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The Irony Lady

Margaret Thatcher's fluctuating foreign policy

Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Margaret Thatcher's crucial foreign policy achievement, at least according to much of the American media's coverage of the former British prime minister's death Monday at 87, was to cement a strong alliance with Ronald Reagan in the final decade of the Cold War. Not since Winston Churchill and FDR joined forces against fascism has Anglo-American unity ... the sentence practically writes itself. But a look back at Thatcher's other foreign policy glories and failures reveals a leader who ricocheted between the wise and the misguided. Her successes were real, but her failures were nearly as large. Thatcher may indeed have been a "conviction" politician, as she liked to put it, but her foreign policy was rarely consistent. She wasn't a craven flip-flopper, but rather someone whose convictions fluctuated, sometimes alarmingly.

Thatcher will be celebrated for her decision, in 1982, to go to war against Argentina after that country's ruling junta decided to invade the Falkland Islands (Argentina prefers the term Malvinas Islands). Britain's claim to sovereignty over the islands was certainly historically questionable, and the reaction in London to the attack was met with a good deal of jingoism and foolish nostalgia for the United Kingdom's imperial heyday. (When the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was sunk under questionable circumstances by British forces, Rupert Murdoch's Sun led with its infamous "Gotcha" headline.) And Thatcher's rhetoric throughout made some of George W. Bush's post-9/11 speeches seem Shakespearean. As she said in a speech to her party, "But the spirit has stirred and the nation has begun to assert itself. Things are not going to be the same again."

And yet, the war was an unmistakable success. Argentina's junta—which made headlines recently over its relationship with the new Pope—was one of the worst in the world. The embarrassment and disgrace of the Falklands loss led to the junta's fall and the eventual turn toward democracy in Argentina. A philosopher could find no better case of the ends justifying the means. 

In other areas, too, Thatcher's record was not clear-cut. She quite rightly and courageously embraced Mikhail Gorbachev early on, but then became much more skeptical of the Soviet leader. It was Reagan who ended up doing most of the work in reaching agreements with Gorbachev. Thatcher also began to greatly fear the power of a united Germany. This was a concern that many British prime ministers, raised on the history of two world wars and envious of German economic success, probably would have had. But she took it to nearly ridiculous lengths, practically encouraging Soviet troops to stay in the East, and exclaiming, "We defeated the Germans twice! And now they're back!"

In Africa, the contradictions were equally sharp. She opposed economic sanctions to South Africa, but managed to help bring independence to Zimbabwe—an accomplishment that her Labour predecessors (often pitifully weak in the face of what was then Rhodesia's white settlers) had found elusive. (The character of Robert Mugabe's regime may tar this accomplishment slightly, but at the time it was an impressive achievement.) In Northern Ireland, she both oversaw British government wrongdoing, and signed one of the more important agreements between London and the North.

None of these contradictions exactly disprove her claims about acting from the gut, but they do display how the passage of time tends to smooth over the complexities of different leaders. Here was a woman who could sing the glories of British democracy and still develop an actual friendship with Augusto Pinochet. She is best remembered as having a strong will, but more often than not she seemed guided by pragmatism and compromise. Her legacy is more one of irony than iron.

Follow Isaac Chotiner on Twitter @IChotiner.