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Thatcher’s Foreign Policy “Failure”

April 10, 2013

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By Tom Blanton, Svetlana Savranskaya

If there was one instance in which a foreign policy I pursued met with unambiguous failure, it was my policy on German reunification.

— Margaret Thatcher

The late prime minister of Great Britain published her memoirs in 1993, under the title Downing Street Years, full of scores settled (almost as much with her own Conservatives, who spurned her at the end, as with the Laborites she fought her whole career) and few admissions of doubt or defeat.

Thatcher and Gorbachev during a meeting on September 23, 1989 in the Kremlin

Thatcher and Gorbachev during a meeting on September 23, 1989 in the Kremlin

Except for her effort to prevent German reunification — her “unambiguous failure.”

The most remarkable documents on the Thatcher campaign against unification come from former top Gorbachev aide Anatoly Chernyaev, who was the designated notetaker at the British prime minister’s meeting with the Soviet general secretary on September 23, 1989 in the Kremlin. A translation of his handwritten notes is presented here in extended form for the first time. Chernyaev also wrote several diary entries analyzing Thatcher’s motivations.

In retrospect, reunification seems almost over-determined, but that is not at all how it looked at the time. Thatcher’s opposition echoed in Washington, with the Bush administration’s emphasis on stability and prudence. But the rapid collapse of the East German regime in the fall of 1989, the incompetence and ultimate resignation of the communist leaders in Berlin, the mobilization of East German public opinion, the lure of the West German deutschmark, and the adroit maneuvering of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl all culminated in the victory of pro-unification forces in East Germany’s March 1990 elections — and the October 1990 deal dissolving the country.

In her memoirs, Thatcher described the September 1989 meeting relatively accurately, but not at all vividly or forcefully, certainly not in comparison to the practically verbatim Chernyaev notes. She wrote:

I explained to him [Gorbachev] that although NATO had traditionally made statements supporting Germany’s aspiration to be reunited, in practice we were rather apprehensive. Mr Gorbachev confirmed that the Soviet Union did not want German reunification either. This reinforced me in my resolve to slow up the already heady pace of developments. Of course I did not want East Germans to live under Communism, but it seemed to me that a truly democratic East Germany would soon emerge and the question of reunification was a separate one, on which the wishes and interests of Germany’s neighbours and other powers must be fully taken into account.

In Chernyaev’s far richer account, the two leaders talked as peers and with a great deal of mutual sympathy — after all, it had been Thatcher who pronounced Gorbachev a “man we can do business with” upon their first meeting back in 1984. Gorbachev told Thatcher about internal Soviet discussions, and why he did not believe in the Chinese model: “How can you reform both the economy and politics without democratizing society, without glasnost, which incorporates individuals into an active socio-political life?”

Thatcher responded, “I noted that you calmly accepted the results of the elections in Poland [June 1989, when Solidarity won 99 of 100 contested seats] and, in general, the processes in that country and in other East European counties. I understand your position in the following way: you are in favor of each country choosing its own road of development so long as the Warsaw Treaty is intact. I understand this position perfectly.”

At this point, according to Chernyaev’s notes, Thatcher asked that note-taking be discontinued, “I would like to say something in a very confidential manner.” Of course, Chernyaev complied, but immediately following the meeting, wrote down from memory what Thatcher had said:

Britain and Western Europe are not interested in the reunification of Germany. The words written in the NATO communiqué may sound different, but disregard them. We do not want the unification of Germany. It would lead to changes in the post-war borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the entire international situation and could lead to threats to our security. We are not interested in the destabilization of Eastern Europe or the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact either…. I can tell you that this is also the position of the U.S. president.

Amazing. Disregard NATO’s words. Keep the Warsaw Pact. Prevent a unified Germany. All very comforting to the Soviet leader. Later, at the Malta summit with Gorbachev, President George H.W. Bush would use a double negative to describe the U.S. position on unification, “We cannot be asked to disapprove of German reunification.”

Soon after the Thatcher meeting, however, Chernyaev wrote in his diary about what was really going on. On October 9, after hearing from French President Francois Mitterrand and others in Europe that “nobody wants a unified Germany,” Chernyaev remembered, “Thatcher, when she asked to go off the record during the conversation with M.S. [Gorbachev], expressed her views decisively against Germany’s reunification. But, she said this is not something she can openly say at home or in NATO. In short, they want to prevent this with our hands.”

In short, Thatcher failed to prevent German unification at least in part because she did not want to get her own hands dirty — leave that to the Soviets. Perhaps she was as surprised as anyone when Gorbachev stuck to his principles and let the empire go.

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