I haven’t taken the time to comment on the reports that Thatcher was firmly opposed to German reunification and made rather accommodating statements to Gorbachev about the status of communism in eastern Europe, but I should say a few things. First, it is true that Bush was right and Thatcher wrong on German unification, but Thatcher was coming out of a British foreign policy tradition that prized division in Europe in order to prevent the rise of any single continental power. This had more or less been British strategy for nearly three centuries by the 1980s. Thatcher was also the product of a Britain that had been coping with the political consequences of German unification for seventy years before 1945. The combination of united German preeminence in Europe and British hostility to a single power dominating Europe made two states that otherwise had no reason to fight each other into enemies. The first Bush administration was not loaded down with this baggage and had different priorities. The interests of Britain and America in 1989-90 were not necessarily identical, and it would have been appropriate for Thatcher to distinguish the interests of her country from those of the United States.
If the Cold War froze many conflicts, there was good reason to fear that a thaw of these conflicts would lead Europe back to renewed warfare, and Britain would feel obliged (yet again) to enter into these continental wars to prevent the continental hegemony that it has usually feared. As Matt Steinglass notes, it was reasonable to fear revanchism and nationalist revivals in places other than the Balkans. If you see the world wars as the disastrous results of attempting (and failing) to integrate united Germany into the European state system in the first half of the twentieth century, German unification in 1990 would have seemed very risky and probably not worth it. As it has worked out, German unification has advanced peaceful European political and economic integration and the elimination of at least one major WWII-era division appears in retrospect to have been appropriate and wise, but this was not necessarily an obvious or easy conclusion to draw at the time.
Conor is wrong to conclude that this episode teaches us not to trust our politicians. Perhaps we ought not to trust them, but this is not a reason for distrust. If Thatcher was not the starry-eyed anticommunist idealist that later hagiographers would like to make her out to be, so much the better for Thatcher. This is a reminder of how broad of an umbrella anticommunism had in the political coalitions that formed because of it. There were zealous anticommunists who wanted to see the communist system in eastern Europe and the USSR dismantled because it was an abhorrent tyranny, and then there were far, far more anticommunists who were anticommunists principally in their desire to prevent the expansion of Soviet power and to secure their own countries against Soviet military threats. When that power seemed to be faltering, the instinct of the latter was not to press our advantage as hawks and neoconservatives would have done. Instead the response of these anticommunists was to try to manage Soviet decline in order to prevent violent and destructive implosion into which they would have been inevitably drawn. On balance, their instinct was the more prudent and wise one. If Thatcher was overly cautious, she had good reason to be.
One reason that I am not disappointed with Thatcher at all as a result of these reports is that I am leery of criticism made twenty years after the fact, especially when the criticism is being made with the certain knowledge that the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and eventual dissolution of the USSR occurred largely peacefully. People who want to find fault with Thatcher over this are generally the sort of people who think that Bush’s speech in Kiev in the summer of 1991 was some unpardonable betrayal of freedom and goodness. These people are foolish. The speech was, on the contrary, a sober and serious one that deserves to remembered for what Bush actually said and not the caricature that his hawkish critics have made of it ever since. Thatcher’s statements and actions in 1989-90 ought to be viewed with a similar respect for context and with an awareness of the uncertainty that Western governments experienced in coping with the collapse of a huge imperial system.