A British Perspective, Extract from SDI:Has America Told Her Story to the World

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This page is an extract from Dean Godson, SDI: Has America Told Her Story to the World?, Pergamon-Brassey's International Defense Publishers (for the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis), 1987. 73 pp. Pages 59-63.

A British Perspective

The United States is suffering from a long-term negative image in Great Britain associated with President Reagan's reputation for unpredictability, manifested in the suddenness with which the President launched SDI, without consulting America's allies. In light of the nationalistic spasms that greeted the recent Westland, General Motors, and Libyan affairs, the Thatcher Government is hardly going to stick its neck out on an issue for which the major participants feel little enthusiasm; nor can one foresee any alternative government becoming more enthusiastic about the project than the present one. Tory MPs are constantly urging caution on the government regarding even those domestic goals which command a far greater degree of consensus than a radical American proposal that would alter the accepted norms of postwar security. It is hard to envision SDI being "sold" by the British "establishment"; in any case, the government would prefer to focus its information campaigns on the promotion of the Trident program and the debunking of opposition defense policies-as shown by the creation of the Conservative Campaign for Defense and Multilateral Disarmament and the release of the information film Keeping the Peace.[1] Mainstream groups were remarkably tardy in convincing the public of the necessity for the cruise missile, to which they were far more committed than SDI.

The most that can be expected from the Thatcher Government, therefore, is an attempt to take the credit for contracts that come Britain's way in economically hard times, while public opinion, in the absence of proper educational programs, will continue to drift, and possibly turn hostile - particularly if the Geneva arms talks are seen to be failing because of U.S. "obduracy" on SDI. One thing is certain: As shown by the INF debate, protest will not diminish as possible deployment gets nearer, which will probably take place in a less "pro-defense" (and possibly post-Thatcher) era. But even Mrs. Thatcher felt obliged to travel to the United States to spell out her concerns on the U.S. approach at Reykjavik, and Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe and Defense Secretary George Younger have, likewise, been vocal on the need to retain nuclear weapons and to adhere to a relatively strict interpretation of the ABM Treaty.[2]

Moreover, as indicated above, the United States cannot count upon the "core" constituency which carried NATO to victory during the INF dispute. The strategic community, as represented by such figures as Professors Sir Michael Howard and Lawrence Freedman, and Admiral Sir James Eberle (of Chatham House), are not uncritical of the President's vision. Likewise, the Daily Telegraph has been somewhat skeptical about the program, echoing the concerns of senior figures such as Francis Pym, Edward Heath, and the vast majority of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which, of course, broke with the Labour Party over its anti-defense posture. Indeed, the SDP, the Liberal party, the Labour party, and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) all issued motions of condemnation from their annual conferences; and the confluence of opinion on this issue among otherwise divided groups resulted in the formation in June 1986 of a Coalition Against Star Wars, headed by Labour leader Neil Kinnock (oblivious, like his party, to SDI's antinuclear implications), SDP leader David Owen, and Liberal leader David Steel.[3] In this vein, numerous committees have been established in the scientific community, such as Edinburgh University's group for Computing and Social Responsibility, which urges academics not to participate in SDI research. Thus, for the time being, SDI is supported in Britain by a small group of Conservative-connected individuals, such as Thatcher "advisor" David Hart and the outgoing M.P. for Torbay, Sir Frederic Bennett. The Times remains a major advocate of SDI, as envisaged by President Reagan, although the enthusiasm it displayed under the editorship of the late Charles Douglas-Home has slightly cooled.

Thus, the United States and her "proxy forces" in the United Kingdom must address the following issues, with speed and assiduity:

  • The fear that SDI will reduce support for Trident, and concern that what remains of British influence in the world will be further diminished. This issue must be given high priority in light of the "Little Englanderish" prickliness displayed during recent Anglo-American transactions. More¬over, opinion polls have consistently shown two-thirds to three-quarters of the British public to be in favor of retaining an independent deterrent.
  • The assumption (across much of Europe) that the Soviets believe in MAD, and that they perceive strategic affairs the way the Europeans do-unlike the Americans, who do not understand the intricate web of checks and balances on the Continent. The issue of Soviet acquisition of clear superiority through successful development of their own ABM program has barely made any impact on the consciousness of the public or the politicians.
  • The disbelief - largely in government circles-of U.S. allegations of Soviet violations of the ABM Treaty, particularly the Krasnoyarsk radar.
  • The notion that the proposed SDI system is not fool proof-a matter rarely raised when discussing the Soviet SDI system's effect on the British deterrent.
  • The notion that a diversion of resources away from conventional forces will inevitably accompany any SDI deployment. Little has been said in Great Britain regarding SDI's beneficial effects on emerging nonnuclear technologies.
  • The desire, as constantly expressed by Neil Kinnock and Denis Healey, among others, not to seem to be "toadying" to the Americans; to paraphrase a Kremlin spokesman in another context, the United States must live with the political handicap of being perceived as a drill sergeant in transatlantic solidarity.
  • The perception of the apocalyptic, moralizing, and futuristic nature of the President's proposal.
  • In spite of contract announcements, and reassurances given by the head of SOlO, General Abrahamson, the notion that British business is going to receive mere crumbs from the SDI pie; that Congress (as evidenced by such moves as the 1986 Glenn Amendment) is going to reserve the lion's share for U.S. companies; and that those lucrative contracts that do accrue to Britain will be classified and will not benefit U.K. development.

Immediately after the Geneva Summit, according to Gallup, 52 percent of Britons supported U.S. research on an SDI program; a quarter of the public thought SDI is an ASAT program; and 58 percent thought SDI is designed to protect only the United States. After Reykjavik, according to a U.S. government poll, 9 percent blamed General Secretary Gorbachev for the failure of the "summit," while 35 percent blamed President Reagan.[4] Obviously, this leaves a great deal of room for some very basic public information programs. In contrast, on an economic level, the U.S. Embassy has had considerable success in seeking out those individuals and institutions agreeable to participation in research; and the U.S. Embassy's Office of Scientific and Technological Affairs has conveyed the message to potential participants that they will not be excluded from classified DOD briefings and that they will be able to bid for contracts on an equal basis with their American competitors.

In terms of responding to the above-mentioned concerns of the British regarding SDI, the U.S. mission has been less visible than it might have been. In contrast, the CND organized numerous parliamentary briefings conducted by Julie Oahlitz of Bradford University's School of Peace Studies-at least their "core constituency" was informed of the basic arguments.[5] Moreover, as Richard Perle commented recently, Great Britain has become a prime target for Soviet propaganda and seduction (as shown by such initiatives as the recent protocol on joint Anglo-Soviet space research),[6] and has sought to play upon Mrs. Thatcher's apparent desire to become an intermediary between Reagan and Gorbachev, especially in light of her March 1987 visit to Moscow. To this end, Colonel-General Chervov visited the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA) in July 1986. A British official who attended this meeting claimed that the Soviet slogan is that We're the good guys!' . . . They feel that they have a pretty good pitch to deliver, and they want to deliver it to as many people in Western Europe as possible”[7] In response to these kinds of initiatives, only a few groups such as the European office of Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies distributed relevant materials – for example, the Marshall Institute’s SDI: The Star Wars’ Project, in anticipation of major events like the December 1985 House of Commons debate. While representing a useful start on communicating basic concerns about SDI, this pamphlet did not address specific British problems. Educational materials on SDI for distribution in Britain must be geared to British concerns; otherwise, these publications may actually enhance the above mentioned fears of SDI representing a return to "Fortress America."

In spite of this bleak picture, there exist several persons and groups, hitherto uncoordinated, who, if amenable, could form the spearhead of an indigenous Public Diplomacy program. With the image of the United States perhaps at its lowest point in years, SDI will not achieve the comprehension to which it is entitled if it does not gain the support of at least some of the following individuals and groups:

  • An elder statesman (perhaps Lord Home?) might be persuaded to head up a major campaign.
  • A key centrist figure, who is not opposed to SDI research, possibly in the SDP/Liberal Alliance, might be persuaded to support the program. Many of the leading Alliance figures are instinctive Atlanticists who want to be seen as people who can think up "new ideas" to escape from the dilemma of the nuclear age. SDI could be the vehicle for doing it.
  • The Labour Committee for Trans-Atlantic Understanding, the last remain¬ing group of Labour Party and trade union officials organized to support NATO on security questions.
  • The "strategic" and academic communities-such as Lord Thomas, Gerald Frost, and Lord Chalfont.
  • The scientific community involved in SDI research-such as Professor Manny Lehman of Imperial College London, who could form a "Scientists for SDI" Committee.
  • The business community-such as ThornEMI, Racal, Plessey, Marconi.


  1. Martin Fletcher, "Tories Set Up Teams to Promote Defense," and Peter Davenport, "Trident Video Fuels Nuclear Dispute," Times (London), February 5, 1987.
  2. Elizabeth Pond, "British Urge Reagan Not to Give Up Arms Deal for 'Star Wars,'" Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 1987.
  3. Paul Vallely, "Kinnock's Onslaught on Star Wars," Times (London), June 27, 1986.
  4. Buckley, op. cit.
  5. Letter from Marjorie Thompson, CND Pari iamentary Officer, to MPs, January 11, 1985.
  6. From our own correspondent, "UK-Russia Links Pave Space Route, Times (London), October 3, 1986.
  7. Karen DeYoung, “Soviet General Cities ‘Compromise’ in SDI,“ Washington Post, July 8, 1986.