Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship
The blurb of Richard Aldous’s book refers to his ‘startling conclusion’ that ‘the weakest link in the Atlantic Alliance of the 1980s was the association between its two principal actors’. Although that is quite an overstatement, Aldous provides a readable account of the many occasions on which Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher did not see eye to eye. In retrospective portrayals, not least by Reagan and Thatcher themselves, the differences were airbrushed away. At the time, however, Thatcher had serious reservations about Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative project (SDI – soon popularly referred to as ‘Star Wars’). In particular she rejected his idea that this hypothetical anti-missile defence system would make nuclear weapons – and the concept of deterrence – obsolete. When, at the Reykjavik summit in 1986, only Reagan’s determination to continue with SDI prevented his agreeing with Mikhail Gorbachev on a plan for total removal of nuclear weapons from global arsenals, the British prime minister became incandescent with rage.
Her strong attachment to nuclear weapons as a deterrent, in the belief that they would never be used, went alongside a foreign policy that was less bellicose than her popular image might suggest. Thatcher’s willingness to use force to take back the Falkland Islands, following their takeover by Galtieri’s Argentina, should not obscure her extreme reluctance to endorse military intervention where there had been no external attack on Britain or on a British dependency. Aldous cites her clearly-expressed opposition to military interventions for the sake of ‘regime change’:
We in the Western democracies use our force to defend our way of life … We do not use it to walk into independent sovereign territories … If you’re going to pronounce a new law that wherever communism reigns against the will of the people, even though it’s happened internally, there the USA shall enter, then we are going to have really terrible wars in the world.
That was provoked by the American invasion of Grenada to reverse an internal coup. Thatcher also took a sceptical view of American military strikes in Lebanon and Libya, saying: ‘Once you start to go across borders, then I do not see an end to it and I uphold international law very firmly’.
Aldous, however, provides enough evidence to show that Reagan and Thatcher had an essentially cordial relationship and that they held some basic convictions in common. Aside from a fervent belief in both capitalism and personal freedom, these included a desire to confront Communism ideologically and to negotiate from a position of military strength. They did, however, both believe in negotiation. That was where Reagan differed from many in his own administration, who felt that dialogue with Soviet leaders was at best a waste of time and at worst dangerous.
Where Reagan and Thatcher struck it lucky was with the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan’s rhetoric and military build-up succeeded only in hardening Moscow’s stance in the years when his Kremlin counterparts were Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, and Andrei Gromyko and Dmitri Ustinov ran Soviet foreign and defence policy. It was Gorbachev who changed the entire foreign policy team in Moscow and made possible a fundamental breakthrough in East-West relations.
Aldous rightly notes the significance of Thatcher’s good relations with Gorbachev and of her belief in his integrity and reform-mindedness. His use of sources on the relationship, though, leaves something to be desired. He misses the archival evidence relating to Gorbachev’s first visit to Britain, which has been released under the UK Freedom of Information Act. He also strangely suggests that Thatcher approached Gorbachev at Andropov’s funeral in February 1984 and personally invited him to London, something Soviet protocol would not have allowed. Even more oddly, he attributes this contention to Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs. They contain no such information for the good reason that it was not until June that an invitation specifically to Gorbachev to lead a Soviet delegation to Britain was dispatched to Moscow and December 1984 before Thatcher had her first meeting with Gorbachev, three months before he became Soviet leader. These aberrations in Aldous’s book should not, however, deter anyone from reading this illuminating account of the important Reagan-Thatcher friendship with its particular emphasis on the blips.
Archie Brown is author of The Rise and Fall of Communism (Vintage, 2010)
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