Professor Don Markwell is Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre, and was formerly Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford.
As an Australian living in Britain for most of the Thatcher years, I watched at close hand the remarkable performance in foreign affairs, as in economic policy, of this transformative figure. She stood shoulder to shoulder with US leaders, most obviously Ronald Reagan, in 'standing up' to the Soviet Union as — especially in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the imposition of martial law in Poland, and other developments – the earlier spirit of détente had given way to what was often (I think wrongly) spoken of as 'the second Cold War'.
Just as Mrs Thatcher stood firmly against the miners in the miners' strike, she stood firmly against CND and others who opposed the refreshing of the Western nuclear arsenal in the early 1980s.
Yet perhaps Mrs Thatcher's most extraordinary accomplishment in relations with the Soviet Union was that she was one of the first to see that Gorbachev could himself be a transformative figure – someone she could 'do business with', and someone whose policies of perestroika, glasnost, and willingness to engage with the West should be encouraged and built upon.
Sovietologist colleagues of mine in the mid-1980s who were not natural allies of Mrs Thatcher's were nonetheless excited by her interest in, and perceptiveness about, this historic opportunity, from which flowed the end of the Cold War and indeed the end of the Soviet Union.
It was also evident to me that her willingness to go to war with Argentina to reclaim the Falklands in 1982, a brilliantly successful show of defiance, courage, strength, and determination, led many to re-evaluate her (including her deeply controversial economic policies and her there-is-no-alternative approach) and to see strength where before they had only seen bloody-minded stubbornness. Many Commonwealth colleagues and observers saw only stubbornness in her resistance to sanctions against apartheid South Africa, though she had earlier played an important role in the transition to black majority rule in Zimbabwe.
The link between her economic and international approaches was, of course, evident in Mrs Thatcher's approach to Europe where, perhaps to over-simplify, she viewed the European Union as essentially a free trade union while many on the continent increasingly aimed towards a European federation. This was but one of many arenas in which she fought tooth and nail for what she saw as Britain's legitimate interests. Her scepticism about European monetary union strikes many now as prescient, of course.
Her resistance to the reunification of Germany, because of her fear of German dominance in Europe, was simply futile. Reunification was a necessary and, for most, a much-celebrated outcome of the collapse of the Soviet empire which she had sought, and the other consequences of which – such as the freeing of countries throughout central and eastern Europe – she warmly welcomed.
Mrs Thatcher also accepted that the expiry of the 99-year lease of Hong Kong from China could have no honourable outcome other than Hong Kong's return to China, and she negotiated what she thought were the best terms for this. She did so with a communist China that was bit by bit undergoing the kind of economic liberalisation that she warmly welcomed – Thatcherism with Chinese characteristics, one might be tempted to say – and which, among other things, created opportunities for British business (something she seemed always keen to encourage, sometimes even controversially keen).
Although many factors contributed to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to other successes associated with her name, there is no doubt that Margaret Thatcher was in international affairs (as in economic policy and the relationship of the individual, market, and state) a figure of truly historic consequence and profound impact. The Iron Lady indeed.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.