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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.