Thatcher Comes Laden With Compliments, But Surely She Doesn't Fully Believe Them

Posted: March 13, 1991

It was not, as David Brinkley remarked, "your ordinary Washington luncheon speech." The address that Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave the other day to a hotel ballroom full of people, invited by four conservative organizations, was 50 minutes of sustained and connected argumentation.

In a bit less than an hour, the visitor dealt with the Soviet Union and

Mikhail Gorbachev, the future role of NATO, the trade talks, the European Community and the next steps in the Middle East - to say nothing of lavishing praise on Presidents Bush and Reagan and whacking socialism hard enough to delight even the most rabid right-winger in the room.

None of her views was muffled, whether it was her defense of Gorbachev as ''a reformer at heart" or her pointed suggestion that Germany needs to learn that "a full commitment to the defense of international freedom and stability requires risking life as well as treasure."

What was most provocative, to me, was Thatcher's view of American exceptionalism. She argued that America must lead the free world and (just as important, from her perspective) must abandon as romantic and dangerous the notion that some form of European confederation can emerge to share that responsibility.

Her argument was contained in these two paragraphs:

"Americans and Europeans alike sometimes forget how unique is the United States of America. No other nation has been built upon an idea, the idea of liberty. No other nation has so successfully combined people of different races and nations within a single culture. Both the founding fathers of the United States and successive waves of immigrants to your country were determined to create a new identity. Whether in flight from persecution or

from poverty, the huddled masses with few exceptions welcomed American values, the American way of life and American opportunities. And America herself has bound them to her with powerful bonds of patriotism and pride.

"The European nations are not and can never be like this. They are the product of history and not of philosophy. You can construct a nation on an idea, but you can't reconstruct a nation on the basis of one. Political institutions can't be imposed if they are to endure. They have to evolve and they have to command the affection, loyalty and respect of populations living under them, and they have to be accountable to the people."

Thatcher's conclusion - aimed at her successor, John Major, and other ''Europeanist" Tories - is that Britain should continue her crusade for state sovereignty and against any form of European confederation.

That's for the British to decide. What intrigued me was the distortion of reality that was necessitated by Thatcher's argument.

To begin with, the United States was founded on two ideas - not one. Like her great friend Ronald Reagan, Thatcher conveniently forgets that the Declaration of Independence began with affirmations of both equality and liberty, and that the tension between them has shaped our history. From the Civil War until today, the struggle to balance those goals has been at the center of our domestic politics. And our foreign policy - from Washington and Jefferson right down to Sam Nunn and George Bush - has been dominated by debates over how far we should go in seeking freedom and equality for others.

Surely Thatcher does not believe that the United States is immune from history; surely she knows this nation is vastly different in character today

because of the Civil War, the two World Wars and the civil rights struggle.

And equally surely she would not want Americans to believe that we are so unique that we are not bound into the affairs of the world by a need to support efforts to vindicate our founding values in other and far different societies.

Even more curious is her argument that ideas can construct a nation, but not reconstruct one. What was she up to for 11 years as prime minister if not the reconstruction of British society on the basis of her deeply held free- market, self-reliance philosophy? And why does she urge us to support Gorbachev, if she thinks him or anyone else incapable of reconstructing the Soviet Union on the basis of ideas less calamitous than those of Stalin?

I doubt very much that Margaret Thatcher is unaware of the gaping holes in her argument. She must know that Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, was correct when he said in introducing her, that, "to her, ideas govern the world." The world - not just the United States.

She marshaled her argument to buttress her conclusion that Britain should yield no sovereignty to the European Community - and only for that reason. In doing so, she may have demonstrated a point that the conservative think tanks that sponsored her appearance probably did not wish her to make.

It is this: When conservatives come around talking large philosophical ideas, it's best to be very skeptical. Too often, they're simply rationalizing arrangements that work to their own advantage.

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