ONLINE ONLY: Thatcher, Reagan and the Dictators

The Iron Lady's record with authoritarians is mixed but her profound confidence in the democratic rights of all peoples shines through

There are certain topics which are guaranteed to provoke heated and sometimes hysterical discussion. Of late, Israel has certainly been one of these, as has George W. Bush. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were similarly explosive characters. But while the former died some years ago to general acclaim, having been adopted by the nation and many of his former critics at home and around the world, Margaret Thatcher remained furiously controversial. Her recent death was greeted with unprecedented scenes of jubilation and satisfaction along with the customary balanced assessments and ritual regrets. I was therefore not entirely surprised when an article I wrote for Foriegn Policy on Lady Thatcher’s legacy attracted some adverse comment.

I completely stand by the main thrust of the piece, which was to emphasize Thatcher’s deep commitment to the defence of western democracy against Soviet Communism and other menaces. These critics were right, however, to take me to task for the phrase “The Iron Lady hated dictators and bullies of any kind”. I meant this to be read in conjunction with my claim that she was committed to the promotion of democracy abroad “at least in the communist world”.

All the same, I regret this formulation. First of all, it is wrong as baldly stated. Thatcher clearly did not hate many dictators who were broadly in the western camp during the cold war. She entertained good relations with the Saudis and other “moderate” Arab monarchies. She went easy on Apartheid South Africa and was well-disposed towards Suharto in Indonesia. Above all, Thatcher famously favoured the Chilean dictator Pinochet. To be sure, there were strategic reasons for these connections, which in the latter case stood in good stead during the Falklands War, but it cannot even be said that she did so holding her nose, as she stood by him during his judicial difficulties in London much later after he had lost power.

Secondly, I regret having missed the opportunity to explore the tension between advocacy of democracy abroad and the strategic dictates of the struggle against global Communism caused for the West during most of the Cold War. How to strengthen the slender middle ground in Asia, Africa and Latin America against extreme left-wing subversion, without leaning towards dictatorial elements within the army, big business or the traditional landowning classes, was a perennial problem. Salvador Allende in Chile, whose rise provoked Pinochet’s coup, was a case in point. He brought the country to the verge of chaos on the basis of a slim democratic mandate, and as we now know had links to the Cubans. It was for this reason that Reagan’s UN representative Jeane Kirkpatrick famously distinguished between the “totalitarian” threat from Soviet Communism, which was not capable of peaceful evolution and had to be resisted at all costs, and the “authoritarian” regimes mentioned above which were capable of such transformation and were useful allies against Moscow.

Thirdly, I am sorry that I did not point out how Kirkpatrick’s view, which had something to recommend initially, gave way to a more consistent promotion of western political values by the West in the second half of the Cold War. In the 1970s, for example, the United States took a deep breath and a punt on the democratic transformations in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and was ultimately rewarded for it. In the 1980s and 1990s a similar thing happened in the Philippines and Indonesia, with the US increasingly not only tolerating democratic change but encouraging it. By the end of the Clinton administration, indeed, the strategy of democratic enlargement was the centrepiece of its engagement with much of the world. The only real exception was the Middle East, where it was feared that greater political participation would unleash anti-western and undemocratic domestic forces.

Fourthly and finally, this whole question became relevant again after the attacks of September 11 2001, when the lack of democracy in the Arab world came back to haunt us. Ten years later, the popular revolts in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere mean that we have to take a view, just as we did during the Cold War, on whether we should “dare more democracy”. What would Margaret Thatcher do with the Arab Spring? One cannot say for certain, because — as I have outlined above — the record is complex, but I am sure we should draw on the dominant strand in her legacy which is a profound confidence in the democratic rights and aspirations of free peoples.

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