Unless you’ve been holed up in your room without Internet, television, or any human interaction, you’ve probably already heard that Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady”, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, has died. And if you are indeed holed up in your room and are at the very least without Internet, this post won’t help you much.
Margaret Thatcher has been hailed for many things. She has also been criticized for many things. The New York Times does a little of both. For the next few days–perhaps weeks–people will likely do a little more hailing than criticizing, but so it goes when death comes knocking.
While much will be said about her economic policies, I’d like to turn your attention to Ms. Thatcher’s contributions to and interactions with international security.
Daniel Drezner blogs at Foreign Policy about Margaret Thatcher’s contributions to international relations theory. While one contribution deals with economics (Thatcher’s enthusiastic embrace of capitalism), the other contribution deals with diversionary war. As Drezner writes, any serious study of diversionary war–that is, a war that is waged in part to bolster popular support for a leader–must include the case of the Falklands War, not least because both parties involved–the Argentine government and Ms. Thatcher–behaved they way they did to boost low levels of support back home. Ironically, when Reagan launched a similar diversionary war in Grenada the next year, Thatcher was unsupportive (Reagan himself had his own qualms about the Falklands War). Of the Falklands, geopolitics professor Klaus Dodds of Royal Holloway University told Danny Kemp of the AFP that Britain’s actions in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya are all in some way based on Thatcher’s actions in the South Atlantic.
Regardless over their disagreements on the Falklands and Grenada, Reagan and Thatcher were extremely close, and Thatcher at the very least matched Reagan’s “Cold Warrior” status. In his AFP article, Danny Kemp details this friendship and Thatcher’s cold warrior status. She was vehemently opposed to communism and extremely tough on the Soviet Union. It was a Soviet newspaper, after all, that gave her the nickname of “The Iron Lady.” She was at the forefront of the opposition to the Soviet Union, not just in terms of her “iron” demeanor but also in terms of judging the right time to communicate with the enemy (she was the first Western leader to reach out to Mikhail Gorbachev). In fact, NPR includes Thatcher’s role in the end of the Cold War as one of the “5 things” people should know about her (Thatcher’s role in solidifying the US-UK relationship is #4 on that list).
On one of the present-day’s most pressing international security issues–terrorism–Thatcher’s legacy also comes into play. A former member of Thatcher’s Downing Street Policy Unit calls the Iron Lady’s response to terrorism (specifically the terrorism of the IRA) “heroic” and suggests that future British prime ministers will always do well to remember Thatcher’s bravery in the face of death. Thatcher was the target of a failed IRA attack (failed in the sense that she was not killed, though five others were). From her embrace of capitalism to her “iron” stand against the USSR to her conviction in the face of terrorism (and death), many have hailed Thatcher as an “icon of freedom.”
However, Thatcher’s government had its dark sides as well. Jonathan Schwarz at The Huffington Post documents Thatcher’s long record on Iraq. Even before she supported the invasion of Iraq in 2002 (and then denied that support three years later), Thatcher and her government went a long way back with the country. Schwarz cites the Thatcher government’s covert supply of military equipment to Saddam Hussein’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war. Despite that secret support, Thatcher was one of the first leaders to call for action against Hussein’s regime during the First Gulf War. On the apartheid front, Thatcher has been famously derided for calling the ANC –Nelson Mandel’s party–“terrorists,” a blunder so bad that current Prime Minister David Cameron–who is part of Thatcher’s party–apologized for those sentiments.
Regardless of the good, the bad, and the ugly, Thatcher’s legacy will continue to be studied for decades (some say centuries). And while like all leaders her domestic politics will be of primary importance, her foreign policy–particularly in relation to international security–will also spend plenty of time in the limelight.