Editor’s note: The following remarks were delivered on October 3, 2013 at a dinner preceding a conference sponsored by The New Criterion and London’s Social Affairs Unit on “Reagan, Thatcher, and the Special Relationship.”
The challenge that we have come together to discuss is how America and the Western world can find a sense of direction at a moment when they are confronted by revolutions on many continents. And as they navigate this issue, our public needs to have a sense that its leaders are devoted to peace, and our adversaries have to know that there is a line they cannot cross except at extreme peril: To combine these two is the key challenge.
But before we make a few remarks about that, let me say a few things about Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. I knew both of them for many decades, and I used to brief Reagan for President Nixon every month on international development. I remember during the 1973 war, I told him we had a problem. We wanted to help Israel with resupply, but we wanted to do it on the basis of criteria that were not too provocative to those Arabs that had not yet joined the war. So Reagan said, “I have a suggestion. Tell them you will replace all the planes that the Egyptians had said they have shot down.” That would have tripled the Israeli air force, and the Egyptian air force at that time was renowned for never getting anywhere close to an Israeli target.
I had moderately frequent contact with Reagan when he was President. He was exactly the right man for those times. He knew how to navigate between the two poles that I described: defining the limits beyond which the Soviets would not be permitted to go, but, at the same time, laying down perspectives for peace around which people could rally. It was, after all, Reagan who proposed the abandonment of all nuclear weapons at the Reykjavík Summit, but the one weapon he wouldn’t give up at the Reykjavík Summit was the Strategic Defense Initiative because he wanted to be protected against Soviet violations.
My relationship with Margaret Thatcher, like so many things in my life, I owe to my wife. I was Security Advisor, and Nancy was working on something for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund on education. She met Margaret Thatcher and said to me, “You have to meet Margaret Thatcher.”
Now in those days, the Prime Minister was Ted Heath. He was a personal friend of mine, but his devotion to this Special Relationship was circumscribed, so when I said I wanted to see his Education Minister, he thought, “This must be some American maneuvering.”
And I didn’t ever accomplish it through the cabinet office, but we had enough friends in England so that they arranged a private dinner with Margaret Thatcher. Then she became Leader of the Opposition, and one of the first things she said to me was, “I’m not going to fight for the middle. I’m going to fight for my convictions, and let the middle worry about itself.” She said, “If this goes on, then everybody fights for the middle. We will destroy democracy because leaders will become indistinguishable. And it would be far preferable if each side stated its views clearly and then let the people decide, rather than have a confused mélange of ideas.”
I had never heard anything like that before from a political leader. The conventional wisdom was that you have to seize the middle ground. And I didn’t know how it could succeed, but she did it, and she succeeded. And I had many encounters with her.
When she visited Washington as Leader of the Opposition, the Carter administration would not see her, and so we gave a number of dinners for her in our house, and as a result, whenever we were in London, we would see Margaret Thatcher.
In the course of one of these visits—it was in the middle of the Falklands crisis—I had lunch at the Foreign Office, and they had assembled a group of former foreign secretaries, and the Foreign Secretary at that moment was Baron Pym. And they came up with a number of ideas of a possible compromise and various approaches that could be taken. Then at five o’clock that day, I had been invited to tea with Margaret Thatcher, and I asked her—assuming that she would obviously be fully informed about the thinking of her Foreign Minister—which of the compromises that I could imagine she would favor.
Well, that produced outbursts. And she was so irate, she said, “You, my old friend, would dare to use the word compromise here.” She was so irate that I didn’t even tell her where I had gotten all these ideas. But it was absolutely clear that you could not touch British territory while she was Prime Minister.
Some years later, she was kind enough to invite me to a dinner for a very small group of her advisors that was going to be the first discussion of the future of Hong Kong, and they presented more or less what happened later, but it was a desperate battle, because she would not hear of giving up the colony. She retreated from the island to the new territories, and again, her basic conviction was you do not negotiate about British territories. It was necessary at that moment, and I was one of those who supported the position, and she did it. But my basic point is that here was a lady with fundamental convictions about the role of Britain and about friendship with the United States, and you could absolutely count on her. And this gets me to the Special Relationship.
One of the great acts of statesmanship is Churchill’s decision, or the recognition, during the war that Britain could no longer be a world power by itself. For the country that had been the dominant nation for a century, whose sacrifices had made it possible to win two wars, and whose endurance in 1940 saved the future of freedom, that was a very difficult recognition.
But he recognized and acted on the conviction that Britain could remain of great influence in the world, through a kind of moral partnership with the United States, and to do this by making itself so indispensable in a common decision-making process that Americans would seek to cooperate with Great Britain. This special role that Britain played was not something written down. It was something that was implicit in the relationship.
I used to joke that the French try to deal with us by making us feel foolish, to prove to us that we didn’t have the brain power to follow them; the British dealt with us by making us feel guilty that we had let them down. They built themselves into our decision-making process in a manner that made them in many ways indispensable.
When I was in office (I can give you one example, but I could give many), Leonid Brezhnev, then the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, made a proposal to us that we didn’t want to accept, but we also didn’t want to reject it directly. So we discussed that with James Callaghan, who was Foreign Secretary at the time, and he came up with one of his people called Brimelow, who was the Russian expert, and we turned over the drafting of our reply to the British. It would have been inconceivable with any other country that we gave them all the communications we had received and asked them to draft an answer which, luckily for all of us, was so complicated that there was no way Brezhnev could accept it. So in intelligence cooperation, in explaining, in sharing information, it was very rare that anything was done where the other side was not notified ahead of time.
Again, of course, some of these incidents are pretty far back. We had organized a conference on energy, in which we created the International Energy Agency, about achieving some common positions on supply and emergency situations. The French were violently opposed to this, because they wanted a separate European entity. So Alec Home, who was Foreign Secretary at the time, came up again with a formula. And he also had the idea we should let the Japanese Foreign Minister introduce it, so that the Europeans didn’t vote against France on a French formula. I was chairman when we went around the table and got to the Japanese, who were supposed to make their proposal. He proposed the exact opposite of what we had agreed, but when you were the fourteenth Lord Home, you were not easily rattled.
So Alec Home took the floor and said, “If I have understood the Japanese Foreign Minister correctly, he has just proposed . . . ” What he read was the exact opposite of what the Japanese Foreign Minister had said. Not many people would have had the nerve to do this, and the Japanese said, “Oh yes, that’s what we meant.”
So in a way, he saved that conference. But one could give, I’m sure every administration until fairly recently could give, examples of such trans-Atlantic cooperation, and the relationship between Reagan and Thatcher was uniquely close. And Thatcher had this instinctive commitment to this Special Relationship.
But what is meant by the Special Relationship? It’s the ability within the Atlantic reach to form common objectives and to shape a future in the middle of a revolutionary period. And we are now in such a period, in which we have to be clear on how to deal with the emergent Asia, how to handle three or four revolutions that are going on simultaneously in the Middle East, and, importantly, about the future of the Atlantic relationship.
There is a lot of talk about the European Union, and there are within the European Union at least two problems: first, whether the economic relationships can indefinitely be conducted on the present basis; and secondly, what political relationships should shape its future. My view is that the first fifty years of the European Union were based on the proposition that economic union had to precede political union. I think we need to examine, and I would think carry out, the proposition that in the next phase, the political relationship has to precede or guide the economic relationship.
And in this respect, Britain has a unique role: It is in the E.U., but it is not part of the economic system. It can help shape the political decisions without committing itself to a kind of economic structure that may itself have to evolve in a different way. And above all, Europe will have to ask itself what is its role in the world? Right now, it acts as the so-called soft power. It’s the only role that Europeans can play in the world, more like a foundation than like a politically active country.
Now, in the new formation of Europe, the role of Britain maintaining an autonomous political position tied to the United States by conviction, but also belonging to Europe by necessity, can be very crucial. And for America, the architecture is a matter of some American culture because, at the end of the day, the Western nations share common values of a nature that make a coherent approach imperative.
When we look at the present situation in the Middle East and when negotiations with Iran are beginning, we have to understand and place ourselves between the view that foreign policy is a subdivision of psychiatry, and the view that foreign policy is a subdivision of theology. We cannot base our foreign policy on conciliatory speeches not tied to a specific solution, but neither can we insist that everything depends on conversion of the adversary. Actually, with respect to Iran, there is only one really crucial issue, and that is whether Iran retains the capacity to refine fissile material. If they retain the capacity, then the issue will be the nature of their “breakout window.”
But I don’t want to go so much into the details as to stress the fact that it’s absolutely imperative for the West to develop a common approach; and that this makes a Special Relationship at this moment more important even than it was historically. And on the American side, this makes it necessary that our foreign policy reflect an understanding of the history and of the national purposes of our friends, and again, very much, of Britain.
So that is the way I’ve always looked at this relationship, that’s the way Thatcher and Reagan conducted it, and that is the way I hope we will shape our future.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 5, on page 13
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com