Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meet in Century City, Calif., in 1995. Faced with a persistently volatile Middle East and questions about the future of NATO, Reagan and Thatcher's steadfast friendship of the Cold War days is almost appealing, analysts and former diplomats told msnbc.com.
(Photo by Mike Guastella/WireImage)
By Marian Smith, msnbc.com
LONDON – An $800,000 statue honoring former President Ronald Reagan is set to be unveiled on Independence Day, joining monuments to Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower in the heart of the British capital.
At a time when the much-celebrated "special relationship" between the U.S. and Britain is widely seen to have frayed, about 2,000 people are expected at the ceremony. Organizers say that is about ten times the typical crowd for such an event.
Former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who declined an invitation to Prince William's recent wedding due to her poor health, is said to be "determined" to attend. Now aged 85, the "Iron Lady" rarely appears in public.
Nancy Reagan will be represented at the ceremony by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will give the keynote address. U.S. Ambassador Louis B. Susman and a congressional delegation led by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy are also due to attend on Monday.
Reagan Foundation executive director John Heubusch told msnbc.com that roughly $800,000 had been raised from private donors for the sculpture, with around 40 percent of the funds coming from people in the U.K.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who served as Thatcher's Secretary of State for Scotland, recalled that Britons were initially skeptical of Reagan due to his perceived lack of experience. However, the Conservative lawmaker – who also served as Britain's foreign secretary – said many were won over by the former actor's "good judgment, good instincts and guts."
"The qualities he had served both countries very well at the end of the Cold War, which was a crucial period in history," Rifkind told msnbc.com. To this day, Rifkind said, "people here respect his achievements."
June 11, 2004: Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had a special relationship deeply rooted in their conservative philosophies.
Sculpted by Charlotte, N.C.-based artist Chas Fagan, the 10-foot bronze will stand near statues of Eisenhower and Roosevelt outside the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square. A plaque will recognize the 40th president's role in ending the Cold War.
The ceremony will be part of a European tour celebrating Reagan's 100th birthday. It will be followed by a black-tie gala at London’s historic Guildhall – where Thatcher hosted Reagan upon his return from a visit with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988.
The world has changed dramatically since Reagan and Thatcher stood united against the Soviet Union – and even more so since Winston Churchill coined the phrase "special relationship" after the Second World War.
"I think we're at a point where what Britain and the U.S. can do together is relatively smaller than what both nations could achieve in the past," said Steve Clemons, founder and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based non-partisan think tank. "The more we put statues up the more we try to convince ourselves that the relationship is special. It's a sign of lack of confidence in the future."
Clemons is not alone in identifying a collective distancing between the two countries as emerging economies like China, India, Brazil and Russia flex their muscles on the world stage and demand attention. Domestic issues like the economy – gloomy in the U.S. and U.K. alike – have recently forced the two countries to turn inwards, foreign policy analysts say.
The U.K. parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee last year released a report that concluded the term "special relationship" should be avoided altogether. It advised lawmakers that the U.K. should be guided primarily by its own national security interests – not those of the U.S.
"The overuse of the phrase by some politicians and many in the media serves simultaneously to devalue its meaning and to raise unrealistic expectations about the benefits the relationship can deliver to the U.K.," the report said.
Seeming to take that message to heart, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron redefined their transatlantic friendship as an "essential relationship" during Obama's visit to the U.K. last month.
According the Xenia Dormandy, a senior fellow at the independent London-based foreign policy institute Chatham House, that indicates the two leaders are re-examining their ties.
"The relationships had withered – [the two countries] haven't had the need to engage,” Dormandy told msnbc.com. But there is reason to be optimistic, she added.
"The [Obama] visit marked a turning round, a recognition that the two sides have taken one another for granted and haven't focused enough on the need to engage strategically," she said. "The word 'essential' says much more about how we have to work together."
While there is a tendency for the British press to over-examine the friendship, there is no question the dynamics have changed, one former British diplomat told msnbc.com. Since the end of the Cold War, the two countries have simply not been as necessary to each other's national security, the source added.
But in his farewell remarks last month, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates blasted NATO's European members for not committing enough resources to alliance. He predicted a "dire, if not dismal" future for NATO unless other countries increased their defense spending.
Faced with a persistently volatile Middle East, such uncertainty makes Reagan and Thatcher's steadfast friendship of the Cold War days almost appealing, analysts and former diplomats asserted in interviews with msnbc.com.
"I think people pine for that certainty and we live in a much less certain set of circumstances," Clemons said.
Thatcher's domestic legacy is hotly contested in the U.K., where she remains a divisive figure. Reagan is seen by some Britons as being part of that package. He was also regularly lampooned by British satirists as being an intellectual lightweight.
June 11, 2004: Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pays tribute to Ronald Reagan after his death in 2004.
However, the Reagan-Thatcher partnership, which many credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, still resonates deeply.
Robin Berrington, a former cultural attache at the U.S. Embassy in London, said the level of interest among Britons in the Fourth of July ceremony has "a lot to do with Maggie Thatcher."
"Among conservatives she's something of an icon, and the fact that she and Reagan were close adds to his lustre," he added.
Brits also recognize a widespread American fondness for Reagan across all political persuasions, according to Dormandy.
"Reagan's funeral was the closest [Americans] got to a Diana funeral," she added.
Turning out in large numbers at a ceremony recognizing a symbol of that old friendship is "much more about personal understanding than policy," Dormandy said.