The Personal in Thatcher’s Politics

The late British leader provided a cheering section for Ronald Reagan’s summits with the Soviets.

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President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher speak to reporters at the White House in Washington on June 23, 1982.

Among the lessons of Margaret Thatcher's career is the value of personal diplomacy in international affairs, especially the importance of close relationships with other leaders. It's a lesson that could help President Obama today as he navigates rough seas both abroad and at home.

Since Thatcher's death Monday, many political figures and historians have assessed the partnership that the former British prime minister formed with Ronald Reagan during his eight-year presidency. It was as if the stars had aligned to bring the United States and the United Kingdom into a close alliance under two conservative leaders with firm convictions, fierce determination and a willingness to back each other when it counted most.

[PHOTOS: The Life of Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013]

It replicated in a fundamental way the remarkable partnership developed by President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II. That alliance led to the defeat of Germany and Japan.

Much of the commentary surrounding the 87-year-old Thatcher's death has centered so far on the conservative values that Reagan and Thatcher shared on domestic issues, such as their belief in lower taxes, less government and the power of markets.

[READ: Three Economic Lessons From Margaret Thatcher]

And these were important goals.

But it was their shared hatred of communism and desire to defeat the Soviet Union that truly made history. Each was derided by critics as a bellicose right-wing zealot who was risking catastrophe by confronting Moscow.

But they decided that detente wasn't enough. They had the daring idea that the West should actually win the Cold War and take steps to end communism as it then existed with the Kremlin dominating what Reagan memorably called an "evil empire."

They exerted military, diplomatic and financial pressure on the U.S.S.R. to hasten its collapse. It was a dangerous and expensive strategy, and it's possible that the Soviet system was so rotten that it would have collapsed on its own. But many scholars argue that the pressure orchestrated by Reagan and Thatcher accelerated the process.

Just as remarkable, the two made a historic about-face after Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the U.S.S.R. Thatcher met with the new leader and concluded that he was a genuine reformer and the West could do business with him. She passed along her assessment to her pal in the White House, and Reagan eventually agreed.

This led to an extraordinary series of superpower summits, arms control agreements, and the end of the Soviet empire. I covered many of these events as the White House correspondent for U.S. News, and it always seemed that the atmosphere was electric when Reagan and Gorbachev met. One never knew what transformational changes might be arranged, but it always seemed that they were not just making news, they were making history. And Thatcher was a reliable ally, cheering Reagan on.

Of course a nation's security and vital interests take precedence over relationships, even close friendships, between individual leaders. But personal diplomacy can be important in bringing peace and progress, as Reagan and Thatcher showed.

And, as President Obama is now acknowledging with his "charm offensive" toward Republicans in Congress, relationships among leaders can be helpful in domestic affairs, such as in working out complicated compromises on the budget and immigration.

More News:

  • Pre-'Iron Lady' Margaret Thatcher Was as Steely as Ever
  • Thatcher Wanted to Be Known for Policies, Not Gender
  • Thatcher and Reagan: 'Political Soul Mates'
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com, and followed on Facebook and Twitter.