There have not been many times when a British prime minister has been prime minister through two consecutive terms of office of the same president of the United States. Indeed there have been only three such cases so far. One was Pitt the Younger, who was in Number 10 Downing Street while George Washington was president. Another was Lord Liverpool, who held the prime ministership through the whole period in office of Pres. James Monroe. And I am the third. It gives me a vantage point which, if not unique, is nonetheless historically privileged from which to survey the remarkable presidency of Ronald Reagan.
I cannot pretend, however, to be an entirely unbiased observer. I still remember vividly the feelings with which I learned of the president’s election in 1980. We had met and discussed our political views some years before, when he was still governor of California, and I knew that we believed in so many of the same things. I felt then that together we could tackle the formidable tasks before us: to get our countries on their feet, to restore their pride and their values, and to help create a safer and a better world.
On entering office, the President faced high interest rates, high inflation, sluggish growth, and a growing demand for self-destructive protectionism. These problems had created — and in turn were reinforced by — a feeling that not much could be done about them, that America faced inevitable decline in a new era of limits to growth, that the American dream was over. We in Britain had been in the grip of a similar pessimism during the Seventies, when political debate revolved around the concept of the “British disease.” Indeed, during this entire period, the Western world seemed to be taking its temperature with every set of economic indices.
President Reagan saw instinctively that pessimism itself was the disease and that the cure for pessimism is optimism. He set about restoring faith in the prospects of the American dream — a dream of boundless opportunity built on enterprise, individual effort, and personal generosity. He infused his own belief in America’s economic future in the American people. That was farsighted. It carried America through the difficult early days of the 1981–82 recession, because people are prepared to put up with sacrifices if they know that those sacrifices are the foundations of future prosperity.
Having restored the faith of the American people in themselves, the president set about liberating their energies and enterprise. He reduced the excessive burden of regulation, halted inflation, and first cut and, later, radically reformed taxation. When barriers to enterprise are removed and taxes cut to sensible levels (as we have found in Britain in recent years), people have the incentive to work harder and earn more. They thereby benefit themselves, their families, and the whole community. Hence the buoyant economy of the Reagan years. It has expanded by a full 25 percent over 72 months of continuous economic growth — the longest period of peacetime economic growth in U.S. history; it has spread prosperity widely; and it has cut unemployment to the lowest level in over a decade.
The international impact of these successes has been enormous. At a succession of Western economic summits, the president’s leadership encouraged the West to cooperate on policies of low inflation, steady growth, and open markets. These policies have kept protectionism in check and the world economy growing. They are policies which offer not just an economic message, but a political one: Freedom works. It brings growth, opportunity, and prosperity in its train. Other countries, seeing its success in the United States and Britain, have rushed to adopt the policies of freedom.
President Reagan decided what he believed in, stuck to it through thick and thin, and finally, through its success, persuaded others. But I still recall those dark early days of this decade when both our countries were grappling with the twin disasters of inflation and recession and when some people, even in our own parties, wanted to abandon our policies before they had had a proper chance to take effect. They were times for cool courage and a steady nerve. That is what they got from the president. I remember his telling me, at a meeting at the British Embassy in 1981, that for all the difficulties we then faced, we would be “home safe and soon enough.”
The economic recovery was, however, but part of a wider recovery of America’s confidence and role in the world. For the malaise of the 1970s went beyond economics. The experience of Vietnam had bred an understandable but dangerous lack of national self-confidence on the U.S. side of the Atlantic. Or so it seemed to outsiders. There was a marked reluctance in American public opinion to advance American power abroad even in defense of clear American and Western interests. And politicians struggled against this national mood at their electoral peril.
President Reagan took office at a time when the Soviet Union was invading Afghanistan, placing missiles in Eastern Europe aimed at West European capitals, and assisting Communist groups in the Third World to install themselves in power against the popular will, and when America’s response was hobbled by the so-called “Vietnam syndrome.” And not just America’s response. The entire West, locked in a battle of wills with the Soviets, seemed to be losing confidence.
President Reagan’s first step was to change the military imbalance which underlay this loss of confidence. He built up American power in a series of defense budgets. There have been criticisms of this build-up as too expensive. Well, a sure defense is expensive, but not nearly so expensive as weakness could turn out to be.
By this military build-up, President Reagan strengthened not only American defenses, but also the will of America’s allies. It led directly to NATO’s installation of cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe. This took place in the teeth of Moscow’s biggest “peace offensive” since the Berlin crises of the early Sixties. That offensive included a Soviet walkout from the Geneva talks on nuclear disarmament and mass demonstrations and lobbies by “peace groups” in Western Europe. Yet these tactics failed, the missiles were installed, and the Soviets returned to the bargaining table to negotiate about withdrawing their own missiles.
President Reagan has also demonstrated that he is not afraid to put to good use the military strength he had built up. And it is noteworthy — though not often noted — that many of the decisions he has taken in the face of strong criticism have been justified by events. It was President Reagan who, amid cries that his policy lacked any rationale, stationed U.S. ships alongside European navies in the Persian Gulf to protect international shipping. Not only did this policy secure its stated purpose, it also protected the Gulf states against aggression and thus hastened the end of the conflict by foreclosing any option of widening the war.
The president enjoyed a similar success in the continuing battle against terrorism. He took action against one of the states most active in giving aid and comfort to terrorist organizations: Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya. We in Britain had experienced Qaddafi’s murderous methods at first hand when a member of the Libyan Embassy shot down a young policewoman in cold blood in a London square. We had no doubts about the reality of Libyan involvement. I therefore had no hesitation in supporting the American air strike, which has resulted in a marked reduction of Libyan-sponsored terrorism.
And thirdly, President Reagan has given America’s support to nations which are still struggling to keep their independence in the face of Soviet-backed aggression. The policy has had major successes: the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, due to be completed next February; the real prospect of Cuban withdrawal from Angola, encouraged by patient and constructive American diplomacy; and even the prospect of Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia.
These are all remarkable achievements, which very few observers predicted even three years ago.
Indeed, when we compare the mood of confidence and optimism in the West today with the mood when President Reagan took office eight years ago, we know that a greater change has taken place than could ever have been imagined. America has regained its confidence and is no longer afraid of the legitimate uses of its power. It has discussed those uses with its allies in the NATO alliance at all stages and with great frankness. Today our joint resolve is stronger than ever. And, finally, the recovery of American strength and confidence has led, as President Reagan always argued it would, to more peaceful and stable relations with the Soviet Union.
For strength, not weakness, leads to peace. It was only after the Soviet threat of SS-20s had been faced down and cruise and Pershing missiles installed that the Soviets were prepared to embark on genuine arms-control negotiations and wider peace negotiations. It therefore fell to the president, less than four years after the Soviet walkout at Geneva, to negotiate the first arms-control agreement that actually reduced the nuclear stockpiles. And when he visited Moscow for the third summit of his presidency, he took the fight for human rights into the very heart of Moscow, where his words shone like a beacon of hope for all those who are denied their basic freedoms. Indeed the very recovery of American strength during his presidency has been a major factor prompting and evoking the reform program under Mr. Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. The Soviet authorities would have had much less incentive for reform if they had been faced by a weak and declining United States.
The legacy of President Reagan in East-West relations is the realistic appreciation that maintaining sure defenses, bridging the East-West divide, and reducing weapons and forces on both sides are not contradictory but policies that go comfortably together. Nothing could be more short-sighted for the West today than to run down its defenses unilaterally at the first sign of more peaceful and stable relations between East and West. Nothing would be more likely to convince those with whom we negotiate that they would not need to make any concessions because we would cut our defenses anyway. Britain will not do that. We will maintain and update our defenses. And our example is one which I hope our partners and allies will follow, because Europe must show that she is willing to bear a reasonable share of the burden of defending herself. That would be the best way for the NATO allies to repay America’s farsighted foreign and defense policies of the Reagan years.
When we attempt an overall survey of President Reagan’s term of office, covering events both foreign and domestic, one thing stands out. It is that he has achieved the most difficult of all political tasks: changing attitudes and perceptions about what is possible. From the strong fortress of his convictions, he set out to enlarge freedom the world over at a time when freedom was in retreat — and he succeeded. It is not merely that freedom now advances while collectivism is in retreat — important though that is. It is that freedom is the idea that everywhere captures men’s minds while collectivism can do no more than enslave their bodies. That is the measure of the change that President Reagan has wrought.
How is it that some political leaders make the world a different place while others, equally able, equally public-spirited, leave things much as they found them? Some years ago, Professor Hayek pointed out that the social sciences often neglected the most important aspects of their subjects because they were not capable of being examined and explained in quantitative terms. One such quality which resists quantitative analysis is political leadership. Which also happens to be the occupational requirement of a statesman.
No one can doubt that President Reagan possesses the ability to lead to an unusual degree. Some of the constituent qualities of that leadership I have referred to in passing — his firm convictions, his steadfastness in difficult times, his capacity to infuse his own optimism into the American people so that he restored their belief in America’s destiny. But I would add three more qualities that, together with those above, enabled him to transform the political landscape.
The first is courage. The whole world remembers the wit and grace which the president displayed at the time of the attempt on his life. It was one of those occasions when people saw the real character of a man when he had none of the assistances which power and office provide. And they admired what they saw — cheerful bravery in the face of personal danger, no thought for himself but instead a desire to reassure his family and the nation by jokes and good humor.
The second is that he holds opinions which strike a chord in the heart of the average American. The great English journalist Walter Bagehot once defined a constitutional statesman as a man of common opinion and uncommon abilities. That is true of President Reagan and one of his greatest political strengths. He can appeal for support to the American people because they sense rightly that he shares their dreams, hopes, and aspirations; and he pursues them by the same route of plain American horse-sense.
Finally, President Reagan speaks with the authority of a man who knows what he believes and who has shown that he will stand by his beliefs in good times and bad. He is no summer soldier of conservatism, but one who fought in the ranks when the going wasn’t good. Again, that reassured even those who do not share those beliefs. For authority is the respect won from others by the calm exercise of deep conviction.
The results of that leadership are all around us. President Reagan departs the political scene leaving America stronger and more confident, and the West more united than ever before. I believe that President-elect Bush, a man of unrivaled experience in government and international affairs, will be a worthy successor, providing the forthright leadership which the world has come to expect from the U.S. President. We wish him well.
— Margaret Thatcher is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.