With the world’s attention focused on Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of the Syrian civilian uprising, and with the increasing likelihood of a strike by Israel to thwart Iran’s relentless drive to obtain nuclear weapons, perhaps the most underreported international story is the increasingly heated dispute between Britain and Argentina in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is an unfolding issue that could say much about the way the U.S. handles its alliances, including those in the Asia-Pacific region.
Thirty years ago, on April 2, 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher quickly assembled and dispatched a formidable naval task force to retake the islands, which had been a British possession since 1833. On June 14, Argentine forces surrendered to the Royal Marines. The conflict was brief and violent, with both nations losing ships and hundreds of sailors and soldiers. The war was, however, a decisive victory for the United Kingdom.
As the 30th anniversary of the war approached, in December, Argentinian President Christina Kirchner vowed that her nation would reclaim the Islas Las Malvinas, as the Falklands are called in Argentina. She stated that “[i]n the 21st century [Britain] continues to be a crude colonial power in decline.” She branded British Prime Minister David Cameron “arrogant” and said his defense in parliament of the right of the people of the Falklands to self-determination was an expression of “mediocrity and stupidity.”
Argentina’s Foreign Minister, Hector Timerman, claims that Cameron’s defense of the Falklands sovereignty “is perhaps the last refuge of a declining power.” Prince William aka Flight Lieutenant Wales, who is currently piloting a Royal Air Force rescue helicopter in the Falklands, has been labeled a “conquistador” by Argentine officials.
In a diplomatic offensive, Kirchner persuaded Argentina’s partners in the Mercosur trade block – Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – to ban civilian ships flying the Falklands’ flag from entering their ports. Mercosur members had previously banned British warships on Falklands duty from their ports. In December, the 33-country Community of Latin American and Caribbean States unanimously backed Argentina’s “legitimate rights in the sovereignty dispute” over the Falklands and South Georgia.
This past week, in response to the U.K.’s dispatch of its newest destroyer, HMS Dauntless, to patrol the South Atlantic, Timerman officially complained to the United Nations Security Council that Britain had “militarized” the region. Given the timing of his complaint, just weeks before the anniversary of Argentina’s invasion of the islands, it can be assumed that Timerman lacks a sense of irony. Argentina now claims that the United Kingdom is using the 3,000 residents of the Falklands as a mere pretense for its desire to maintain a South Atlantic “empire.” In his U.N. filing, Timerman noted: “[i]t is the last ocean that is controlled by the United Kingdom – Britannia rules only the South Atlantic.”
While it seems unlikely that Argentina would risk another humiliating defeat by invading the Falklands in the near term, the temptation of appealing to nationalism to mask an economic or political crisis combined with the desire to control what appear to be significant South Atlantic oil reserves means that another Argentine military adventure cannot be ruled out. There are four key takeaways from the current situation with implications that stretch much further than the issue at hand:
First, military weakness is provocative. Argentina ramped up its aggressive rhetoric and diplomatic efforts to reclaim the Falklands only after P.M. Cameron announced massive cuts to the Royal Navy and British ground forces. The decommissioning last December of the U.K.’s sole remaining aircraft carrier, Ark Royal, well before its service life ended, and the sale of Britain’s 50 G-9 Sea Harrier fighter jets to the U.S. Marine Corps, seems to have emboldened the Argentines. In 1982, the Royal Navy had approximately 90 warships from which it could assemble a task force. Today it has 30. Indeed, most experts believe that while it would be very difficult for the Argentine military to successfully invade the islands, it would be nearly impossible for the U.K. to retake them without an aircraft carrier in the event that Argentina was successful in overrunning Britain’s key air base at Mount Pleasant.
There’s a clear analogy between Argentina’s response to the U.K.’s defense cuts and what we can expect in the South China Sea and Persian Gulf from China and Iran, respectively, as massive sequestration cuts threaten to decimate the United States military. Indeed, the Obama administration announced this week that the U.S. Navy will decommission 7 Ticonderoga class cruisers and 2 amphibious warships in 2012 alone. There’s no doubt that Beijing, Tehran and even Moscow are watching the slashing of the U.S. defense budget with the same attention that Buenos Aires is paying to the decline of the Royal Navy.
Second, the Obama administration has made the United States an unreliable ally for our closest friends. Britain has been a stalwart ally of the U.S. in both Iraq and Afghanistan, notwithstanding the tremendous domestic political pressure on Labour and Conservative governments not to participate in those unpopular wars. However, in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for talks over the dispute and even appeared to side with Argentina during a press conference with President Kirchner in Buenos Aires. Last month, as the current situation developed, rather than send a clear message to Argentina that the United States supported its longtime ally, a State Department spokesman demurred: “[t]his is a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom…We recognize de facto United Kingdom administration of the islands, but take no position regarding sovereignty.” Nile Gardiner, the Telegraph’s Washington correspondent, wrote in response that the “Obama administration knife[d] Britain in the back again over the Falklands.”
The shabby treatment meted out to America’s “special relationship” partner in this instance cannot be seen as a surprise. It is in line with the administration’s treatment of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (at least prior to Bob Turner winning Anthony Weiner’s Congressional seat in New York). Poland and the Czech Republic suffered similar slights after the Administration unilaterally cancelled ABM sites in those countries as part of its naïve and, so far, unsuccessful attempt to “reset” relations with Russia. And, there has been much criticism of the Administration for failing to provide Taiwan with the latest F-16 fighters that it has long requested to defend itself against a potential attack by China. There is no doubt that American allies such as Israel, Colombia, Georgia, Taiwan, the Gulf States and the Baltics, all of which live in dangerous neighborhoods, are watching the United States’ response to the Falklands row with concern.
Third, failing to promote the rule of law, democracy and self-determination in the Falklands will damage the United States’ ability to promote those goals in other nations. The 3,200 residents of the Falklands have been there for over 175 years. They descend from people who have inhabited the Islands for far longer than many Argentines have inhabited their own country. They are, apparently without exception, in favor of maintaining their local parliamentary government and association with Britain. There are no Argentines on the islands and there are no “displaced” Las Malvinas (as Argentina has labeled the islands) refugees in Argentina seeking a “right of return.” The current diplomatic crisis follows the nationalistic playbook that President Kirchner borrowed from the former military junta and that is promoted by her mentor in Caracas. The fact that there are large oil reserves off the Falklands is also fueling Argentine territorial ambitions as its government would love to get control of such resources.
Unfortunately, Falklanders should expect little support from the United Nations for their rights in the face of any Argentine aggression. The deaf ears of the international community to the pleas of Syrian civilian protestors in Homs, Zimbabwean farmers of British descent, Iranian democracy advocates or Chinese dissidents should steel them for their future should Argentina seek to take over their islands. Thus, while it may be inconvenient for the United States to assist Britain in ensuring the rights of a small number of farmers and fishermen on distant shores, its failure to do so will undermine American moral authority to protect victims of aggression elsewhere. For example, the complex web of territorial claims in the South China Sea, similarly, requires that no party try to unilaterally impose its will on smaller neighbors. The question is what sort of precedent the South Atlantic crisis sets for this similarly tense dispute in the Pacific.
Fourth, Argentina’s efforts to damage the economy of the Falklands will backfire. By banning ships flying the Falklands flag from its ports and encouraging its trading partners to do the same, Argentina is denying its people and its neighbors the benefits that could accrue from the burgeoning oil exploration boom in the South Atlantic and the shore-based support services that will follow. Additionally, tourism in the Falklands and Antarctic region is a growing business that could benefit Argentina as well as the islands. Further, Argentine instructions to its commercial fishing fleet to over-fish the Illex squid population as the schools migrate from the South American coast to the South Atlantic could truly harm the species while having minimal impact on Falklands’ fishing license revenue.
Still, it’s unlikely that the negative economic effects of Argentina’s Falklands embargo campaign will dissuade President Kirchner from continuing down this path. During her presidency and, that of her late husband, the rule of law and market principles have been weakened dramatically, as was evidenced by the government’s seizure in 2008 of nearly $30 billion in private pension funds. Based on this record, it is hard to believe that any argument against Falklands aggression that appeals to Argentina’s economic self-interest would be well-received by the Argentine government.
Whatever the outcome of the current crisis over the Falklands, the Obama Administration’s failure to back America’s key ally and its policy of significantly cutting American defenses sends the wrong message that will be heard far beyond the waters of the South Atlantic.
Robert C. O'Brien is the managing partner of the Los Angeles office of a national law firm. He served as a U.S. Representative to the United Nations. His website is: www.robertcobrien.com and can be followed on Twitter@robertcobrien.