Thatcher bids fond farewell to Reagan, welcomes in Bush. Special Atlantic tie faces new tests as Europe unifies
Margaret Thatcher arrives in Washington today as the elder statesman of the Western alliance to ensure that President-elect George Bush keeps moving on arms control while being cautious in dealing with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Always ready to share her views, the British prime minister is expected to offer advice on the US deficits and the importance of keeping protectionism at bay and the dollar strong.
In her meetings with President Reagan and Bush, she will also be tending a cornerstone of British foreign policy which she has kept firmly in place over nearly eight years through a close personal friendship with the President and faithful support of his policies abroad.
The Maggie-Ron relationship bypasses bureaucracy and the political process and has secured more influence for Mrs. Thatcher in the White House than for any other foreign leader, except perhaps the Israeli prime minister.
Britain's Iron Lady sees the Atlantic growing wider, however, and she must balance her preference for the US, which she admires, to gain a niche for Britain in the European Community which she distrusts.
``Mrs. Thatcher is an Atlanticist, but she is also a very practical person,'' says Charles H. Price, II, US Ambassador to London since 1983. ``As a consequence, she can see the collective advantage associated with the stronger integration [of Western Europe] and freer, more unrestricted markets in the European Community which can compete with the US.''
In her role as the United States' staunchest ally, Thatcher wants to avoid a repeat in the Bush administration of the Reykjavik summit meeting in 1986 when Mr. Reagan was unprepared to deal with the Soviet proposal on the elimination of nuclear weapons. Thatcher was alarmed that Reagan appeared ready to endorse the Soviet ideal of a non-nuclear world without consulting the allies or considering the imbalance of conventional forces in Europe in favor of the Warsaw Pact.
``After a certain hiccup at the first Reykjavik conference, we have been marvelously consulted on everything,'' British defense minister George Younger said last week. ``This will continue, I'm sure, under George Bush and Jim Baker [secretary of state nominee].''
In preparation for Mr. Bush's first meeting with President Gorbachev, Thatcher may propose a summit of NATO leaders to take place in London perhaps next June, according to the Times of London. In her meetings with Bush and his advisers, the prime minister is also expected to press for the modernization of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
``If there were not a fundamental coincidence of interests between Britain and America, the personal relationships would not matter so much,'' says Sir Oliver Wright, British ambassador to Washington from 1982 to 1986.
Thatcher's unusually close friendship with Reagan has fluctuated from gratitude for crucial US support during Britain's victory over Argentina in the Falklands, to anger at the US invasion of Grenada, a member of the British Commonwealth, which was taken without consultation with London.
She also paid a large political price at home for her prompt acceptance of US cruise missiles on British soil in 1979 and for her support for the bombing of Libya in 1986. The bombing of Libya was as unpopular throughout Europe as it was popular in the US. Her faithful support of the US has brought charges from critics that she is Reagan's ``poodle,'' but Thatcher answered that she didn't make a very good poodle. ``I might be more a sort of bulldog,'' she retorted.
The relationship that Thatcher values with Washington, however, is gradually diminishing as Britain is drawn into the EC, which aims for a single market among its 12-member states by 1992.
Many observers expect that, as the Bush administration struggles with the US budget deficit, there will be pressure on Europe to make a greater contribution to the defense of the Western alliance, the ``burden-sharing'' issue. Few have accused Britain of not contributing its fair share to NATO, but diplomats say Britain and other allies need to better explain their considerable role in NATO to politicians in Washington and to the US public.
Thatcher is also facing protectionist sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic, and some British observers doubt whether, under a strongly Democratic Congress, a non-charismatic President Bush will be able to withstand protectionist pressures. Within the EC, Thatcher has vigorously advocated an open market which will not bring new protectionism or create the image of a ``fortress Europe'' to outsiders.
US trade officials are concerned in particular about what they see as unfair trading practices in Western Europe which include government subsidies for the manufacture of the popular Airbus passenger aircraft and anticipated exclusion of US beef exports to European markets next year.
As the dollar continues to slide against West European currencies, Thatcher is expected to urge the Bush administration to take strong action on the US trade and budget deficits.
No one expects the personal chemistry between Thatcher and President-elect Bush to be as remarkable as that between the prime minister and Reagan. But the continuity of close relations at the highest levels of government in London and Washington is virtually assured.
Bush is one more Atlantic-oriented US leader than most pundits predicted would occupy the White House. He has visited all the major allies in Western Europe and is on a first-name basis with many of their leaders. He offers hope to Europeans that, as US attention has shifted toward Latin America and the Pacific nations, Washington will not forget its kinship with the other Western democracies.
Besides the bonds of history, culture, and a common language, there is another reason Bush may be inclined to listen to the Iron Lady - her staying power. She is already the longest-serving leader of a major Western country and there is no serious opposition in sight.
``Mrs. Thatcher will probably still be here to see out George Bush's second term as president,'' Wright said.