Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Policy: Was the Iron Lady on the Wrong Side of History?

The late British Prime Minister is remembered for having helped the U.S. stare down and defeat the Soviet Union, but her other overseas dealings reflect questionable if not poor judgment

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British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pictured with South African Premier P.W. Botha at Chequers, in England, on Feb. 6 1984

As the tributes flood in for Margaret Thatcher, the epoch-defining former British Prime Minister, one narrative remains cast in bronze. In the U.S., in particular, she’s lionized as the Iron Lady who stood with President Ronald Reagan, stared down the Soviet Union and helped usher in a new era of global liberty. Thatcher was a paragon of the West, a latter-day Churchill, a hardheaded politician who knew her enemies and acted on her beliefs. In a glowing eulogy, President Barack Obama said Thatcher reminded “the world that we are not simply carried along by the currents of history — we can shape them with moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will.”

(MORE: Farewell to the Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013))

But wrapped up in that legacy are some awkward truths. While a champion of the free market and a staunch opponent of Soviet tyranny, the conservative Thatcher leaves behind an altogether different memory in much of the global South. Her almost atavistic approach to foreign policy — shaped by naked British nationalism and a hawkish Cold War–era paranoia — appears today, at best, anachronistic and at worst deeply hypocritical.

Thatcher is most frequently criticized for her implicit support of South Africa’s apartheid state: while she nominally opposed that racist regime, she thwarted international efforts to place sanctions on South Africa and gave its white supremacist leadership a veneer of legitimacy by befriending then Premier P.W. Botha (pictured above). Most infamously, she lambasted the African National Congress of imprisoned Nelson Mandela as “terrorists” and is said to have expressed doubt that the ANC, which had a leftist guerrilla wing, could ever supplant the apartheid-era regime. The ANC has been in power for nearly two decades now, and Thatcher’s unwillingness to back them at the apex of their struggle has embarrassed many, including current Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron, who in 2006 decried “the mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the ANC and sanctions on South Africa.”

South Africa was not the only place where Thatcher perhaps ended up on the wrong side of history. She remained steadfast friends with onetime Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet ever since the latter aided the British during the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982. Pinochet came to power in a 1973 coup — allegedly engineered by the CIA — that violently unseated a democratically elected socialist government. Yet Thatcher, in 1999, credited the general for “bringing democracy to Chile”; Pinochet at the time was living in the U.K., locked in a legal battle to avoid extradition to Spain, where he could be charged for human-rights abuses during his near two-decade-long rule.

Lost in a Cold War fog, Thatcher, along with the U.S., supported the military government of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, helping prop up a South Asian generalissimo now seen as one of the chief architects of the Islamist radicalization of his country. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Zia became the point person for the Anglo-American fightback; under his watch, the Afghan mujahedin bloomed and the seeds of a new era of terrorist militancy were planted. During a 1981 visit to Pakistan, Thatcher delivered a speech hailing Islamabad’s efforts. The full transcript can be found here — in it, Thatcher doesn’t even pay lip service to the democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people.

Thatcher’s government is also alleged to have funneled arms to Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein and to have provided training and technical assistance to Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge, who, in Western eyes, was a hedge against Soviet-backed Vietnam in Southeast Asia. Defenders of Thatcher’s legacy argue that such policies were the necessary product of the realpolitik of Thatcher’s age. But as the image of Thatcher as a moral titan gets burnished in the press, they also cast a necessary shadow.

52 comments
NorrieMcTavish
NorrieMcTavish

Spot on. Forget all the dreamy thoughts of destroying the commies with her friend Ronnie. Ultimately she did not lead the Uk. She deeply devided it. Her government as well as that of Reagens have created an Islamic nightmare that is the new enemy.No wonder the Russians are very quite on the subject.

Ivanovich
Ivanovich

Ishaan Tharoor should go back to Pakistan and condemn some of his Taliban friends instead of demonizing a British heroine from his secure New York office.

midezown
midezown

@TIMEWorld No one is right al d time,she got many things right & a few wrong. Pin her medal 2 her chest and bid her farewell. Adieu thatcher

Brainling
Brainling

Margaret Thatcher is the UK's Ronald Reagan, in more ways than one. For those who are sycophants of her political leanings, she's a hero. For everyone else, she's a deeply flawed soul. History will judge her as nothing more than she was. The happy fun glossy sheen that the media is putting on her now will fade away, and her true failings will be laid bare. This is happening to Ronny Ray Gun in the US as we speak, as more people realize the untold damage he did to our long term economy and society.

harbounp
harbounp

On the wrong side of the History...she was againt the German reunification

JuanCarlosCorr5
JuanCarlosCorr5

Thatcher   in   a  very   direct  way   supported   the  racist   south  african   regime   and   came  to  the  rescue   of  Pinochet   whenhe was detaiined  in  the  UK. Those   were  her  friends,   In  the  economic  field   left  us   with   wahat  we  have  today;   crisis and  an   ambearable   difference  between  poor  and  rich.  Nothing   to  admire  about  her.

TimeMoneyWorld
TimeMoneyWorld

Given the time, the place and her position, M. Thatcher could be not much else than she was. And it would be wrong to blame her for not being what she could not be. But, if to compare her with the present day "leaders", she knew her place and acted within limits. Those who succeeded are just a bunch of overgrown junior school children posturing in front of a mirror.

OyeOyesanya
OyeOyesanya

Margaret Thatcher is a Western civilization government leader and this civilization still control the narrative of history from their own perstive. Yet history from other civilizations will remember her as a leader not fit to be remembered. Her policies and actions as PM of Britain created untold miseries to the world. 

Let us give the western civilization their day in the sun as we gave them too; to another one of their own gun-ho leader in June 2004; Ronald Reagan's Mr's Thatcher's soul mate.

rymnd87
rymnd87

Margaret Thatcher has always been a divisive figure and her death will not change the different feelings people feel. To Americans, she was a staunch ally that helped defeat the Soviet Union. To the union workers in UK (mine workers, auto workers etc), she was and still is one of the most hated figures, they will not be shedding a tear. To most of the people in the developing world, she was a first world politician, extremely nationalistic who was loath to acknowledge the newer world order where poor nations aspired to be treated fairly by western powers, prime example being the struggle for end of apartheid in SA. Just like Churchill hated to see the demise of the British empire, Thatcher hated to see Britain growing ever more inconsequential in not just the World but also in Europe itself.  Whatever her follies, her prime achievement would always be in breaking the glass ceiling and becoming the top political leader of her country, which as a woman was a first for the western world. The developing world was far ahead in this regard with leaders such as Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir etc.

xapplex
xapplex

The allegation that Thatcher armed Saddam Hussein and the Khmer Rouge is just preposterous. Saddam got his arms from A. the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, B. Mainland China, and C. France (in that order). Pol Pot´s Khmer Rouge were well-trained mass murderers long before Thatcher became Prime Minister and they got all the "technical assistance" they needed from the Chinese. Put the blame where it is due.

brambles
brambles

Don't we love the idea that a world-class leader is to be 'strong' 'determined' 'idealogical' 'forthright' and 'singular'.

But the reality is that prime minister Thatcher was a bully, that did not listen to or recognise better advise from cleverer people; was economically incompetent; and whose policies have directly led to the destruction of the UK economy and fragmentation of UK society.

Remember Thatcher was the one that said: "we do not need manufacturing industry, we are to be a service economy", and "there is no such thing as society, just individuals". 

It was North Sea oil and gas revenues that saved the UK economy and initiated the boom years after the bust of the early 1980's, not Thatcherite policy. It was Thatcher's lack of economic intelligence that, despite public warnings, embarked on policies that led to an over-valued pound stirling that in turn led to uncompetative export conditions for UK products, the collapse of UK manufacturing industry and the loss of so many jobs, skills and communities. Just ask the German's if they thought there was a future in manufacturing?

The 'little-England' obsession for home ownership was another of Thatcher's catastrophic policy failures. Combined with deregulation of the mortgage finance industry, we have seen an explosion in house prices, a nation of personal debit, a reduction of families to virtual slavery to serve unassailable mortgage debts, and the ultimate collapse of the banking sector.

And lets look at that banking sector: where is the great Thatcherite ideal of taking responsibility for your actions? Across the western world we have seen the consequences of privatising profits yet nationalising debts. The great banking service sector, the thing that Thatcher deregulated to the point of irresponsibility (in ignorance of the lessons learned after the 1930's crash), the sector that has always been staunchly Conservative and returned so much wealth to the already wealthy, now languishes as a busted industry surviving only because of the trillions of pounds GIVEN to them by public  purse and the very society that Thatcher claimed didn't exist. Hypocrisy doesn't come much fuller than that.

So go ahead today in Parliament and debate prime minister Tatcher's legacy, but do so in an informed way and do not conflate political dogma with intelligence or the economic fruits of technological advancement as the legacy of a successful economic policy. 

kumars19524
kumars19524

Better a rightist iron-lady than a leftist

ianbrealey
ianbrealey

@TIME @TIMEWorld She did not defeat Communism she democratised it and completed the revolution envisaged by Marx. There is a difference.

TheresaSSS
TheresaSSS

@TIME @TIMEWorld miss the lady who ws 2 classy & impressive 2 b known as the iron lady, she ws the most intelligent & determined lady known

frankwall1965
frankwall1965

She definitely supported the wrong people and her victory in the Falklands aside, she should have been ashamed with herself.

martenschultz
martenschultz

@DanielWiklander thatcher har gjort tillräckligt man kan kritisera utan att man behöver förvränga verkligheten, tänker jag.

SteveBloomberg
SteveBloomberg

More likely her views of the ANC will be seen as prescient. Note that black South Africans are now worse off under any number of measures. Thatcher defended Western civilization - this benefited everyone. In contrast you only need to look at the hunger and despair in modern Zimbabwe to see the folly of other British Prime Ministers like Harold Wilson. Wilson is probably viewed by Time as being 'on the right side of history', but look at the results for the people in the country.

tweet2GAURANG
tweet2GAURANG

@TIMEWorld:History always churnsLeaders who r justified in sensibilities&action,in their given situation.ItsDissection is alwaysPostmortem!

haw-fernando
haw-fernando

Absolutely in the wrong.. She is the one who got the services and protection off from the common and handed over everything to the market (Banks other biggies). The 'Market' of course responded with raving acceptance of her policies with the help of the News Papers that benefited from this scam. Now we see the results...Banks, News Media -

melonheadx13
melonheadx13

when did the national front arise?  seems that under thatcher.

richard.mcdonough
richard.mcdonough

Indeed, an amazing leader.  So was Reagan, sometimes alert and cogent and riding a bubble we are still paying for;  so was Hitler, always on message.  She was another up from slavery person who aspired to the class her forebears wished to conquer.  In conquering one can become one of the uncaring.

Ivanovich
Ivanovich

@JuanCarlosCorr5 She may have supported the Whites of South Africa but she was absolutely correct when she stated that the ANC would never be able to govern South Africa fairly which they have proven many times over! Rule Britannia and Rule Maggie!

brambles
brambles

@famulla5 If it were to be an informed debate about PM Thatcher's legacy, then there would have been more opposition MPs. But it was a day of eulogy and blind sycophantic praise of someone with a deeply flawed personality and whose  actions did much to wreek the economic havoc we have today in the UK and the west where we privatise profits but socialise debts.

brambles
brambles

@rymnd87 Sadly, PM Thatcher never had a single women in her cabinet throughout her three terms of office. She despised the competition of other women. Thus she did little for women's carrers, either by way of encouragement or nurturing. 

The Soviet union wasn't 'defeated', it was overrun by its own people. I was in Berlin in '92 when the DRG folks came spilling over the wall. Asked what drove them to kick the communist authorities out, they replied "volkswagan" they all wanted a volkswagon golf.

PM Thatcher is dead. But she does not deserve her contribution to be seen in anything other than the critical eye that she was so fond of.

BrazGuy1
BrazGuy1

@brambles Would you have her manage the decline of the UK instead of going against it making the unpopular political choices that saved the economy? Do you think the government should keep unprofitable business "just" for the sake of keeping people's jobs and getting millions of pounds more and more in debt by each day of doing so? Who would pay for it? UK was one of Western Europe's weak link at the time she came to power - will you go against most scholars and dispute it? I do not agree with everything she did but if she wasn't an iron lady maybe UK would have had what Greece is having now but back in the 80's! One has to make ends meet and if jobs are sacrificed, well, it is terrible indeed but necessary.  You can critisize her now since you see what she could not see or have as certain back then... still, back then, such negative things were possibilities only and there were plenty of possibilities. Surely all the failures that happened so far can't be blamed personally on her. Be reasonable.

Ivanovich
Ivanovich

@CUGLEY @TIME @TIMEWorld As Archbisop Tutu has just stated publicly "there was less VIOLENCE in South Africa under Apartheid than there is now under the ANC"! I lived in South Africa on both sides of the fence and I know so! So all you Liberal Whites get back to your own countries and leave Africans to judge us. Margaret Thatcher saved Britain's bacon not Labour or the Trade Unions./

Ivanovich
Ivanovich

@SteveBloomberg Absolutely! Can't agree with you more. See what Archbishop Tutu said about the Violence in the ANC-led South Africa being worse than in the days of Apartheid.

SteveBloomberg
SteveBloomberg

@melonheadx13 no, I think you'll find it was considerably earlier. Thatcher was reasonably sensible on immigration and Europe. She did a lot of harm to the working class with her attacks on the unions. In contrast  Labour post 1997 have displaced their traditional working class supporters through flooding the labour market. 

Ivanovich
Ivanovich

@brambles @famulla5 But she saved Britain from becoming another failed Socialist State under the leftist Labour Party and the Trade Unions! Good on you Maggie. I will be mourning you forever! All the Immigrants the Labour allowed into Britain will bring Britain to its knees one day.