Margaret Thatcher has passed away. I could try to talk about Thatcher’s place as a world historical figure, but let’s instead consider the following two ways in which the former British prime minister has left a legacy in international relations theory:
First, diversionary war. There’s a large literature in international relations on the notion of using war against a foreign adversary as a way to distract domestic opposition and/or bolster domestic support for a leader. (See Giacomo Chiozza and H.E. Goemans’ 2011 Leaders and International Conflict for the latest iteration of this literature.) It’s a little-known fact, but International Studies Association rules prohibit any paper on this topic from being published without a Thatcher reference.
I kid, but only barely. The Falklands War represents the paradigmatic case of diversionary war theory for two reasons. First, almost every analysis of the conflicts attributes the Argentine junta’s growing domestic unpopularity as a key cause of their decision to launch the conflict (though, of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that). Second and more importantly, absent the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher would be remembered as a failed one-term prime minister. Victory over the Argentines in the South Atlantic enabled Thatcher to win re-election.
In truth, it’s far from clear that diversionary war is all that common a practice (if it was, we’d be drowning in conflicts since 2008). The Falklands War, however, does provide the paradigmatic case.
Second, consider the spear of ideas. It’s fitting that The New York Times ran a story over the weekend about the boomlet in history about studying the growth of capitalism. Thatcher’s role in advancing the spread of free-market ideas to other policy-makers was crucial. To explain why free-market capitalism became the pre-eminent idea in economic policymaking over the past few decades, you have to look at Thatcher. She preceded U.S. president Ronald Reagan, becoming the first leader in the developed world to try to change her country’s variety of capitalism.
Even after Reagan came to power, one could persuasively argue that Thatcher mattered more. As some international political economy scholars have noted, ideas and policies spread much faster when "supporter states" embrace them vigorously rather than reluctantly. Thatcher embraced capitalism with a near-religious fervour, acting as a vanguard for the rest of Europe on this front. For more on the role that Thatcher and her advisors played, see Yergin and Stanislaw’s The Commanding Heights or Jeffry Frieden’s Global Capitalism.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.