When the U.S. and UK were friends

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 9, 2013


The death of Margaret Thatcher highlights the distance that has grown between the U.S. and UK, the main allies that brought about the end of the Cold War.  Since Thatcher left office in 1990, the rise of capitalism around the world has decreased the importance and influence of the United States and the United Kingdom. The proximity and cooperation that existed between the UK and American governments stands in contrast with the more distant relations that exist between London and Washington today.  


Together with American president Ronald Reagan, the leadership of the Iron Lady was central in bringing about the demise of the Soviet Union and securing the expansion of capitalist democracy. With its unquestionable strengths and opportunities, and evident limitations and shortcomings, that new world order continues to be dominant in most countries, though new actors have emerged and increasingly conflicting new challenges have arisen.  


Because of her strong convictions and heavy-handed style, Thatcher’s legacy remains controversial and polarizing in Great Britain. Elsewhere, her legacy is mostly associated with the unquestionably victory of capitalism and the foundations of the present era of globalization.  Thatcher was Prime Minister from 1989 to 1990, while Reagan was in the White House from 1981 to 1989. That decade was marked by the debt crisis in emerging economies, the increasing dominance of the U.S. and international lending institutions and the shifting balance in Europe in favor of western democracies. Because of her strong stance against the Soviet Union, Thatcher was also a vocal defender of world leaders who opposed communism.  That made her support authoritarian regimes on grounds that—though not democratic—they promoted capitalism, an ideology that, in her view, carried the seeds of democratic rule. Thus, while communist dictatorships could only bring about bad things, a market-friendly authoritarian government would inevitably end up making a transition to capitalist democracy.


Sometimes, Thatcher’s support for authoritarian regimes was dictated by domestic policies.  After the 1982 Falkland (Malvinas) War, Thatcher openly supported the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile because of the role played by that government in supporting the UK in that armed conflict. To be sure, Thatcher’s world legacy is seen in a whole different light in Argentina, precisely because of the 1982 war and Thatcher’s uncompromising position in defense of UK’s sovereignty claims over the islands. Regardless of who initiated the war and what government was ultimately responsible for the hundreds of deaths caused by the military confrontations, the fact that Thatcher ordered the military invasion of the islands overshadows all the other components of her much more complex legacy in the eyes of most Argentines.


During Thatcher’s tenure, her strong cooperation with the United States made the iron lady America’s strongest ally in Europe. Not since Winston Churchill in World War II did the U.S. have such a strong alliance with the UK on world affairs.  After Thatcher, the George W. Bush-Tony Blair partnership in the invasion of Iraq was also very strong, but the motivations behind that coalition were more questionable and stood on shakier grounds and the results of that partnership were far from successful. While Reagan and Thatcher emerged victorious in their confrontation against the Soviet Union, Bush and Blair left office amid criticisms for launching a war on terror that had debatable justifications and no verifiable evidence that could allow the leaders to declare victory. Though they tried to repeat the successful Reagan-Thatcher partnership, Bush and Blair fell way short of achieving the success of that strong partnership.


The rapid globalization that ensued the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union allowed for capitalism to expand rapidly around the world.  Some of the success of globalization resulted from independent decisions made by other world leaders. China’s embrace of capitalism cannot be credited to Thatcher or Reagan, but the end of the Cold War facilitated China’s entrance into the capitalist world. As a result of globalization—and because of mistakes made both in the U.S. and UK—the relative importance of those two countries has decreased in the past two decades. Neither Washington nor London has that former political and military influence. The world is now a multipolar place and Americans and British can only remember with nostalgia the years when Reagan and Thatcher were more powerful world leaders than Obama and David Cameron today.


Perhaps because their own countries are immersed in crises that threaten their long-term strength and their world leadership positions, the American and British governments have grown more distant over the past years. As they come from ideological opposites—though they both claim to embrace pragmatism—President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron have nowhere near the proximity and complicity that Reagan and Thatcher had.  As Americans look back in time and remember the years of Reagan-Thatcher collaboration, they will realize how much the world has changed and how distant the two formerly close allies have grown since Reagan and Thatcher were in power two and half decades ago.