Foreign Policy Blogs

The Thatcher Legacy and Complex Pictures of Friendship

The Thatcher Legacy and Complex Pictures of Friendship

Image Credit: Washington Post

Beneath a vaulted marble sky adorned in constellations of angels, dragons, man and beast, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s coffin spent the evening before her funeral cloaked in the Union Jack inside the neo-gothic Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft.  Parliament, the starting block of Thatcher’s rise to iconic power, hovers above the Chapel in the Palace of Westminster.  The Baroness chose this space as the site of a private memorial before the official pageantry of Wednesday’s service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a procession marked with waves of fine millinery and firm lines of beacon-red guardsmen.  As she rested quietly in both arenas, the U.K. continued its animated debate over her divisive domestic legacy.

Much of the retrospective commentary on this side of the Atlantic about her time as premier centers on her famed diplomatic coupling with Ronald Reagan — to many, the embodiment of the special relationship between the U.K. and U.S. envisioned by Churchill in 1941.  There is no disputing their affection for one another or the effectiveness of projecting this dynamic as a potent visual of unity against communism and the Soviet Union during the sunset of the Cold War.  It’s a discussion that generally concludes with some variation of the idea that never since has the U.S. and U.K. enjoyed such compatible personality politics.

Discord and Harmony

The Thatcher Legacy and Complex Pictures of Friendship

Image Credit: The Guardian (UK)

Assessments of the ease of their relationship enjoy the soft focus lens afforded to them by a gentle layer of gloss applied atop the tale.  They certainly identified as “ideological soulmates,” but like any other “marriage,” its internal mechanisms were far more complex than the sweet hearts presentation on the surface.  Their respect for one another allowed for an almost unspoken language, but that level of familiarity breeds room for the airing of frank frustrations.  In the realm of statesmanship, this can make for frosty exchanges on the highest of power scales.  Reagan and Thatcher were not immune to this.

Standing before a phalanx of microphone-wielding journalists, his charm offset her disdain for the press corp. The combination made for pleasant, relaxed briefings with imagery sealed for the ages.  He admired the ferociousness of her convictions and she revelled in his positive reception of her character.  They jointly loathed communism and lauded the free market.  But Reagan had a way of sidestepping Thatcher in a way that drove her to humiliation, as chronicled by historian Richard Aldous.  He was slow to see her logic in the usefulness of Mikhail Gorbachev and double-backed on support for her action against the Argentines in the Falklands before finally lending his diplomatic weight to her cause.  He requested her advice on Granada, then decided his course without hearing her counsel.

The intention here is not to cast shadows over the bond between the Gipper and the Iron Lady, but rather to consider the question of what expectations have been leveled on their successors to recreate this appearance as a measure of assurance in the health of the special relationship.  The mere suggestion of discord compels some observers to wonder aloud if it’s an alliance in shambles.

George H. W. Bush got on well enough with Thatcher.  She had little doubt of his competence, but after nearly a decade of work with Reagan, didn’t establish a similar rapport with his replacement in her final years in office.  On a political level, there was less need to forcefully display a transatlantic defensive wall around western freedom as the USSR languished at the close of the 1980s.

Thatcher resigned in 1990, thrusting herself into the amorphous world of retired state leaders.  Party peer John Major assumed her post, and his relationship with Bush was often fractured.  Despite emerging from the same respective conservative party ranks as the two who came before them, they communicated poorly and Major’s relationship with Bill Clinton was no better.  Despite the iciness of their relationship, Major injected himself into Bush’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in a bid to keep a conservative voice in the White House.  In response, Clinton gravitated toward Labour party leader Tony Blair.

When Blair won the premiership in 1997, the heads of government  on both sides of the Atlantic realigned as leaders of their respective “left”-leaning parties.  Both were viewed as the young, bright, gregarious, call-me-by-my-first-name faces of a new generation of political power.  They worked closely in the Northern Ireland peace process, with Blair afforded open access to the president and offering Clinton a foreign policy high mark.  Kosovo, on the other hand, proved a point of loggerheads when Clinton pressed back on Blair’s appeals for ground troops but thoroughly enjoyed the ultimate success of its breakaway.

Error and Truth

The Thatcher Legacy and Complex Pictures of Friendship

Image Credit: The Telegraph (UK)

The special relationship hit both high and low notes while chaired by Blair and George W. Bush.  Their pairing lived up to the mythology of the designation following 9/11 — allies pulling together in a time of profound grief and acting swiftly to reassure the security of democratic principles against another form of ideological enemy. Opinions on the validity and effectiveness of the War on Terror are far from uniform, darting wildly between those who profusely defend the decision-making process behind the 2003 Iraq invasion and those who reject it with immense disdain.  From either side of the debate, the spotlight shone on the Anglo-American partnership in its aftermath has been a harsh one.  The “death” of the relationship became a popular editorial chide against the institution.

An official parliamentary review into the course of the backroom Iraq planning acknowledges perceptions of Blair, in outright language, as a “poodle” to the White House — a charge leveled against him by those arguing his role as a knowing and compliant participant in the the manipulation of intelligence and the facilitation of interrogation methods deemed illegal by European and international law.  In the end, the review acknowledged that the foundation of the relationship — English-speaking democratic states with common history and cultural affinity — remains intact, but the experience has left a metallic taste in the mouth adjoined to Britain’s stiff upper lip.

Doubt and Faith

The inequality of the relationship isn’t the core issue.  The possession and capacity to exercise economic and military power has long been the trump card of international relations.  The idea that a debate between London and Washington tips in the latter’s favor is not a new, or overtly offensive, notion.  The trick is not to make a grotesque show of it.  British premiers, the Baroness included, have long navigated a wary balance between demonstrating clout beside their American counterpart and seeming so close that the line between partner and sycophant blurs uncomfortably — a trap from which Blair found himself unable to wrestle free.

The Thatcher Legacy and Complex Pictures of Friendship

Image Credit: Bill Rountree/AP

Britain’s two most contemporary prime ministers, Gordon Brown and current placeholder David Cameron, have been largely limited in making overly enthusiastic overtures to the Obama administration.  Both tread carefully where comparisons to Blair can be drawn in their affairs with the U.S.  For his part, President Obama’s outward embrace of the U.K. has been freckled with perplexity over the emphasis placed on the language framing the Relationship and elaborate expressions of political affection.  His approach has raised many an eyebrow, perhaps reflecting how unfamiliar a steadied embrace seems to be for an accepted and assumed international friend.  This attitude is largely molded by Obama’s reported cautiousness about political attachments.  That, and the rumor claiming Brown simply called Obama far too often.

Despair and Hope

The relationship may be an aging one, badly bruised by questionable choices and clawing to find its present footing, but it remains relevant.  As unilateralism slinks evermore into un-favorability, security budgets slam up against calls for austerity, and speculations about future global power players continue their lurch into political dialogue, trusted partnerships will be needed ones.  While unbalanced, the U.S. and U.K. share the advantages of time, language, and social commonality.  They remain each other’s first congratulatory and commiserating phone calls and hover high on the list of first official trips abroad. In the grand scheme, their bilateral rifts are surmountable spasms between friends.  The same kind of complicated closeness publicly mastered by Reagan and Thatcher.

The Thatcher Legacy and Complex Pictures of Friendship

Image Credit: BBC News

And so the show goes on, looking for its next dynamic duo.   Just as there were beaming pictures of two Cold War figureheads bounding through Camp David on a golf cart in 1984 and laughs over hot dogs amidst the crowd of a college basketball game in 2012, neither state is truly prepared to bury the hope of recapturing diplomatic media magic with Mrs. Thatcher.



Sara Chupein-Soroka

Sara Chupein-Soroka is a former Program Associate at the Foreign Policy Association. She holds an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University with a focus on U.S.-European relations, and a B.A. in Political Science from Hunter College. Her graduate thesis examined U.S.-UK bilateral security relations (an ongoing project) and she undertook an in-field intensive at The Hague, Bosnia and Serbia examining transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia in 2011.