LONDON – Margaret Thatcher was credited with restoring Britain’s reputation on the world stage and her close bond with U.S. President Ronald Reagan was seen as a key factor in ending the Cold War.
From “handbagging” European leaders in demanding the return of British money to sending a task force to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina, she cultivated the “Iron Lady” image to cunning effect.
When she took power in 1979 as Britain’s first female prime minister, Thatcher had little experience and even less interest in foreign affairs, with her main priority being to shore up the crumbling economy.
But that same year she approved the deployment of U.S. cruise missiles in Britain, despite mass protests at home, as part of NATO’s efforts to counter what it saw as the growing threat from the Soviet Union.
When Reagan took office in 1981 she quickly formed a close bond with him. Despite their different upbringings, the former Hollywood star and the shopkeeper’s daughter shared a free-market economic philosophy and a deep mistrust of communism.
“I have lost a dear friend . . . such a cheerful and invigorating presence,” she said in a video eulogy after Reagan died in 2004. “Thank you for your presidency, thank you for your testament of belief.”
But despite their shared distrust for Moscow and its allies, Thatcher was also the first Western leader to reach out to reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1984, three months before he took power, Thatcher met him and declared “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.”
Her Cold War judgment was not always so forward looking, though, as she told Gorbachev that “we do not want a united Germany,” just two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
Yet it was a conflict over an archipelago in the South Atlantic that was in many ways the making of Thatcher as a foreign policy player on the global stage.
British forces drove out Argentine invaders from the Falkands in 1982 despite Washington’s refusal to offer any support — a sore point between Thatcher and Reagan — ending a long period of postimperial military decline. “We have ceased to be a nation in retreat,” she declared afterward.
Geopolitics professor Klaus Dodds of Royal Holloway University in London said that the effect of her stance on the Falklands was “to give successive prime ministers the confidence to project British forces into various other theaters.”
“When you think about where Britain’s gone after the Falklands — Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya — a lot of that has come off the back of the Falklands,” Dodds said.
From that point on, she lived up to the nickname given to her by a Soviet newspaper after a tirade against the Soviet Union in 1976 — the Iron Lady — and deepened Britain’s strategic relationship with the United States.
That toughness manifested itself particularly in her increasing opposition to growing European unification. She had supported British membership of what was then the European Economic Community in 1975 but at a European summit months after she took office in 1979, she was taking on French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt over the amount Britain paid.
In a victory that has hung over her successors, Thatcher then won a budget rebate for Britain at a summit in 1984, when she said, “We are simply asking to have our own money back.”
Europe became an “obsession” for her, said William Wallace of the London School of Economics, adding that she became “less and less interested in compromise.”
But it also led to her downfall.
In 1990, soon after she delivered an incendiary House of Commons statement vowing “No! No! No!” to increased powers for Europe, one of her closest allies, Geoffrey Howe, quit with a devastating resignation speech that blamed her entrenched Euroskepticism. That triggered the chain of events that led to her quitting in November that year.