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Of power and Pax Americana

Print edition : Aug 17, 2002

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T+T-

Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World by Margaret Thatcher. HarperCollins Publishers, London; 25.

THE late Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), in his book Russian Thinkers, wrote something profound and penetrating - "...that there could not in principle be any simple or final answer to any genuine human problem; that if a question was serious and indeed agonising, the answer could never be clear-cut or neat."

I much doubt if Lady Thatcher has read Russian Thinkers. If she ever did, it obviously made no impact on her. She is a combative, capitalistic conservative, who sees politics in bold black and white colours. Grey is not her favourite colour. Doubts seldom assail or assailed her. In this book she spells out her credo, such as it is, with impressive clarity, conviction and an engaging dogmatism. The book is dedicated to her erstwhile partner-(patron?)-in-chief Ronald Reagan. "To whom the world owes so much."

Her place in history is assured. Yet the Conservative Party she re-invented in the 1980s is today in worse shape than ever in the past 150 years. She cannot escape the blame.

When she resigned after a record-breaking eleven and a half continuous years as Prime Minister in 1990, someone wrote: "Iron Lady Rust in Peace". He could not have been more wrong. Lady Thatcher has not been rusting in peace. She has been flying around the world, lecturing, hectoring, ticking off and holding forth on major world issues.

Statecraft is about power. Foreign policy entails power; so does security. Lady Thatcher has no time for those who wish to achieve results in international affairs "without reference to power". She minces no words while defining her own approach to the subject:

For my part, I favour an approach to statecraft that embraces principles, as long as it is not stifled by them, and I prefer such principles to be accompanied by steel along with good intentions.

While her reflections on the Cold War offer no blinding insights, her comments on Islam and Islamic fundamentalism need to be taken seriously. At the same time, we must note that at no place does she even hint that Bin Laden and Co. are creations of her beloved Americans. She has a conservative view of foreign and security policy and quotes Winston Churchill (1874-1965) several times to buttress her arguments.

It is well-known that she and President Francois Mitterrand of France were not enthusiastic about the reunification of the two Germanies and relieved that German unification was achieved within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), "thus avoiding the risk that might have constituted a dangerous non-aligned power in the middle of Europe". Non-alignment indeed.

Lady Thatcher is lyrical about America and the American achievement. Just as Charles de Gaulle had a certain idea of France, Lady Thatcher too has a certain idea of America.

Moreover, I would not feel entitled to say that of any other country, except my own. This is not just sentiment though I feel ten years younger - despite the jet-lag - when I set foot on American soil: there is something so positive, generous and open about the people - and everything actually works...

She is all for Pax Americana and a unipolar world. "America alone has the moral as well as the material capacity for world leadership", and so on. She loathes Saddam Hussein but admires General Augusto Pinochet of Chile!

She comes down heavily on "rogue states" and cannot tolerate their existence. She is a nuclear hawk of sorts. Surprisingly, she was against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), for reasons quite different from India's. She cannot imagine a world without nukes.

The fundamental truth is that the nuclear weapon cannot be disinvented. A world without nuclear weapons is thus quite simply a fantasy world. The realistic question, therefore, is whether the West and America wish to stay ahead of potential nuclear competitors or not. If we do not, we hand over regions where our interests are at stake to the Saddams and Gadaffis and Kim Jong Ils.

The Russian Enigma is dealt with in a somewhat cynical way. Russia is always suspect and needs to be watched closely. Central Asia's economic wealth must be under the control of the West and Sino-Russian antagonisms should be encouraged, as should Sino-Indian differences, to suit American global interests.

Her chapter on 'Asian Values' reveals inspired ignorance. At best her knowledge of Asian history is patchy and patronising. Nevertheless, she is genuinely warm about India and its post-1991 economic reforms (I will come to this in a moment).

There is a long and meandering chapter on China and Margaret Thatcher's role in cutting a deal with Deng Xiaoping on Hong Kong. She is not overtly fond of Li Peng. Her conclusion about China is a trifle too complacent:

In due course communism will fail in China, as it has elsewhere. We can then reassess our approach to China as a great power. But until that happens - and it is probably not about to happen soon - we should be on our guard.

Lady Thatcher's view is that China could become an economic superpower but not a global military superpower.

On India, she is surprisingly positive. India has "the potential to be a mighty force, both regionally in Asia and indeed globally. In particular, it will increasingly provide a counterweight to China..." The sting is in the tail.

Lady Thatcher tells us that she has been always fascinated by India. Her childhood ambition was to join the Indian Civil Service (ICS)! She comments not too harshly on India's political life settling "into an undistinguished if democratic rut". She liked and admired Indira Gandhi - "charming, intelligent and cultured -through she was also a cunning and sometimes ruthless politician. I could not help liking her and I also admired her determination, if not her methods". Indira Gandhi had a less flattering assessment of Margaret Thatcher, and did not consider her an Iron Lady.

Our reforming erstwhile Finance Minister gets high marks.

Summing up:

Accept India as a great power and accord it the status that implies - perhaps including in due course, permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.

The book deals at length with terrorism and religious fundamentalism. In my judgment, she exaggerates the missile threats from "rogue states". She is well-informed on West Asia and produces a marvellous quotation from the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin.

There is much on the Balkans and even more on the European Union. Lady Thatcher is not a euro-fan and loathes the E.U. bureaucracy and wants Britain to be continental without being European. And there is a near unreadable chapter on the triumphs and virtues of capitalism. One cannot quarrel with her conclusion. Capitalism won.

This is a substantial work by a substantial political figure of our times.

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