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Thatcher Knew That Foreign Policy Begins at Home

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
April 9, 2013
Financial Times


Speak about the political legacy of Margaret Thatcher, and most observers will focus on what she did at home. And for good reason, as "Thatcherism" has come to represent privatisation, lower taxes on income, a reduced role for trade unions – in short, the successful trimming of the role of government in the economy.

But this take on the former prime minister does not do justice to her foreign policy legacy, which has more to it in both scope and complexity than many appreciate.

That said, I would begin with the domestic and Thatcher's understanding that there could be little effectiveness abroad without strength at home. Hence the necessity of getting Britain's economy back on track. Influence in the world required resources as well as setting an example others could not help but respect. It is an insight the contemporary US would do well to take to heart.

Thatcher had little tolerance for aggression. Hers was a highly principled foreign policy, one that rejected Argentine belligerence in the Falklands and, a decade later, Saddam Hussein's in Kuwait. For her what was at stake was the principle much more than any intrinsic interests. Aggression allowed to stand would set a precedent that sooner or later would jeopardise core concerns.

The tie to the US was for Thatcher an article of faith. It didn't matter that this faith was not always reciprocated. American reluctance to back the UK fully against Argentina was more a source of disappointment for her than a cause for rupture. The same was true for the Reagan administration's embarrassing failure to consult before introducing military forces into Grenada.

This understanding of the need to stay close to Washington was grounded in an appreciation of power. Thatcher was nothing if not a realist. How else to explain her support for majority rule first in Rhodesia and then in South Africa? Or her support for a greater role for Dublin and a fairer shake for Catholics in Northern Ireland despite her abhorrence of the IRA terrorism that came close to killing her?

None of this is to suggest Thatcher did not have her blind spots. She most surely did. She tended to emphasise the dark side of institutions – the UN or the EU – but gave less weight to their advantages, be it as a source of legitimacy that could rally international support or as a means to expand markets or promote stability. And she could be a prisoner of her past prejudices, which in no small part explains her opposition to German unification even as it was brought about within Nato.

But these were blind spots, not to be confused with more pervasive blindness. To the contrary, Margaret Thatcher was sensitive to the need to be practical as well as principled, flexible as well as firm. She stood up to the Soviet Union after it was fashionable, only to embrace Mikhail Gorbachev before it was fashionable. For someone who so often had little time for the Foreign Office, she proved to be a leader with quite a record of diplomacy.

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