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.