initiatives, a search for agreement, the vocabulary and practice of détente, and the rise of politically assertive and economically successful nations meant that Britain had to operate in a changing international environment. Superpower negotiations affected Britain, as did the internal dynamics and external impact of some of the organizations to which Britain belonged. Though the speed and extent of the move away from bipolarity in the world order should not be exaggerated, international relations were transformed in this period, and the British tried hard both to take advantage of the flexibility of others and to shield the national interests from new threats. Britain’s status as a nuclear power became a particularly difficult issue. Antinuclear opinion gained support in parliament and in the country, but defence policy was premised on the maintenance of a credible deterrent. The modernization of Britain’s nuclear forces and questions relating to NATO and collective security were increasingly contentious, and as arms control grew in international importance the future of Britain’s deterrent was placed in doubt.
Michael J. Turner

7. The Approach of Victory in the Cold War

Abstract
The problem of nuclear weapons proliferation outlasted the Cold War, which finally came to an end with the economic and political collapse of the USSR and eastern bloc. The Gorbachev reforms in the Soviet Union from the mid-1980s had a swift impact on the bloc, and the most dramatic change was the fall of the communist regime in the GDR, for there were no more potent or emotive symbols of the Cold War than the Berlin Wall and division of Germany. East Germany had developed as a disciplined one-party state. The GDR’s premier, Erich Honecker, disliked Gorbachev’s reforms, and his government and others in the eastern bloc became increasingly uncomfortable. Their position ultimately depended on Soviet readiness to intervene if they were challenged by internal opponents, but from 1985 Gorbachev was telling them to change with the times. In 1988 he announced a phased withdrawal of Soviet troops from the bloc. Moscow no longer saw Eastern Europe as a vital buffer, and Gorbachev wanted to persuade the West that there was no need to keep large forces and nuclear weapons directed against the USSR. Honecker defiantly declared that the GDR and Berlin Wall were permanent, yet he could not prevent popular agitation or the exodus from East Germany when Hungary opened its border with Austria in September 1989.1
Michael J. Turner

8. Extra-European Affairs

Abstract
Although Britain’s role outside Europe decreased after the 1960s, in some regions and on certain issues of concern it was not unimportant. The general pattern was to reduce overseas responsibilities or to share them with others. With respect to the course of the Cold War, it is significant that while the British were reviewing and drawing back from activities beyond Europe, the Soviets were increasing their role. The USSR’s problems were exacerbated by the commitments taken on by the Kremlin outside Europe. For Britain, Commonwealth relations, long-standing political and security interests, trade and finance and arrangements for economic and military aid directly influenced the measures pursued in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Africa in particular presented British leaders with awkward and complex situations during the 1970s and 1980s, and for the West as a whole there were difficulties in engaging with the developing world and in finding an antidote to Soviet intervention there.
Michael J. Turner

9. Dealing with the Middle East

Abstract
As crises in Africa multiplied during the 1970s and 1980s and were in many cases fomented by the great powers and intensified by their participation, the problems of the Middle East were also exacerbated by intervention from outside. Soviet links with Arab states and US support for Israel made a difficult situation considerably worse. The geographical location of the Middle East and its abiding strategic, economic and political significance in international affairs ensured that developments there had a wide effect. For Britain, with its historic associations with and surviving interests in the region, the task was to try to influence events without alienating others and in accordance with British needs, albeit in the context of limited resources and opportunities. The British remained involved in the Middle East primarily because of its oil, its role in British strategy and global communications, its importance in terms of trade and trade routes, and the political and diplomatic relationships that Britain wished to preserve in the region.
Michael J. Turner

10. The Falklands Crisis: Causes and Consequences

Abstract
For Britain the 1970s and 1980s represent a period of adjustment to changed circumstances in which British influence in the world was limited. A continuous effort was required to bring commitments into line with resources. It would be wrong, however, to characterize this period only in terms of retreat. After Britain’s victory over Argentina in the Falklands War, Thatcher declared that things had changed and that ‘Britain is great again’. She was exaggerating. By dismissing the preceding decades as years of failure and weakness, she was affirming that her own time in office should be seen in a different light. But the Falklands campaign was not a renewed attempt to restore Britain to its former world role. Although Britain went to war over the Falklands and committed itself to the defence of the islands, the usual practice was to limit obligations. Lack of resources had long since brought an end to the ‘global system’. The Falklands crisis was an isolated example. Britain generally preferred peaceful withdrawal, as with Rhodesia and Hong Kong.1 If the Falklands War was not an attempt to revive empire or recreate a world role, what was it? In truth, the war was an accident. It was unintended.
Michael J. Turner

Conclusion

Abstract
Confidence, prestige, influence and perseverance: British foreign policy during the 1970s and 1980s evinced all these qualities. There were reverses and retreats, but there were also successes. Britain continued to act like a great power and to be treated as such. Through consultation and negotiation and through diplomatic, political, economic and military measures, Britain remained an active participant in international affairs. The British went on pursuing their vital interests, and they could still sway others. Britain was no mere spectator. Although some major events of the 1970s and 1980s happened without British involvement, most did not. While there were significant agreements and relationships that did not depend on Britain’s input or approval, on the issues that most affected Britain there could be no progress and no resolution without a British contribution. Britain’s decline relative to other great powers of the late twentieth century is not in doubt, but the remarkable thing is not the decline but the ways in which it was hidden, denied, delayed and minimized. The Americans, Soviets and others were aware that Britain carried less weight in the world than it once had, but they also knew that they could not discount British influence.
Michael J. Turner
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