The Current Problem in the Falklands

An examination of the standoff between Argentina and the United Kingdom.

Johnson's Harbor on East Falkland Island, March 20, 2007
Johnson’s Harbor on East Falkland Island, March 20, 2007 (Ben Tubby)

In 1982 the Buenos Aires government under General Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands off the south coast of Argentina with a force of several thousand soldiers, overwhelming the garrison of Royal Marines stationed on the island. On the same day the Royal Navy was ordered to assemble a task force to reclaim the Falklands by force. The history of the conflict can be found in many books but despite a British victory exacting over six hundred Argentine lives the causes of the war persist to this day, at least in Argentina.

The claim to the Falkland Islands (or Malvinas as they are known to Argentinians) is one of proximity and historical claim; i.e., that they are much nearer to the Argentina than they are to Britain. Secondly Argentina, after gaining independence from Spain, sent a ship to use the islands as a penal colony. This was never accomplished due to a mutiny aboard the vessel. In 1833 a British force arrived and claimed the desolate islands. They have since seen the establishment of settlements, from which grew the current population of Falkland islanders. In the minds of Argentinians however, the islands are “rightfully” theirs.

To the cynic, the only thing that matters is the probability of oil resources under the waters surrounding the islands. Argentina as a developing state would understandably wish to tap this ever scarce resource and Britain is understandably no different. A burgeoning hydrocarbon resource would be a huge boon to any state in the current economic conditions and this conflict easily stands out as one of a new type we are likely to see more of in the coming decades; resource related disputes. Once upon a time these base causes for war were the alpha and omega of conflict but have been considered “unjust” in more recent terms. Land, oil, water are things that people find distasteful to fight for in the modern era.

What is more the population of the Islands; the Falklanders who have been there since the 1830s, remain steadfast in their willingness to remain subjects of the British Crown. It is this reason which mostly takes the priority at the Foreign Office and when questioned, it refers to Chapter 1, Article 1, Part 2 of the United Nations Charter which states that the purpose of the organization is, “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” The claims and cause of conflict of the islands therefore come down to the following:

Argentinian claim

  • Proximity to Argentina
  • Economic interest: Oil resources exist outside Argentine waters but on “Argentine continental region”
  • Historical claim: The Buenos Aires government in its infancy had “intent” to use the island before the establishment of British control but this never achieved fruition
  • The belief that the islands are “morally” Argentinian due to the “evil” ways of European imperial powers

British claim

  • Legal claim: Right to self-determination of the Falkland islanders under international law
  • Economic interest: Oil resources exist within Falklands waters
  • Historical claim: Have been a British territory since 1833
  • Won the 1982 conflict
  • Geostrategic position provides a friendly port of call for Western vessels navigating the Caoe

Current Argentine head of state President Cristina Kirchner has insisted that her approach will be one of peace in her ongoing presidential pledge to reclaim the islands for Argentina. In the recent Rio conference she acquired considerable support among her fellow South American leaders, particularly from Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez who directly challenged Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in a strange tirade. “Queen of England, I’m talking to you,” said Chávez. “The time for empires is over, haven’t you noticed? Return the Malvinas to the Argentine people.”

To the average Briton on the street this seems mad, in keeping with the general appreciation of Chavez’ personality. However, in South America, according to one Telegraph correspondent, Her Majesty is believed a potent element of British domestic and international government, despite having no seat in any international forum or either house of British Parliament.

The Argentinian foreign minister even approached Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, for discussion of the matter within the UN — with little result. The UN can do little however, as only those decisions made by the Security Council can be considered binding and this, at the moment, is no matter for that chamber of the United Nations.

The position of the Foreign Office in this has been quiet so far, merely reasserting that the stance of the British government is that the Falkland Islands are British, largely due to the rights of self-determination of the islanders.

In the British press, reactions have been mixed, much more so than in 1982 when there was a much greater level of unified thought that the islands were British. Perhaps much has changed since ’82 and people here now see the islands as an imperial throwback but, if this truly is the new world order of multilateralism and international law, surely it is up to the population of the Falkland Islands to decide, as is their right.

The position of Chile and the United States in the issue have also been of considerable debate. In 1982, Chile, under General Pinochet, was the sworn enemy of Argentina and assisted the British effort to reclaim the islands by launching a large offensive along the Chilean-Argentine border. America’s president at the time, Ronald Reagan, got on famously with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher whose decision it was to reclaim the islands. The same cannot be said of today’s American president nor of the British prime minister.

The United States’ official stance is one of studied neutrality, with an offer to mediate which has put a strain on the “special relationship.” In the Blair-Bush years this certainly would have been different and the current situation is certainly a symptom of the ongoing estrangement between the two formerly close allies due to personalities.

Obama is, we must accept, an anti-British president with a secretary of state barely worth that title. This is hardly surprising due to his family connection to Mau Mau terrorism in 1960s Kenya. It however serves as a harsh slap in the face to a British public who have seen considerable blood and treasure spent in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. While in the United States, the close alliance with Britain in the Blaire-Bush years may be seen as symptom of that friendship but among the British population it was certainly a willingness to support the American people and their forces in the post-9/11 security environment.

The differentiation is an important one to be considered by the Obama Administration which has so far gained a reputation of putting former adversaries above old friends. The impacts could be profound, with the United States no longer considered a credible security partner to anywhere near the same extent as it was just years ago.

Whatever the diplomatic conditions and movements at present, the military question remains. Royal Navy activity has increased in the area with deployments of warships and subsurface craft. Whether Britain could refight the Falklands War with its current capability is a bone of contention in many places. The current forces in the region are considerably larger than in 1982, with vessels already in place, a proper runway with a hand full of Eurofighter aircraft and 1,000 Royal Marines.

However, with the current British commitment to Afghanistan and residual forces in Iraq, it is questionable if much more could be mounted for a Falklands defense should Argentina choose a military option. Certainly they have the political support to do so within South America, perhaps even militarily from Venezuela.

If we presume that British territory is sovereign and more important than other commitments, as makes sense, then the withdrawal of some 6,000troops from Afghanistan and Royal Navy vessels from Afghan and Somali duties could be needed for a relief effort. (Contrary to popular belief, most aerial sorties in Afghanistan are conducted from American and British aircraft carriers.) The Royal Navy is currently much smaller than it was in 1982 and it has been the consideration of many in the know that now (being before the launch of the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier) would be a perfect time, militarily, for Argentine action. Conveniently, it also seems a politically opportune time with the appearance, if not concrete, of trans-South American support and a decisive neutrality stance from the United States.

The upshot is that things are very tense right now. That is not to say that they haven’t been like this since 1982; they have been but right now things seem to be headed more to some kind of conclusion, albeit perhaps a temporary one, than they have since 1982.

In the unlikely event that some level of conflict should arise, then it is highly questionable if Britain could meet the requirements for the defense of Falkland islanders and the British workers on board the hyrdocarbon platform in the region. The Obama Administration’s position has put a serious strain on Anglo-American relations, the severity of which may be small or, in time, large but only time will tell. What is certain is that, should the British government in any way “lose” the islands to Argentina, it would be a sad time for the right of self-determination which should be a prime concern in Buenos Aires, London and at the United Nations in New York. In Britain, with an election imminent, weakness for Gordon Brown over the Falklands will be jumped on by the Conservatives like hounds on a wounded stag, while strength could add a string to Brown’s bow.

Comments

  • I’m willing to concede that there’s a bit of estrangement between Britain and the US, but I’m having difficulty seeing Obama as truly anti-British. I rather think his weariness toward Britain stems from indifference, not resentment.

    That said, the US should definitely back you up in this case. The Falklands are British territory; the Falklanders want to be British, what else is there to talk about?

  • Whilst I believe he is ‘anti-British’ I don’t think it’s to a huge degree. His record thus far for interaction with British officials does point to a reluctance just past indifference in my opinion though.

  • Hmm.. I’m not sure if it’s a conscious policy. As I’ve written before in some articles here, I think the president simply doesn’t think of Britain as anything of a special partner. Which is sad, of course, but it’s also realistic, since Pacific relations will probably grow evermore important over the next several decades.

  • I’d say there was a difference in preferential treatment to a ‘special’ security partner and fair treatment to a state which has shown continued support for US foreign policy, been the most active non-US state in numerous US-Led organisations, and continues to maintain global commitments, including in the Pacific region. We could potentially see a reduction in commitments in this upcoming SDR, something which hasn’t happened since 1945. If that happens then the US, particularly the USN, will find its self providing more than the lion’s share of international security, as discussed in a recent War Is Boring article on the reduction in size of the RN. When it comes to keeping things safe for all the nice things of the world like trade and democracy and so on, if the British tax payer doesn’t foot the bill, the US tax payer does and I know which one is more appealing in Washington. Part of the issue here is Obama’s administration sees Britain as a second-band power, like many of its kinds still caught up with this kind of Imperial hangover, unlikely to be of any use in dealing with our new best friends in Beijing. Arguably the former administration recognised Britain as a state with global commitments and responsibilities, the willingness to achieve those as a junior partner in alliance with the US as a force for good in the international security environment and a prolific contributor to NATO, the UN, and has a fine international security pedigree EG: EUNAVFOR, ISAF, UNPROFOR.
    Pacific relations won’t eclipse Atlantic ones as long as Europe the world’s largest trading block, continues to be a hotbed for political discourse and possesses well-established and still growing economies. The Pacific region’s going to have to do more than host one Cinderella story viz. China, to shift global concentration of economics and politics from the Atlantic. I doubt that such a shift will happen in our life-times unless some catastrophe occurs in Europe and the Middle East

  • Agreed, and Britain does very much deserve to be treated as more than just another ally by the United States, for exactly the reasons you outlined.

  • The doctrine of the “special relationship” has not been applied lately to any significant issues. We will see if Britain really needs US support, or if it can deal with the challenges alone. This is not a war, but a war of words; Argentina has no military strength to present any real violent alternative. So, it will be a lot of posturing, positioning, etc…The experts inside Argentina say that it’s time to stop complaining about British perfidy and start cooperation with the islanders, and this is a new take on the situation. If Argentina gets to consider the Falkland Islanders as worthy co-negotiators, then it is possible to have some cooperation treaties like the one signed but not implemented in 1995.

    http://www.falklands-malvinas.com/forum

  • Ah, but special treatment’s not what I’d argue for. Merely to be treated as an ally, not a neutral.

    I’d argue for more than that, actually. Does Britain deserve to be treated the same way that Romania is, for instance? I don’t think so. Britain may not be a superpower anymore, but it’s still a greater power that, as you pointed out, has been extremely loyal to US foreign policy, especially in recent years.

  • A question about self determination.
    If a group of inmigrants clain a neigborhood in London to be their own country or to belong to another country. Would you consider that their right of self determination should prevail?

    Using fear of war to gain support is also incorrect. Argentina could never ever ever win a war to England, probably not even to the current military forces in the islands.

    Before 1833 the island had both french, spanish and argentinian setlements. These last were destroyed by the US due to a conflict with seal hunter ships.

  • i think it would be foolish to underestimate the current strengh of the Argentine armed forces. They curretly have a small but reletivly modern surface fleet, amphibious assets and a small core of very capable attack submarines. Thier airforce is also smaller but still a potent threat to any British task force, including up to 7 Super Etandard aircraft, up to 6 p3 Orions, 36 Pucara attack aircraft, 20 Skyhawks and arround 20 Mirage type aircraft. This may sound insignificant, however, there are only 4 eurofighters based in the falklands, not all of which would be avalible and only useful if the runway at mount pleasent remains intact. After that all they would have to deal with are less then a dozen GR9 Harriers (ground attack with very limited self defence capability). All in all, dont count out the Argentines if it went hot.

  • Sure, the first war wasn’t won overnight either. But in the end, it’s hard to imagine an Argentine victory. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be willing to wage a war over these islands once again, especially since the British certainly are.

  • Not so sure on the ‘certainly’ there Nick.

    Eduardo: it is my understanding that the Argentine ‘settlement’ was a penal colony which was never properly established. This can be easily settled with the question; in 1816 (?) when Argentina declared independence, was there Argentine political presence in the Falklands? if not, were there Argentine settlements succesfully established between that day of independence and the British arrival in 1833? From a cursory reading, which could have ommitted some parts, I believe the answer to be no.

  • This isn’t about territory sovereignty or the kelpers people, this is about oil and the exploitation of this precious resource, I’m argentino and know what’s all about. And, yes, we are not interesed in a war anymore (not like we have the military power anyway).

  • lol anti British? That’s laughable.

    Anyways, where is the claim of the British kicking out the Argentinians in 1833?

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