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1991 - Mr Major’s Joint Press Conference with President Bush

Below is the text of Mr Major's joint press conference with President Bush on Thursday 29th August 1991.


PRESIDENT BUSH:

Over the past few months, ever since he has been Prime Minister, he and I have exchanged views, we have stayed in very close contact regarding a number of fast moving events on the international scene, I appreciate his counsel and his wise judgment. And in like manner we have had extremely useful talks on the current situation inside the Soviet Union and these exchanges are particularly important since he is off on Sunday to Moscow and will be able to share with the Soviet leadership our views and hopes for the Soviet peoples in a direct manner.

We stand united, as do other Western partners, in our commitment to help Soviet reform. The industrial democracies have already undertaken steps to aid the economic process, the programme that we established at the G7 meeting under John Major's chairmanship in London was a flexible programme, adaptable programme, as a matter of fact today the G7 sherpas are meeting in London to review the situation and exchange views on any further steps that can be undertaken.

But we must remember that the Soviet Union is undergoing a major political change and the Prime Minister and I also had a discussion about the Baltics. The US is a strong supporter of Baltic independence, we have so notified the Soviet Union and we have urged the Soviet leadership not to stand against the will of the inevitable, the winds of this inevitable change. The Baltics want freedom, clearly the United States and the UK want them to have freedom and clearly the Baltics will have freedom. So let the Soviet leadership on this one act accordingly, that is our message.

And again, Mr Prime Minister, I really enjoyed our conversation today and we are just delighted you and your charming wife, Norma, are with us.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you very much Mr President. I would like firstly to thank the President and Mrs Bush for their invitation to join them here today. Norma, Elizabeth and I have had a great time and we are very grateful to you for making us feel as much at home in New England as we do in our England and we are grateful to you for that. I have discovered over the last few months that the President is not only a man I can do business with him, I have discovered this morning he is a man I can go fishing with, we have done more successful business than we have fishing this morning, I must tell you that, but we have managed to reach an agreement on a number of things on dry land in our discussions thus far, both on shore and out there fishing this morning.

We certainly agree absolutely on our objectives in responding to the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, we need to support democracy, we need to encourage the economic reform that they so badly need in the Soviet Union and we need also to respond compassionately to the urgent needs that the Soviet people have at the present time. We will go on talking to the Soviet authorities, the central authorities, and also building on the existing relationships and the developing relationships with the new leaders in the republics. We are already in touch with the leaders of the Baltic states and I hope when I visit Moscow on Sunday that I will be able to meet some, if not all, of them as well as Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin and some of the other key figures out there at the moment.

We agreed this morning on the principles governing aid to the Soviet Union. There is a window of opportunity at present for the speeding up of the economic reform process and that is absolutely vital for the Soviet Union, the need to speed up that is urgent and we agreed this morning that we need to support the effort. Our judgment is that what the Soviet Union and the republics most need is emergency humanitarian assistance, practical help in converting their economy into one that works. And that means that aid must be linked to a clear and comprehensive and practical reform plan, that it must go to those people who are in need, including directly to the individual republics, and that it needs to be linked to the Soviet commitment to further reduce defence spending.

And we were able to identify in our discussions this morning a number of points, six particular points worthy of action:

- The first is to implement existing food credits;

- the second is to assess the need for food aid during this winter;

- the third is to produce some lifeline teams, teams to travel to the Soviet Union to help achieve efficient food production and food distribution, that may well be a public private partnership and it is an area where we and the United States will be moving ahead in the days and weeks immediately in front of us.

- we agreed also we needed to implement the Know-How programmes and the technical assistance that we discussed at the G7 and the bilateral agreements we already have to assist the Soviets on that front.

- we also felt that the time was right to get the IMF and the World Bank involved urgently in helping to work out practical, structural reform plans and technical assistance for the Soviet Union;

- and sixthly, we agreed that it would be right to accelerate implementation of special association to the Soviet Union with the IMF with a view to full membership in due course for those who qualify and by qualify I mean as well in terms of effective reform plans.

Now that help with food aid and food distribution and technical assistance will require a good deal of international collaboration if the effort is going to be as targeted as it deserves to be, to avoid duplication and be as successful as we would want it to be. And that does necessarily mean that we need some mechanism involving the principal countries and the principal groupings involved. I will take the opportunity as current Chairman of the G7 to keep closely in touch with the other G7 members to help ensure that we coordinate our activities.

All the members of the G7 have been providing some very useful and constructive input for my meetings in Moscow this weekend and when I have had that meeting I will be writing to them to discuss what needs to be done and to report to them on the judgments I reach there and the discussions that I had.

I think it is worthwhile making the point that we do have a very urgent need for better information about what is happening there than we yet have. All the members of the G7 have agreed to pool their findings by the end of September on what needs to be done to meet the most urgent food and medical needs in the Soviet Union.

So that is the basis of the discussions we have had this morning and they have been very useful and very constructive. And I would like to thank the President again for the very timely opportunity we have had to share our thoughts on the remarkable events that are taking place at the present time. We cannot dictate the ending of what is happening in the Soviet Union but neither are we mere spectators and I think what has happened in the West in the last few days and the discussions we have had this morning indicate the way in which we can contribute to assist the Soviets and I believe that this morning we reached a new and better understanding on the supporting role the West can play so I am very grateful for the opportunity to have those discussions.


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

QUESTION:

Mr President, the Supreme Soviet has been meeting for most of this week, you said you were hoping to get a clear picture of the Soviet Union's political future emerge from those sessions, yet things seem about as confused today as they did 48 or 72 hours ago, are things moving a little bit too slowly on that front for you or do you see things falling into place?

PRESIDENT BUSH:

I think the changes are so monumental that it is going to take time to sort it all out with finality, every day there are new announcements, some new dramatic step taking place, so that is for them to sort out, we cannot affect it particularly.

I think the Prime Minister is right on target when he says we want to help, we are not just bystanders, we have a tremendous stake in what is taking place, but these changes have moved with such rapidity that well put it this way, if two weeks ago somebody had predicted this everybody would have said he had lost it. And so changes are going on, but again all the cards are not on the table when it comes to what the United States' role should be or the UK role in further assistance of one kind or another. But I do not worry about that, there are enormous problems in the republic, in the centre, and then the other republics as well, not just the Russian republic. So it is moving fast, we are watching, we are learning, and we stand ready to be of assistance because what is at stake here is democracy and freedom and our countries are clearly committed to that.

QUESTION:

Are you still expecting some kind of action on independence for the Baltics today or tomorrow?

PRESIDENT BUSH:

I do not think it will be today or tomorrow, it could well be Monday, but we just are not certain of that. I will leave it right there.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, most of the measures that you say you have discussed today involved speeding up things that were already in train, do you not have any sense that given the momentous changes that we have seen in the Soviet Union some more fundamental reconsideration of Western policy might be necessary?

PRIME MINISTER:

We identified some time ago what was most practical and of most assistance to the Soviets, that has not changed, the dimensions of that have changed, the need, the speed for it has changed, perhaps the volume of it has changed. What we have actually done this morning is agree a very practical way forward. People are suggesting all sorts of things that ought to be done but the priorities are to deal with the problems of food and food distribution, to deal with the ways in which we can help the Soviets maximise their own capacity to produce both food and other mechanistic and hardware produce and we need a good deal of information in order to do that. There is no point in going beyond that until we can see precisely what the need is.

I understand the wish that there is in some people's mind to do something fresh, entirely different and entirely dramatic, but we have to consider what would be practical, what is deliverable and what would actually help. And it was actually quite striking earlier this week that one of the Soviet spokesmen was saying that the problem is not really a question of large scale money, we actually need technical advice and know-how and we need food. This is what we are providing and we are potentially doing it on a very substantial scale and across a very wide field.

I would envisage that we would send some of these lifeline teams not just to the centre but to a number of the republics in order to go there, to see what needs to be done, report back and enable us then to put in hand the practical measures that are needed to help. I think that is what is most in the interests of the Soviet Union and that is what we have agreed this morning.

QUESTION:

Mr President, does the break-up of the Soviet empire raise any concerns in your mind about who controls the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the Ukraine for one which wants to break away has nuclear weapons there, how do you want this matter disposed of?

PRESIDENT BUSH:

I want to have it disposed in the way that nuclear weapons safety is totally guaranteed and to date we feel very comfortable about that, we had a group as knowledgeable as one can be about Soviet procedures taking a look at this and I want to reassure the American people that at no time has there been any official concern about inadvertent use of nuclear weapons or something going awry.

But that is a matter that needs to be sorted out and I am confident that everybody in the republics and everybody in the centre understands that the last thing that the world needs is some kind of nuclear scare to say nothing of a nuclear confrontation. So I would like to use that question, Terry, to calm any fears that the American people have, we did not notice any untoward movement of nuclear forces and so we feel comfortable now that whoever is in charge will do the right thing in safeguarding these nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the Prime Minister would want to add to that because he is knowledgeable in this field.

PRIME MINISTER:

I would only add to it to agree with it. We see no reason for concern about what is happening in nuclear weapons in the short term, the army command still has the same controls, there is a certain degree of stability, we see no reason to worry. But clearly it is a matter that we will want to address and discuss with the Soviets at an early stage and the sooner we can get positive answers and positive assurances the happier we will be.

QUESTION:

The republics like the Ukraine will not be allowed to keep these weapons will they?

PRESIDENT BUSH:

No I doubt that, but whatever happens I think wise and sane heads from whatever republic or whatever the centre proves eventually to be will recognise that safeguarded nuclear weapons programmes are absolutely essential. By safeguarded I mean guarantees to see that things cannot inadvertently go wrong are not only what the world demands but I think the people inside the Soviet Union will demand it and they have always felt that way and we see no reason to escalate the fears that might exist by any other response here.

QUESTION:

Mr. Major, are you prepared to spend British Government money on helping the Soviet Union?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are already doing that. We crossed that bridge some time ago with the implementation of the know-how schemes and they, of course, go not to the central Soviet authorities but out in the republics and in the majority of cases to individual companies and individual enterprises so we crossed that Rubicon some time ago.

QUESTION;

Are we now going to spend more?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are going to assess the need first. If and when we have assessed the need, we will do what we can in concert with our partners to meet that need. Nobody should doubt that we believe that is the right thing to do, the right thing to do on humanitarian grounds and I think the right thing to do on political and strategic grounds as well.

QUESTION:

Mr. President, speaking of spending money, Les Aspin is going to recommend that Congress take a billion dollars out of the defence budget and put it into some kind of Soviet aid programme. What do you think of that idea?

PRESIDENT BUSH:

Technically that would require a change in the existing budget agreement. As you know, Jim, many people, many politicians, have tried to change the budget agreement for one reason or another, some wanted to spend more on one programme domestically or some wanted to spend more on another. It is ironic that just a few days ago when this coup was under way, there started a debate about "Are we spending enough on defence?" almost at 180; now the debate comes: "Well, maybe we have got too much in defence!" I would say let us take a little time and sort this thing out intelligently.

Certainly, we want to live within our budget agreement; we owe this to the American people. We have got to get this economy going and more and more government spending is not the answer. His suggestion, as you say, doesn't result in more but you have got to accommodate a lot of domestic interests that would like to see more money going somewhere. It is ironic that I was attacked prior to this coup about being too much concerned about money for the Egyptian debt or money for the Soviet Union and now suddenly, before the cards are all laid down on the table, we have people saying: "Hey, what we have got to do now to prove that we are interested is send more money, send more dough for something!"

I couldn't agree more with what our G7 Chairman, John Major, said about helping people, whether in the republics or in the centre, wherever, in terms of food aid. We also want to be sure it gets there; we want to be sure that the distribution system works, so we have got a lot to do but I think it is way too premature. Les Aspin is a very creative thinker and I give him great credit for thinking about this but there will be a lively debate in the United States Congress and I for one will be sure we get all the information that we possibly can by mid-Fall, by mid-September, whenever it is the debate will be joined; then, I will have a strong recommendation. Right now, I simply cannot endorse that and I notice so many people are jumping up and saying: "What we must do now is cut defence spending more!" I think we have cut defence spending a lot and I want to be sure that our forces are properly structured to meet the needs that we were talking about just twelve months ago standing in this very same place. How soon, how quick we forget! So I think it is a little premature his suggestion but again, with respect, I think it is good he is thinking about this and yet I am not going to go out there and say we can afford to cut defence. Where is it going to come from? What account do they want to take it out of, for example, and what will that do to our readiness and our disproportionate responsibility to stand up against terror and aggression wherever it may be coming from?

But I do think that out of this change in the Soviet Union, if we handle it properly and if things keep going forward instead of slipping back, there is an opportunity for a vastly restructured national security posture but it is way too early to get into that.

QUESTION:

How do you tell those who are unemployed right now, given all the events over the past couple of years in Eastern Europe and what is going on in the Soviet Union right now, that there appears to be no peace dividend? I take it that is what you just said.

PRESIDENT BUSH:

What I have said is that we have dramatically cut defence; that was part of a commitment I made and that is a commitment we have kept but somebody is always coming in and saying: "Cut defence more!" They weren't doing this a week ago is my point, Jim. When that coup started, I didn't hear one single proposal like this; in fact, I heard a few tom-toms beating in the woods saying: "Hey! Maybe we have got to turn around the defence cuts we have already made!" My point is that it is not going to happen all at once. Let us deal from strength, get the facts and then make the decisions, not try to get out and have an instant solution to a problem when you don't know the major parameters of the problem.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you said that you want to see significant Soviet defence cuts. What sort of level are you looking at as a share of, say, GNP, and what sort of time-scale are you looking at?

PRIME MINISTER:

We want the commitment to extend the defence cuts they are committed to already. The first part of the equation is to make sure that they continue with those cuts to which they are already committed and we have no reason to suppose that is not going to happen but even when they have done that, they are still spending a quarter of their central government expenditure on defence. I don't think it is a tolerable proposition for them to sit upon that level of defence expenditure at a time when they are seeking very substantial assistance in one form or another from the west. We don't expect them to do it overnight; we expect them to agree to make further defence reductions and to begin to put those in train but defence reductions necessarily on very practical grounds have to be phased, they can't be done overnight, but we want the commitment and we want the programme to begin to start. I don't think that we could realistically be expected to require less of them in the circumstances in which they find themselves at the moment and with the assistance that they would wish to see from us.

QUESTION:

Is this one of the subjects on the agenda when you see Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think you get commitments of that sort in a single meeting. I will certainly make it clear in the discussions we have on Sunday that that is the way we are thinking at present.

QUESTION:

The Soviets have announced within the past half-hour that they are suspending the Communist Party throughout the Soviet Union. Are you concerned about actions they are taking that may not be necessarily democratic, banning parties?

PRESIDENT BUSH:

They have got some democratic authority; some of these people were elected into this parliament. I frankly rejoice at that. I don't see anything but good news in that in terms of the West and certainly in terms of America. The demise, the fall of a totalitarian non-democratic party effort, I think that is a good thing. I don't see any bad news in that at all. Rejoice! Cheer!

QUESTION:

Mikhail Gorbachev has also criticised Boris Yeltsin today for going too far with decrees this week that he says may not be constitutional. He says last week that was all right, but the decrees that Yeltsin is continuing with, Gorbachev is now criticising. Do you think that there is a danger now that Yeltsin may be going too far?

PRESIDENT BUSH:

Let them sort it out. I keep making the point. I made a comment the other day that when they appoint a new public works manager in down-town Kiev, that is their business. I got incidentally turned in for being testy; I thought that was highly amusing but obviously some didn't. I thought it was very funny but it also has a serious note to it when it comes to personnel.

I don't know, John, if you have been asked that every time some guy is in and someone is out, a new person is appointed that nobody has ever heard of in the West, I am supposed to be reacting! They are sorting out an enormous complex set of new relationships so if President Gorbachev has something to say about President Yeltsin, knowing President Yeltsin he is apt to hear back something but that is the way the system is evolving. As you are struggling for democratic processes, these things happen and I really think it is counterproductive for the United States to have to have a view on every statement by every leader about what is happening inside the soviet Union and in the republics.

What we want to do is adhere to certain values and as the process moves to total acceptance of these values, whether it is free elections, whether it is democracy generally or the whole broad concept of freedom, we rejoice but there are going to be some ups and downs in all of this and they can sort it out without a lot of second-guessing from the President of the United States or telling them where they ought to be the day after tomorrow.

These are monumental changes that have taken place and the whole world is excited about it and there is going to be a hiccough here, there is going to be a criticism there, there is going to be a move that we didn't expect over here, for example, but it is moving in the right direction.

It has been fantastic. I am wondering what we are going to do for an encore next August, John, because last year, as you know, it was the Gulf starting and just ending. I want to identify myself on something here on a question asked to the Prime Minister - the way that this Prime Minister handled the G7 meeting. It has been obscured by events now but you go back and look at what he did and the programme we all came out with as a result of his chairmanship and it is just as relevant today, given this monumental change that has taken place, as it was the day that he fashioned the compromises between very strong European leaders and the leaders of North America. Go look at it! Look at what we, collectively, thought then was best for the Soviet Union and its economy or whatever and I think you will find enormous relevance even though these tremendous changes have taken place.

As he said, we are going to fine-tune it. We are going to step up attention to urgent humanitarian assistance for food but there are other things we can do. What he fashioned there - and we all would like to now take credit for because it appears to be right on target - what happened there was very very relevant today when you look at the kinds of assistance they really need and you hear what Mr. Levitsky (phon) said yesterday or the day before and then lay that down against the agenda that Prime Minister Major sorted out and led us to reach agreement on and you will find that this programme is very sensible.

So we will do our part in the West but as for the United States, I am not going to be jumping into the middle of what is going on. I leave that to the editorialists, I leave that to the Sunday talk-shows; I don't leave it to the policy-makers of the foreign policy of the United States. If we see something that we think takes them off this track to democracy, freedom, openness and reform, we will speak up on it but when you have internal things going on of the nature you asked about, I really think it would be counterproductive for each country to weigh-in and tell one or the other of these two strong leaders how to do things or to tell the republics exactly how they ought to do their business. They know what the principles of the US are and the principles of the UK and we are not departing from them; if we see something against them we will have that to say but I am not going to comment on every personnel change or every comment by one leader or another as they sort out these enormously complex problems from inside.

PRIME MINISTER:

I was just reflecting that if commentators in the Soviet Union asked the Soviets to comment on every political exchange in the United Kingdom between political parties and political personalities they would be jolly busy. I think they would answer as the President did. We are wise to keep out of it.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible] rest of your forthcoming trip which will cover China and Hong Kong and has the President given you any assurances of help with the problem of the boat people because it will require a nod and a wink from the United States before the Vietnamese are willing to accept the idea of internationally-managed centres?

PRIME MINISTER:

We haven't finished our discussions. We are going to have lunch together. We have got some more things to talk about. We have touched on China, we have touched on GATT, we have touched on a number of matters but we haven't concluded our talks. There are issues like that still to be talked about.