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March 16, 2012

The Falkland Islands - Brendan Simms suggests a way forward

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge - thinks the Falklands conflict is not insoluble.

In January it became clear that Britain was threatened not just by the anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, which the Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond plans to use as a platform to campaign for a yes vote in a referendum on independence, but by another closer and more painful anniversary much further from home. The Argentine government suddenly put the issue of the Falklands Islands, which has been simmering for some time, at the top of their agenda; the President, Christina Kirchner, frequently launches fresh attacks on the British presence.

All this casts the routine deployment of Prince William to the islands in a completely new light. It also makes the question of the suspected oil resources in the area more controversial. Above all, the sabre-rattling from Buenos Aires showed up - for the second time since Libya - the loss of a carrier capability after the recent defence cuts. The press and opposition had a field day: at the time of the last invasion, Margaret Thatcher was heavily criticised for having been on the verge of selling one of the carriers deployed; today, London would be unable to mount another task force to recapture the islands.

These charges rather miss the point. There is no chance whatsoever that Argentina will risk another invasion any time soon. Its own armed forces are even weaker than those sent thirty years ago. By contrast, the British Eurofighters stationed there would make short work of what is left of the Argentine Air Force which performed so valiantly in 1982, but has been starved of investment since. The Argentinians know this, which is why their own service chiefs are adamantly opposed to any adventure.

Much more important, and worrying, are the broader implications of all this posturing. First, there is Argentina's impressive ability to mobilise the rest of Latin America diplomatically against Britain, in particular in support of an economic blockade. It may be, in fact, that Mrs Kirchner plans to supplant Hugo Chavez as the leader of the Bolivarian legacy in the continent, leading a movement for greater regional integration. There would be much to be said for such a project generally, but not if its main purpose is to pick open old territorial scabs.

Secondly, the crisis is a poor reflection of the state of Argentine democracy, because it suggests that the population are too easily swayed by elites who wish to distract from serious domestic problems through nationalist grand-standing; this after all, was the reason why the Junta invaded thirty years ago. Thirdly, there is no doubt that the timing of the Argentine move was influenced by a perception that the economic crisis and Scottish Independence had weakened Britain internationally. For example the hawkish Argentine MP Carlos Kunkel has spoken of how the

British economy is collapsing, there are riots in London, and Scotland and Wales want to escape the English empire.
To that extent, the two anniversaries - 1314 and 1982 and the two problems, Salmond and Kirchner are related.

The Prime Minister therefore needs to develop an integrated response. The Falklands are defined as part of EU territory. Much as it might stick in Paris and Berlin's craw, he should make clear that he expects Brussels to take retaliatory action against any South American state participating in an economic strangulation of the Falklands. The EU's failure to do so for Denmark over the cartoon riots five years ago may not give rise to hope in this regard, but failure to support one of the Union's biggest states would be a more serious matter.

At the same time, Britain needs to make a gesture that it understands that dealing with the claims of a democracy however excitable is not the same as rejecting the aggression of a fascist junta outright, as both Margaret Thatcher and the Labour opposition quite rightly did in 1982. Spain seems to have got over Gibraltar, at least for the moment, not least because the common political projects of the EU, NATO, and migration control helped to enlarge the problem and put the differences in their proper perspective.

Simply dismissing the Argentine claims as colonialism - to quote Mr Cameron - though an understandable riposte against a state largely built by the descendants of settlers which has levelled the same charge against the Prime Minister, is not enough. What is needed is an Anglo-Irish and Good Friday Agreement-style process to bring the two sides closer together. This would have to involve - ultimately - an Argentine renunciation of territorial claims, for which Britain might share oil and gas income in return; the increased economic benefits of cooperation would surely outweigh any lost revenue. Likewise, Argentine visitors could refrain from nationalist displays when visiting the islands and show respect for the identity and wishes of the islanders, but in return the authorities would have to ensure that the graves of the Argentinians tragically killed in 1982 are cared for and not desecrated, as is occasionally the case at the moment.

In short, if the escalating war of words with Argentina owes something to the growing "north-south" conflict in Britain, then its solution might be partly inspired by how difficulties "east-west" (Anglo-Irish) were resolved some ten years ago.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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