Today's global instability leaves policymakers grasping for historical insight, which is why the passing of Margaret Thatcher yesterday leaves a generation hoping for her successors. Many will have written on Thatcher's legacy and contribution to the development of conservative ideas and the creation of a conservative transatlantic relationship, but equally important was her role in ending the long and devastating reign of Communism over the peoples of Eastern Europe. She was among the few leaders of Europe to seriously care about and engage early with the "captive nations" of Central and Eastern Europe.
As John O'Sullivan documents in his book The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, one of Thatcher's focuses was the oppression faced by Central and Eastern Europeans living under the shadow of Communism. To that end, she coordinated with Ronald Reagan and John Paul II to use both the hard power of two nations and the soft power of the Catholic Church to erode Communism from within.
Lady Thatcher's unique contribution to foreign affairs was her view towards the evils of authoritarianism. Unlike many leaders who sought, in the name of unprincipled pragmatism, to compromise with evil, she sought to destroy it. Upon first meeting Mikhail Gorbachev, she asked if she could be honest with him, and upon receiving assent, told the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party that "I hate communism." Thatcher, when referring to Pope John Paul II's efforts to decry communism, noted that the Pope spoke about the true dignity of the individual and lack of moral compass under communism. She was an exceptional leader who combined her pragmatism, the understanding for the possible, with value based idealism.
She had strong ideals, but was in no way an idealist. She was no doubt the closest ally to the United States, a personal friend of the president, but also had the restoration of British influence in international politics in mind when she pushed for a visit to Hungary at the height of the missile crisis of the early eighties. This was arguably one of the most difficult moments during the Cold War, with a sclerotic, ideological and increasingly aggressive Soviet leadership exerting pressure on its "satellites."
Symbolism abounded during her visit to Hungary on February 4th and 5th of 1984. It was a pragmatic move on behalf of the increasingly self-confident British Prime Minister. The Soviets tried hard to prevent the visit, in the name of "solidarity among socialist countries," exerting considerable pressure on the Hungarians. They rightly suspected that while her declared goal was to build trust between east and west, she would also want to drive a wedge between Hungary and the Soviets, to loosen up the communist system. She wanted to achieve both, aligning her pragmatism with her ideals, which she never abandoned. Her talks with the leaders of Hungary, including her de facto partner, the head of the Communist Party János Kádár, were pragmatic as well. However, in light of the strong opposition by the Soviets to the visit, her unusually friendly appearances in public among ordinary Hungarians made the visit truly special. This was a great demonstration that soft power is at its best when it comes from unlikely corners. The iconic photograph she will be remembered by was taken at the Old Market Place of Budapest. The Prime Minister of Great Britain checked out dried paprika and negotiated with the seller. This was a symbol as if trying to say: "I am a grocer's daughter, just like you. I have come here to encourage you. I am here at the Old Market Place, once a symbol of Hungary's grandeur, Hungary's economic prowess, the center of the once flourishing private businesses, to tell you that you are a nation with a future." Rather than just confirming the status quo, for many Hungarians she represented the dawn of a new age.
On February 9, just four days after Margaret Thatcher's visit to Budapest, Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leader, died and paved the way to the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. Hungary a few years later was the leader for change in Eastern Europe and in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and the former "captive nations" walked free.
Reading the eulogies written in the last 24 hours, one wonders if the full measure of her legacy is really understood. Her strength was forged in her ability to wisely marry her pragmatism with her strong principles of freedom and democracy. Quite a few authoritarian leaders see only one side of her persona, and consider her to be their role model. They miss the point. It would never have occurred to her to change the foundations, to tamper with the institutions and pillars of a democratic society. She respected arguments, she respected opposing views, but only if those views were within the frames of a free society. She would probably be very disappointed at the mediocre performance of Hungary's leaders, across the board in the last 20 years, including the ones calling themselves conservatives.
Leadership has become a scarce commodity. We certainly hope there is a young Brit, American or Hungarian woman out there, perhaps the daughter of a grocer, who is preparing for a job to become a leader in the free world to make a difference.