April 8, 2009


Iron Logic: Margaret Thatcher, Revised: a review of Claire Berlinski, “There Is No Alternative”: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters (Tod Lindberg, World Affairs)

[O]ne aspect of the Thatcher legacy in foreign policy remains, if anything, underappreciated, including even by Berlinski and perhaps Thatcher herself, to judge by her retrospective comments. That was her decision to go to war to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina. Berlinski rightly sees the Falklands as a key moment in Thatcherian certitude: she knew the Argentine occupation was morally wrong, and she was pitiless in her view of the Argentines. Yet she saw the question preeminently as one of British prestige. The junta’s decision to invade was therefore a product of the broader decline of Britain that she sought to rectify: “We had come to be seen by both friends and enemies as a nation which lacked the will and the capability to defend its interests in peace, let alone in war. Victory in the Falklands changed that,” Thatcher wrote in her memoir.

The stakes for her were immense. Had the war come out differently, it is doubtful her government would have survived, or her reputation. This is the prism through which Berlinski views the episode. There were other ramifications, however, and not confined even to the subsequent fall of the regime of the generals in Argentina. In the broadest sense, the war vindicated the principle that armed conquest for the purpose of territorial aggrandizement was unacceptable in international politics. The Falklands war drew a bright line, and not just around sovereign British territory in the south Atlantic.

In August 1990, Saddam Hussein attempted to cross that line with the invasion and occupation of Kuwait. It fell to George H. W. Bush to assemble a coalition to eject Saddam. In this effort, he enjoyed Thatcher’s wholehearted support and encouragement: she famously told him in an August 26 telephone call that this was “no time to go wobbly.” Berlinski passes over this episode, coming as it did near the end of Thatcher’s tenure, when the long knives were coming out against Thatcher in her own party. But as far as her influence on the world stage goes, it is a clear example, and the success of the 1991 coalition effort to drive out the Iraqis and restore the sovereignty of Kuwait stands alongside her success in driving the Argentines from the Falklands in support of an important principle—one that became much larger than the question of British national prestige.

The illegitimacy of conquest and annexation in international politics—a centuries-old taboo, to be sure, but unevenly heeded—is a norm that was powerfully reinforced in 1982 and has rarely been questioned since. So, too, Thatcher’s championing of market principles and globalization, both of which enjoy an acceptance today, notwithstanding a crisis in the financial system, that they simply did not in her day. Thatcher seems to have seen herself chiefly in terms of what she could and would do for her country, but her example in both of these areas had universal import. That’s the real reason she still matters.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 8, 2009 9:56 AM
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