Shrill voices from Argentina have been met with calm responses from Britain. This has been the correct response and has made the Falklands safer than ever
Strange as it may seem now, Argentina was once Britain’s closest ally in Latin America. Beef was traded for steel. Scottish engineers laid the country’s railways, bringing football and rugby with them, and a variant of Welsh can even be heard in the dialects of the Patagonia region.
In spite of the Monroe Doctrine, by 1900 Britain had more influence in Argentina than it did with its own self governing dominions. The dormant claim to the Falkland Islands was there of course, but was gathering dust in a Buenos Aires archive. A windswept outcrop and coaling station were not worth jeopardizing the friendship with the globe’s pre-eminent economic and military power.
So what changed? Geopolitics changed, big time. Exhausted by two world wars, Britain had to be far more selective about exerting its imperial will. It simply couldn’t maintain its influence everywhere. South America, it was decided, was destined to fall under the sway of the United States.
The American eagle would replace the British lion, but a least it wasn’t the Russian bear.
The Cold War threw the region into sharp relief for the US. Any wannabe coup leader who could spell ‘anti-communism’ was showered with money and implicit CIA backing. South America became a by-word for military junta’s, complete with death squads, corruption, and leaders in garish uniforms and aviator glasses.
An unforeseen result of the militarization of South American politics was the nationalism it unleashed. For Argentina that manifested itself in rivalry with Brazil, and long forgotten claims to the Falklands.
General Leopold Galtieri had considered an attack on the Falklands in 1978. However Britain at that time still possessed a proper aircraft carrier fleet. The deterrence worked. But by 1982, emboldened by seemingly disinterested Britain cutting its defence budget, and twitchy about growing economic troubles at home and, the ill fated invasion was launched.
Today, President Kirchner finds herself in a similar position. Britain is again paring back the Royal Navy, and for the first time since their inception, we do not operate an aircraft carrier. Combine this with a stumbling Argentinean economy, and omens are poor.
Many of Argentina’s economics woes are shared by its neighbours, but many are self inflicted. Pension pots have been raided and banks wrung for extra cash for spending sprees. When that ran out, the Spanish YBF oil company became fair game for nationalisation. Kirchner accuses YBF of under investing in Argentinean oil fields. But clumsy price controls imposed by the government kept prices artificially low. This kept voters happy, but starved the company of the funds needed for exploration and investment.
If the YBF action was meant to boost the economy and government coffers, it was short-sighted in the extreme. The affair may have boosted Kirchner’s nationalist credentials, but has had two regrettable and completely foreseeable side effects. Firstly, it will have scared off any potential big investors in Argentina. Why pour millions into starting an enterprise if a fickle government can snap it up once it’s successful? Secondly, by enraging Spain, Argentina has lost its closest thing it had to a friend in Europe. In solidarity with Spain, the EU has imposed tariffs and restrictions on Argentinean goods.
So what does this mean for Britain and the islanders?
The financial strains on Argentina are unlikely to improve anytime soon. Although this may lead to an ever more desperate Kirchner, the president has very few cards to play. Militarily, the Falklands Islands are better defended than they have ever been. Four Typhoons, an infantry company and a Rapier SAM battery are a far cry from handful of Royal Marines who stood guard in 1982. By comparison, Argentina’s military is smaller than thirty years ago, but use much of the same equipment. The timely deployment of HMS Daring further emphasises the gulf in the military technologies of Britain and Argentina.
Legally, the situation is not much better for the would-be liberator of the Malvinas. Britain claimed the islands before Argentina was even a country. In addition, the UN Charter on Self Determination clearly and resounding back Britain’s position. This was strengthened again by 99 percent of the islanders voting to remain British in a referendum.
Argentina’s best hope is her regional allies. In an effort to make the British ownership untenable, Kirchner is trying for death by slow economic strangulation. Ships bearing the Falklands flag are being denied access to certain ports, for example. No doubt other actions will follow. But this is a dangerous game to play. Tit-for-tat restrictions on trade hurt everybody. They also depend on the fickle favour of fellow leaders. Lofty talk of Bolivarian solidarity make for great joint press releases, but regional leaders answer to their own voters, not Argentinean ones.
Argentina had a weak hand and played it poorly. Britain’s response has been the correct one. Our calm and (mostly) measured statements are a mature juxtaposition to the hot headed screeching emanating from Buenos Aires. We have resisted the obvious trap and declined the invitation to match Argentina’s tone. Belligerent speeches and jingoism from London would have been counterproductive. They would have backed Kirchner into a corner, forcing her to pick between lashing out and a humiliating climb down. Moreover, they would have put Britain on a par with Argentina. We are not. We have the legal, moral and military high ground.
President Kirchner is doing a very good job of tarnishing her and her country’s credibility all by herself. The economy and her domestic rivals will be her downfall, not British arms. Reassuringly boring and staid though our actions are, they will prevail.
Never underestimate the latent power of diplomatic inactivity…