Friday, 12 April 2013

The Dear Leader Bestrides the Globe

The bizarre conjunction of Margaret Thatcher and Kim Jong-un this week has been particularly pronounced in the ritualistic performance of foreign policy, as the TV footage segues from The Iron Lady directing a tank in pre-unification Germany to the chubby Dear Leader personally directing missile strikes against a defenceless hill. The Thatchfest has tended to focus on her domestic impact, which is understandable given that the 80s were nothing if not memorable round our way, so I thought it might be interesting to look at her dealings abroad in isolation. I have never knowingly passed up an open goal, so I'll start by noting that isolation was a recurrent motif. While many sincerely believe that "she put the Great back into Great Britain", it would be just as true to say that "she put the Little back into Little Englander".

The opening act in our drama is the sturm und drang of the Falklands War. Its long-term geopolitical significance was that it triggered the first step in the rejection of military rule and the restoration of democracy across South America. This was clearly not the chief goal of Thatcher, who famously remained supportive of General Pinochet and largely non-judgemental when it came to military dictatorship. In a British context, there is perhaps some basis to the claim that the war exorcised the demons of Suez, and there is no doubting the significance that the earlier event must have had for someone who entered Parliament in 1959, but the key facts to remember are that the war was, according to the Franks Committee, "unanticipated" and that the running down of military resources in the South Atlantic "may have served to cast doubt on British commitment to the Islands and their defence". That judgement, given in the afterglow of victory, was as generous as could be expected. A less friendly assessment would be that a lack of due care and attention encouraged the junta.

Defeat, or even a negotiated compromise, combined with her domestic unpopularity at the time, would probably have spelt electoral doom for Thatcher. Labour, led by the pro-intervention Michael Foot, would have had a field day criticising her failure to stand up to the fascist junta. In this light, her decision to go to war was based on the calculation that there was, to coin a phrase, no alternative. Real bravery would have been to negotiate a leaseback during the sabre-rattling phase ahead of hostilities, though we cannot know whether Galtieri & co would have settled for a bird-in-the-hand or regarded it as a sign of British weakness and been emboldened. The consequence is that we are saddled with a remote annoyance that can (and will) only be resolved through an eventual transfer of sovereignty. Ironically, the sense of a page being turned after Thatcher's funeral may improve the chance of discussions with Kirchner & co with a view to a leaseback deal. The further irony is that Thatcher herself attempted to negotiate an extension to the leaseback deal for Hong Kong, but failed to persuade the Chinese. She tended to be less successful at jaw-jaw than war-war.

Victory in the Falklands famously depended as much on covert support by the US (and Chile) as it did on British arms. Thatcher's attitude to the US was indulgent to the point of soppy, even after Reagan stiffed her over Grenada (I suspect her vocal opposition was largely face-saving and in deference to the Queen, as she otherwise showed little solidarity with the Caribbean). She was happy for the UK to become Airstrip One in time for 1984, housing Cruise and Pershing missiles, buying Trident, and facilitating the US takeover of Westland Helicopters. Though much was made of her relationship with Reagan, I suspect her view of the US was based more on Churchillian folk-memory and respect for Eisenhower, the president of her formative political years, the architect of cold war policy, and the "father figure" who intervened to stop the squabbling at Suez.

Typical of her background (by which I mean wife of the bigoted Denis as much as daughter of Alderman Roberts), she was instinctively sympathetic to the white remnants of empire, which led to her tacit support for apartheid-era South Africa and the incautious language about Britain being "swamped" by alien cultures. Her lack of interest in the non-white commonwealth, and their estrangement following her opposition to sanctions against South Africa, led to other African nations and India turning in time towards China and the US. While subsequent administrations have attempted to repair the damage, you sense that Thatcher may, for largely the wrong reasons, have got the direction of history right, and that the Commonwealth won't survive the Queen.

For some, Thatcher's chief geopolitical achievement was talent-spotting Gorbachev as a man "we can do business with". The truth is that she was in the right place at the right time and the initiative came from him. He knew that a direct approach to the US to broach disarmament was too risky, as it might have been triumphantly greeted as a sign of weakness, and he could not use Germany or France as interlocutors without raising US suspicions of a covert deal. The UK was the ideal go-between. Thatcher was pragmatic enough to grasp the opportunity, and fully milked the boost in status it provided, but her role did not extend beyond making the introductions. She was soon sidelined as Reagan and Gorbachev went head to head in Geneva and Reykjavik.

Thatcher's attitude to Europe is perhaps best understood as a throwback to 19th century diplomacy and the pursuit of a balance of powers. She actively encouraged fragmentation and subsidiarity. It is well known that she opposed German reunification, but perhaps less well remembered that she supported the independence of Croatia and Slovenia, and thus the breakup of Yugolsavia, or that she was worried about Solidarity destabilising the East-West standoff. Her opposition to "ever closer union" in the EU was consistent with this stance, but bereft of any coherent alternative strategy beyond "no". Ironically, her opposition to German reunification prompted closer Franco-German agreement on the subject, which in turn led to the French securing the Euro as a quid pro quo. Had she cut a deal with Kohl and marginalised Mitterand ahead of the Maastricht conference in 1992, the design and timing of both the EU and the Euro might have been quite different. In the event, she exacerbated British isolation and bequeathed her party a toxic legacy.

Her stated reason for opposing reunification was that it "would lead to a change to postwar borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security". She clearly struggled to think beyond the worldview of her own formative years in the 1940s and 1950s (she was twenty when WW2 ended). Though she was pro-Europe in the early 70s, this was very much in the mould of Churchill and Macmillan: free trade would bring prosperity and advance liberty, saving us from the Road to Serfdom. It is interesting to note that she called on Macmillan for advice during the early days of the Falklands War, even though he would become a critic of her social policy in the mid-80s. She always exhibited far more deference to the establishment in foreign dealings than in domestic.

She had no particular vision in respect of the UK's international role, beyond keeping things much as they had always been: cleave to the US, promote a Europe of small states and free burghers, and indulge a sentimental nostalgia for our white kith and kin in the old empire. She was a true conservative abroad, despite her support for neoliberal reengineering at home. That her seedy son should have made his money by trading on her name, and now flits from one expat enclave to another, has the flavour of a tale by Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh. The mother, whose favourite book was apparently Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal, was more in the tradition of John Buchan and Rider Haggard. I have absolutely no idea what Kim Jong-un's literary preferences are, but I suspect he is more familiar with Godzilla than The Mouse That Roared.


  1. Not the main point of your post, but I react against this "role" thing as in lost empire, not found role. Why do we need a role? Do Italy, Ireland, Slovenia or Chile (randomly chosen places I have been on holiday) feel
    they need a role?

    Anyway,the important thing is that Adebayor missed a penalty.

  2. Countries obviously don't need a "role", but conservative politicians tend to see nations as organic entities, possessing personalities and destinies, so their worldview often reflects this idea of international relations as a drama. My point was that Thatcher's take on it was utterly conventional and without the sort of imagination shown by Churchill and Macmillan.

    Adebayor's miss couldn't have happened to a nicer bloke, but I personally enjoyed Eboue's goal against Real Madrid more. Looks like he's got his mojo back.