Like many heads of government, Margaret Thatcher came to power with little interest in, or knowledge of, foreign affairs.
Domestic policy was her primary focus, the British Empire had been largely dismantled and leadership in the Cold War could be safely left to the United States. Even on Europe, the Conservative Party was relatively at ease and much more so than the Labour Party which would soon launch its suicidal campaign to exit the European Community.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan soon after the start of her premiership in 1979 was a chance for Margaret Thatcher to demonstrate her Cold War credentials and her commitment to US leadership. She was quicker than US President Reagan to recognize the winds of change blowing through the USSR after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. But it was left to Reagan to chart the new course that would culminate a few months after his presidency in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yet Margaret Thatcher in the end was defined almost as much by foreign as domestic policy. It started with the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in March 1982, when she was tested as never before. In the absence of unconditional support from the United States and faced with a divided Cabinet, she made a momentous decision and did so by dispatching the Task Force to repossess the Falklands. She knew that it could have all gone horribly wrong, and end with her resignation. But that it ended in a British military success and a rapid turnaround in her popularity left a lasting mark on the rest of her premiership. There would be no more self-doubts and she would become the ultimate conviction politician.
If the Falklands War told us much about Margaret Thatcher's decision-making style, it was Europe that revealed her inner convictions. This was not apparent at first and, indeed, as late as 1986 she signed the Single European Act that represented a crucial advance in the European project and a key step towards 'ever closer union.' She would later claim that her officials had not explained clearly the implications of what she was signing. If this seems improbable, there could be no doubting her subsequent opposition to any steps towards greater European union and her visceral opposition to anything that smacked of European federalism.
Her position was reinforced by her close personal friendship with Ronald Reagan, which convinced her – despite not being told before the event about the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 - that the Anglo-American relationship was sufficient to meet British foreign policy needs without the development of a common foreign policy for the European Union. That belief seemed faintly ridiculous at the time and now looks absurd, but neither the US President nor her own officials were prepared to tell her otherwise. Geoffrey Howe, however, was bold enough to do so and paid the predictable price when sacked as Foreign Secretary. His contribution to her subsequent downfall was no doubt sweet revenge.
Thatcher's campaign against greater European integration, despite her success in securing the British rebate, left her party a poisonous legacy. On the other hand, she was one of the first to sense the opportunity given by the end of the Cold War to enlarge the European Union eastwards. Although she had left the political scene long before it happened, she was delighted to welcome the new members. However, her hope that the UK would achieve a strategic partnership with the former Communist countries that could act as a significant counterweight to the Franco-German alliance has not been fulfilled.
Despite her justified reputation as a conviction politician, she could also be flexible and pragmatic. Faced with the issue of Hong Kong, where British treaty rights consisted of a sovereign territory (the island) and a real estate lease (the New Territories), she could have argued that only the lease needed to be abandoned. Instead, she quickly recognized that one without the other made no sense, explaining that any attempt to keep the island would simply mean that the Chinese 'would turn off the water supply' – a pragmatic response that the Argentine foreign minister, Guido di Tella, was quick to note.
After she resigned as prime minister in 1990, Margaret Thatcher carried out many activities related to foreign affairs. One of these was chairing the Board of London University’s Institute of United States Studies, on which I sat ex officio as Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies. She was in general an efficient chairperson, although there was never an occasion on which she did not speak with passion about her personal friendship with Ronald Reagan, the Anglo-American relationship and its ability to solve most of the world’s problems. That belief, profoundly wrong though it has proved to be, was probably what marked out her foreign policy more than anything else.
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