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COVER REVIEW

Her Rightness

STATECRAFT: Strategies for a Changing World, By Margaret Thatcher, HarperCollins: 512 pp., $34.95

June 16, 2002|BILL EMMOTT | Bill Emmott is editor of The Economist. His new book, "20:21 Vision: 20th-Century Lessons for the 21st Century," will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux early next year.

"Statecraft" is an odd book by an odd woman who was nevertheless one of Britain's--and arguably the world's--greatest political leaders of the last half of the 20th century. Many in Britain, though probably fewer in the United States, would contest that claim to greatness. But it is justified by the fact that in the 1980s she managed to drive through radical changes in her country and inspire some radical changes abroad, at a time of peace, when there was no crisis in Britain or the wider world to help her along. To be a wartime leader is not easy, but it comes naturally to many politicians. To be a peacetime leader is far harder, especially in democracies.

That helps explain why Margaret Thatcher has continued to command a worldwide following and an audience for so long since her departure from elected office in 1990. No other living British prime minister has done so, and few American presidents have either. Yet she has managed to publish two volumes of memoirs and, until the 76-year-old recently retired from public life on the recommendation of her doctors, was able to get not only fat fees for her lectures but also plenty of ears eager to hear what she had to say. She has had little influence in Britain as a whole in recent years but has retained a heavy, if sometimes destructive, influence in her Conservative Party.

What "Statecraft" makes plain, though, is that Thatcher continues not just to command attention but also to crave it. When her party ejected her from office in 1990, a famous photograph showed her looking tearfully through the window of her limousine as she left the prime minister's office at No. 10 Downing St. for the last time. She did not want to leave and has not wanted to retire gracefully. She thinks the world still has need of her advice.

"Statecraft," her latest vehicle for this mission, is a misleading title, as it implies some sort of disquisition on the art of government or international relations, perhaps along the lines of Henry Kissinger's magisterial "Diplomacy." A more accurate title would have been "The State of the World and What Should Be Done About It." The book is essentially an outline of world affairs today, especially in terms of great-power politics and threats to security, with policy recommendations for governments of all stripes.

Two things make the book an odd read. One is that it is an often uneasy blend of personal anecdote with broader, more objective analysis. The anecdotes could have been rewarding if they had mainly covered Thatcher's period in office. But because the book is about contemporary affairs, they mainly cover her time as a former leader rather than an actual one. The many quotes from her speeches around the world during the 1990s, giving her brave words and reporting on the rapturous applause, soon become tiresome.

Most of her anecdotes tell you more about Thatcher than about world affairs. The best example is her story of how, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet was put under arrest in Britain at the behest of a Spanish judge, she sent him a commemorative plate of Britain's Elizabethan defeat of the Spanish armada. We have seen off the Spanish before and will do so again, was the rather clunky message she was sending her friend. To the reader, though, another message comes through: that for all her talk of liberty and democracy, Pinochet's support during Britain's war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982 matters more to her than stories of his brutality as Chile's dictator.

Even so, for the most part, her broader analysis is good and makes for salutary reading. She is a robust admirer of America and a robust supporter of its interventionist military role as the world's sheriff. Rightly, at least with hindsight, she argues that it should have acted sooner and more decisively during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, and that it must be supported now in its fight not just against Osama bin Laden but also against rogue states seeking to develop or acquire weapons of mass destruction. As an old cold warrior, she exhibits, not surprisingly, a continuing suspicion of Russia and its motives, though she may nevertheless be out of date in doing so. Her hardheaded and principled views on China are more convincing, though the moral distinction between her support for Pinochet and her dislike of his Chinese equivalents is hard to discern.

As is often the case with the books of doers rather than writers, there has been much speculation about who actually wrote "Statecraft." The likeliest answer seems to be that, as an experienced user of speech writers, Thatcher employed a team of people to draft different sections of it, and then superimposed her anecdotes and some more of her own views, for the style is disjointed and quite variable.

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