George Bush photo

Interview With Foreign Journalists

November 21, 1989

Conventional Force Reductions in Europe

Q. Mr. President, Secretary Cheney was saying on the weekend that he might envision deeper troop cuts after the CAFE One, as sort of CAFE Two. Now, do you think that such talk is premature, or have you calculated that you may need further troop cuts in order to avoid raising taxes next year?

The President. Well, there are pressures on the defense budget; and Dick Cheney, a man who has always believed in a strong defense, still believes in a strong defense. But for those who follow our budget process, they know that defense has been hit 5 years in a row, and so, it is appropriate that any Secretary of Defense encourage active reviews.

What I want to do is get on with the -- you call it CAFE One -- and get those conventional forces reduced in accordance with that and do it on schedule, and then see where we go. But there's a rapidity of change around the world. It's self-evident, very evident. And I'm not suggesting that forevermore we'll have the same levels of troops anywhere -- standing army, Europe, Korea, anywhere else. But we're certainly not doing to take any unilateral action. We do what we do in conjunction with allies. We'll be perfectly prepared to think anew -- always -- because we're living in fascinating, changing times. The Secretary of Defense, in conducting a review, is doing what I want him to do. But there will be no what I would call premature decisions in terms of unilateral cuts. Sometimes we accept cuts in the congressional process that we don't want. We've got to digest those cuts. But I think Dick is, along with the Joint Chiefs, are looking forward, looking ahead, trying to figure out what levels are appropriate under various scenarios with international tensions or lack of tensions.

So, I think we're on the right track on this. But I think people are reading, in some places, in some cases, too much into the story that he has ordered this review. At least I didn't get all excited when I saw it, because I know what he's doing.

Meeting With Soviet President Gorbachev

Q. Could you tell us what is your agenda for the summit meeting in Malta? You're quoted as saying that that would be an historic opportunity to enhance the peace. How do you think you will be able to achieve that? And lastly, would it be correct to say that your Soviet policy is firmly in place now? And if so, what are the basic premises of your Soviet policy?

The President. Well, there is no formalized agenda as there would be in an arms control meeting. Arms control will be taken up in the summit that has already been set, and that summit will drive the arms control agenda. That's point one.

What was the second part? I know the third part.

Q. You were quoted as saying that it will be an historic opportunity to enhance peace.

The President. Well, I'll tell you: What I want to do is be sure we don't miss an opportunity. I want to be sure we don't have any misunderstandings -- Mr. Gorbachev conducting himself in one way and our not understanding the underpinnings of his thinking.

It isn't a summit that is going to -- a meeting that is going to -- I want to go back to that: It is not a meeting -- because I don't like using the word summit. Summit has the connotation, in our country anyway, of mainly agreements on arms control. And we're not looking forward to crossing "t's" and dotting "i's" at this meeting. It isn't going to happen, and I don't think the General Secretary thinks it's going to happen. I hope he doesn't, but maybe we can use your newspaper to make clear to him that we're not expecting that. But there's enough background of understanding here on the meeting that I don't think there's that expectation.

But look, there is so much rapid change going on in Eastern Europe that I am very anxious to hear from him what his thoughts are about the future of Europe. People know ours: a Europe whole and free. They know my convictions about self-determination. They know our conviction that democracy and freedom are on the move. And I'll have a chance to reiterate that and to give him my conception, my ideas of the future.

In terms of U.S.-Soviet relations, they are based at this juncture on our desire to see perestroika succeed. And I think there may have been some misunderstanding on the part of some of our Soviet friends about that. I think they wondered from various statements or the time it took for us to formulate an arms control agreement, a proposal, or maybe even to set the date of a summit, or maybe even to make the proposal -- which was mine -- that we meet in Malta. So, maybe there was some misunderstanding as to whether we really did want to see perestroika succeed.

I remember Mr. Gorbachev saying very directly with President Reagan and me last year in New York: "Certain elements in your country want to see perestroika fail, or wonder if perestroika will succeed." And I spoke up, even though I was a lowly Vice President then, and said: "Wait a minute! There are no serious elements in the United States that want to see perestroika fail." I'm not sure that he understood that this new administration, taking our time prudently to review our defense posture and all, really believed that.

But so, you ask about the relationship. I think it's built on our desire to see that succeed, because with it goes the success of the fundamental beliefs that Americans hold: that freedom and democracy are best, the right to self-determination is the best, that people have the right to choose their leaders is the best. And so, I can't mask that. We still have some differences of system. But our policy is based on respect for what he is trying to do and for our interest in seeing perestroika succeed, because if it succeeds, the world will be a lot more peaceful for everybody, it seems to me. And a lot of us can, indeed, have more of our product going into helping people instead into arms.

Eastern-Bloc Reforms

Q. In view of the changes in the Eastern bloc, would it be possible and in the interest of the United States to limit military expenses and to increase economic assistance for our countries in order to help us with reforms?

The President. Well, take Poland, a country with which you're quite familiar. We want to help. We are helping. We will help, I might say, in concert with our allies, too. And I've been talking to most, and I think you'll find a common interest in seeing the economic success.

But if your question is can we make unilateral defense cuts in order to put more money into the development of Eastern Europe, the answer is no. I'm not going to recommend unilateral defense cuts. I will not do that without -- not even unilateral -- but we will discuss the legitimate defense needs, given the changes in the world, with our allies. And I think every country -- the emerging democracy of Poland, and I say that because they have had free elections; those that want to be democratic and will have free elections. Other countries in Eastern Europe -- Hungary coming up -- who knows what will happen in the GDR [German Democratic Republic] in terms of elections. All those countries have a stake in NATO being a respected alliance. And it becomes less of a respected alliance if we make unilateral cuts, unless the changes around the world on other forces take place.

I mean, the Soviet Union is spending, we reckon, about 17 percent of the gross national product on defense. It's tremendous. It's an enormous burden on an economy that's having difficulty anyway. So, what we've got to do is have good discussions with the Soviet leaders and try to show that a lessened defense will not hurt their security, because we have no intention of raiding the Soviet Union, going after them. And once we convince them that the West does not threaten them, then I think you can see a reallocation of resources worldwide from arms into helping others.

Meeting With Soviet President Gorbachev

Q. Can I get to the beginning of this story about the meeting and ask you who thought of Malta and the Mediterranean first?

[At this point, the President raised his hand.]

Q. Was it you?

The President. Right here. Now, I will say this: It takes two to tango. You've heard that expression. And Mr. Gorbachev has been very open. And we went back and forth with several ideas, always -- and I say this without any reservation -- in a spirit of total frankness and total accommodation. But I think he would tell you that, in terms of logistics, that I was the one that proposed Malta itself. But we did it in a team way: "How about this as a suggestion?" He made a couple of other suggestions that, for timing purposes, didn't work out.

So, in telling you that -- you come from Malta -- I'd love to take full credit because I think it will be good. I think we made the suggestion, but I think it was a collegial decision. It was a decision that clearly the Soviet side was enthusiastic about, and it was driven somewhat by Mr. Gorbachev's own logistical problems. He will be in Italy, and so, it made inordinate good sense. But in any event, I think both sides are very pleased about it.

Soviet Military Presence in Asia

Q. As I am the only Asian journalist present today, so I have to ask you this. The Pentagon published a report on the Soviet military at the end of September, saying that in Asian regions there are no indications so far of the lessening of Soviet military strength. And I'd like to know this: Have you seen since then any indication of the lessening of that strength? And also, are you talking about -- with Mr. Gorbachev -- about new Asian security situation, including the Korean Peninsula problem and our dispute with the Soviet Union on the Northern Territory?

The President. No, I see no reduction in defenses. Now, I want to check with our experts on that. Brent [Brent Scowcroft, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs], is my answer misleading at all? I have not seen them, but I don't want to misrepresent. The question is: Has the Soviet Union, since that Pentagon report came out in the fall, to our knowledge reduced defense spending -- --

Mr. Scowcroft. Well, they have cut back some on conventional forces and, therefore, probably on spending. We see very little evidence on strategic forces that they have reduced their expenditures. On conventional forces -- --

The President. -- -- or modernization. In terms of the rest of your question, this meeting is so open that we can discuss anything we want. And clearly, the United States considers itself a power with tremendous interests in the Pacific. And I would have absolutely no inhibitions about discussing the lay of the land in Asia, and your other question related to the Korean Peninsula. And again, I will be prepared to discuss our policy as it relates to the Korean Peninsula with Mr. Gorbachev. To the degree we can get understanding on that question, although I'm not sure we differ too much -- why, that would be good.

But again, no agenda item -- a preparation to discuss not just the changes in Eastern Europe that I referred to as one of the things that spurred our interest in a meeting at this time -- the rapidity of the change -- but, indeed, the entire globe. There's a lot of regional problems that we have with the Soviets. And we've been frank about it. They know of our concerns about Cuba, their relationship in Cuba -- one of three people in this hemisphere that's swimming against the democratic tide -- Nicaragua the same thing. And so, we'll discuss this, and I expect Mr. Gorbachev will be very open to discussion on this. We're not going to just discuss things that are of more interest to the Soviets. And this is of prime interest to us. So, I'm glad you raised it because we have not diminished our interests in Asia, given all this change in Eastern Europe.

I'll tell you one little anecdote, and then we'll go to the next one. Down at this Costa Rican summit, [Venezuelan President] Carlos Andres Perez, a very frank guy and a marvelous adherent of democracy, said to me: "All this talk of yours about Eastern Europe, does this show" -- he put it more negatively towards me, he said: "Shouldn't this lead us to believe that you're showing less interest in your own hemisphere here?" And I said absolutely not, absolutely not. So, I would say that I would like to feel that we can discuss problems anywhere in the world. I would be very anxious to discuss all these things.

Q. The Asian security problem, too?

The President. Yes, but not dealing cards, not trying to solve somebody else's fortunes. That's not what this meeting is about. It would be a mistake to do that.

Eastern-Bloc Reforms

Q. Mr. President, the most recent developments in Eastern Europe have taken people by surprise -- I guess even your administration. And some people in Western Europe are very worried about it. And the big question is how fast the process of integration of Western Europe should happen. How fast do you think it should happen? Do you think that the idea of having the monetary fiscal integration should move forward as soon as possible as a guarantee of forming a strong bloc on the other side?

The President. In the first place, I don't think many people in Western Europe worry about the fact that the change has taken place. Some might worry about where it leads and whether some unforeseen event will happen that will reverse this very salutary change. So, I would say, as part of your question, that my interpretation of Western European public opinion is: We're very pleased this is taking place, but we're a little uncertain as to what's next. Today is Tuesday; what's going to happen today? What's going to happen Wednesday? -- these changes coming so fast.

But I think if there's a worry, the worry is: Can it be managed properly? And that's one of the reasons we as the United States are trying to not listen to those that are out there encouraging flamboyant action but to rather respond prudently, as a great power must, to the change. And you know and I know that I've been criticized for timidity. I discount that by about 99 percent as pure, gut, American politics. But nevertheless, some are saying that. And what they mean -- some have wanted me to go jump up on top of the Berlin Wall. Well, I never heard such a stupid idea. I mean, what good would it do for an American President to be posturing while Germans were flowing back and forth by the millions? It makes no sense at all. So, we are conducting ourselves in a prudent way.

In terms of what comes next or what role we can have, the only thing I can speak to in managing the change is to encourage a Europe that is whole and free, self-determination when it comes to elections for people, openness, a glasnost that spreads -- give Mr. Gorbachev credit for igniting the fire -- it spreads to countries that have been denied glasnost, openness, for years; and do it in a way not to incite violence, not to do something that will cause repression.

And so, I come back to the word of prudent -- managing of what we do and what we say -- and resist flamboyant actions. Things are moving our way. And I speak in response to your question -- the West. What do you mean by "our way"? Democracy? Freedom? They are moving our way. And so, we don't need to be out there trying to micromanage the desire for change in these Eastern European countries. We want to be ready and available -- this gentleman suggested -- in terms of trying to help financially, if we don't go broke in the process. And we're going to do our best. And we have limited resources now -- it's a great country -- but we want to help.

European Fiscal and Monetary Union

Q. What about a fiscal and monetary reunion in Europe?

The President. Of all Europe? It takes time because you've got to have fiscal reforms before you can have the confidence that would lead to total fiscal and monetary reunion, but it's coming. They're moving. Poland is trying hard, for example. Hungary -- probably a little out ahead of it in terms of economic reform. So, this isn't anything to despair about. The GDR is doing pretty well. So, it will come.


Q. Mr. President, as you know probably, that a lot of Hungarians are urging that Hungary should declare neutrality. But others say that it requires more than a Hungarian decision because it should be accepted and guaranteed by others, especially by great powers. So I wonder, sir, whether the United States would be ready to accept and guarantee Hungary's neutrality, and would you even support this idea at the forthcoming summit?

The President. Every country has sovereign rights; and every country, the way we look at it, has a right to determine its own fortunes. And that will be the guiding principle behind the U.S. I think it would be a mistake for the U.S. to try to dictate to a country what course it ought to follow in relationship to the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union, or anybody else. I don't think that's the role of the United States. The role of the United States is to say: Here's what we think is best -- democracy, freedom, free elections, freedom of the press, freedom of worship. This is what we believe. We've always believed it. Keep advocating it, but I don't think it would be a productive role for the U.S. to try to micromanage the change that's taking place in Hungary. That's a matter for the Hungarian people.

Q. But will you accept if Hungary would declare its neutrality?

The President. Well, one thing I learned to do is to not answer a hypothetical question that might position me in terms of favoring one course or another. But you can rest assured that the more countries that are free, reform their economies, want to have the very freedoms I talked about -- to the degree they want good relations with the United States, that makes it a lot easier for us, given the constraints in our laws for countries that aren't willing to do that.

German Reunification

Q. Mr. President, what do you say to people in France and Great Britain who are against a German reunification?

The President. I say to them: That's a matter for the German people to decide. And there are some that worry about it. I understand that Mr. Gorbachev has some understandable constraints, because he looks at borders, he looks at history -- he's concerned. But what I say is, as I tried to the other day: This is 1989. And we can learn from history, but we also can look to the future. And my view is: Let this matter be determined by the people in Germany. And if that determination is made, there will be all kinds of representation that this is not by the parties, that this has no reason to threaten anybody else or change borders or anything of that nature.

So, I think it really is better at this juncture to be in that broad posture, which we've always had. This is a matter for the German people. Not back away from it, but not flog it. Let this evolution take care of the question -- that's our role.

NATO's Future

Q. With the Thousand Points of Light beginning to shine in Eastern Europe now, what is the future role of NATO? And should we recast it according to the new political realities, or should it just remain as it is for awhile?

The President. Which -- repeat it again. A Thousand Points of Light are shining, and we see -- --

Q. Well, they are beginning to shine in Eastern Europe, obviously, so the role of NATO probably has to take on another cast.

The President. Well, I see the role of NATO as an alliance continuing. As I've tried to indicate here, levels of military involvement have a way of being negotiated, have a way of changing from time to time. But NATO has a rubric under which you can discuss economic conditions. At the last NATO meeting, there was a good deal of discussion about the environment, and there was a good deal of discussion about political reforms and changes in the rest of the world. So, the Western alliance threatens no one. It is not a threat to anyone. And I don't see its obsolescence. I don't predict, if that's the question, an obsolescence of this.

You might see under different circumstances different kinds of mission. But I will approach this meeting with Mr. Gorbachev that this alliance is very, very vibrant. It's very real. As the President of the United States, I owe my alliance partners total consultation, and I don't really see that changing in the short-term future.

Q. But just to follow, I guess, in the longer run, how do Europe's great alliances evolve? Ten years out, do you still see NATO and the Warsaw Pact right against each other?

The President. Listen, I can't see 10 days out, and I don't think you can. How can I predict what the conditions are going to be?

Q. But optimally, how would you see that evolving?

The President. Well, I really don't want to go beyond where events have us right now because I think if I made a prediction on NATO, then you'd say how do you get there? What are the steps that get you there? And I don't want to do that. I'm trying to be "timid" -- prudent and cautious. So, I don't do that. But I'll tell you this: I don't see any factor emerging that would diminish the friendships and the associations between these Western countries because we're bound by common values. It is our values that bind us. And then, we have common military interests. Fine -- we do -- but I really can't predict that for you because I can't see it that clearly.

So, what we do is move down this path in a way where we make clear that our resolve to be a strong NATO partner is known to everybody and that we look for opportunities that might suggest the kind of change that I think a lot of our NATO partners would like to see -- less tensions with neighbors in Eastern Europe and all of that. But I really want to stop short of predicting what it might be like 10 years out, although it's a very good question, and I think a lot of thinking is going on about that, a lot of thinking by our best people here, under different scenarios.

But we're at a very delicate time now. And I think what I had better do is address myself to the present and the near-term future. And that's why I think this meeting with Mr. Gorbachev is going to be very interesting.

Meeting With Soviet President Gorbachev

Q. Has that thinking increased since you've planned this summit?

The President. Yes.

Q. I mean, it was initially just sort of "get to know you," get acquainted. Now, it's -- --

The President. Yes, because the genesis came before the rapidity of the change in Eastern Europe. There's always been change. I'll tell you one of the things that stimulated my interest was my visit to Poland and to Hungary. And then I sat with our NATO partners. I think I asked a couple of them do you think it would be a good idea -- I wasn't going to say a summit meeting -- but do you think it would be a good idea to have this? And my feeling is that the NATO partners thought it would be a very good idea.

And you know, what we've picked up since then was keen interest from a lot of countries that aren't in NATO or are in the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union. And some of it is almost overly euphoric in terms of expectation. So, what I've tried to do here is dampen euphoric expectation because I want the visit to be seen as a success. And if you just get together and discuss change, that is my definition of a success. Whether you all will buy it or not, I don't know. I'm a little skeptical about that.

U.S. Leadership Role

Q. President Bush, don't you fear that the U.S. may lose its leadership in the Western alliance if things move too fast, and NATO will change?

The President. No, not a bit. We're the United States. If you'll excuse some chauvinistic pride as we approach Thanksgiving, why, that is one worry I don't have. And we will be involved. We will continue to be, whether it's in the Pacific or whether it's in Europe. It's just our nature. We've tried to help; we want to help. There is enormous trade with all corners of the world. We have markets that lift up the developing countries unlike any aid program in the world -- just access to these vibrant markets of the U.S. So, I'm not worried a bit about losing any prestige, and I wouldn't think Mr. Gorbachev would be.

If tensions got so reduced that you didn't always worry about U.S.-superpower confrontation or something, that would be a marvelous world. We ought to work towards that kind of a world. But it's got to be on our values. It's got to be on what we in the United States think is best -- know is best.

You see, I think there's an objectivity to all -- I don't want to be too philosophical -- but I think there's an objectivity to this. Freedom works. I don't want to sound cliche. Freedom of religion is best, freedom of the press is best, self-determination is best, free elections are best. And so, we're going to continue to be, in our way -- we're not the only ones on this -- but a beacon for those dealing with us, for those who share these values, and for those who more and more are sharing these values.

So, this doesn't bother me. We've got a lot of worries, but that isn't one of them.

Thank you for your time.

Note: The interview began at 1:35 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. Participants included Lionel Barber, Financial Times, United Kingdom; Alexander Shalnev, Izvestia, Soviet Union; Ernest Skalski, Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland; Anthony Montanaro, Sunday Times, Malta; Hiroshi Yamada, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan; Mario Platero, Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy; Janos Avar, Magyar Nemzet, Hungary; Francois Hauter, Le Figaro, France; Viola Herms-Dratch, Handelsblatt, Federal Republic of Germany; Colin MacKenzie, Globe and Mail, Canada. A tape was not available for verification of the contents of the interview. The interview was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on November 24.

George Bush, Interview With Foreign Journalists Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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