The problem with alliances: Britain and the Falklands

Doug Bandow Senior Fellow, The Cato Institute
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Washington collects alliances like people collect Facebook “friends.” As the Falklands Islands dispute heats up again, the U.S. finds itself being pressed to take sides. It turns out that collecting allies can be expensive.

Nearly 30 years ago Argentina and Great Britain fought an improbable war over the lightly populated British colonial outpost (called the Malvinas by Buenos Aires). The islands likely had been visited by Patagonian Indians but were uninhabited when first discovered by Europeans, probably either the Portuguese or Spanish.

France established the first known settlement, followed by Great Britain. The Spanish took over the French claim and demolished the British community. The two countries settled their dispute in 1771 and Britain eventually withdrew. Revolution caused Argentina to supplant Spain. The former established a settlement in 1828, which was attacked by U.S. warships after a seal-hunting dispute. The British returned in 1833 in force and re-established control.

So who “owns” the island?

The proper answer is: who cares? Alas, fishing rights and possible oil deposits are involved, as well as national pride. Buenos Aires began pressing its claim in 1945 when it signed the United Nations Charter. The two countries negotiated in the 1960s, but no settlement emerged since the Falklands residents wanted to remain British. In 1982 the Argentine military junta invaded the islands, apparently hoping that London would accept the loss. Instead, Britain responded with force, winning a short but sharp war.

The junta was swept from power; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher won a landslide re-election. The two nations renewed diplomatic ties in 1992 but the issue languished, until a British oil company recently began exploratory drilling in island waters. Argentine President Christina Kirchner accused London of violating her nation’s sovereignty. In early February her government blocked departure of a ship with supplies for the drilling operation.

Argentina’s foreign minister recently met with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who offered to mediate. Moreover, 32 Latin American governments expressed their support for “the legitimate rights of the republic of Argentina in the sovereignty dispute with Great Britain.”

The appropriate question for Washington is: what does this have to do with the U.S.? Alas, both Argentina and Britain want America’s support. And out of London has come the plaintive plea: aren’t we allies?

The U.S. has no discernible interest in the controversy. England controls the islands, but that doesn’t mean its control is legitimate: Washington’s position has been to support British administration, not sovereignty. Obviously, the dispute should be handled peacefully. But President Barack Obama, whose Kenyan grandfather apparently was tortured by British colonial overlords during the 1950’s “Mau Mau” revolt, has no reason to defend this vestige of Britain’s colonial past.

On her recent visit to Buenos Aires Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that the dispute be handled by the UN. Of course, no Western industrialized nation should want its affairs decided by the denizens of Turtle Bay. The secretary was on firmer ground in offering Washington’s “help in facilitating” negotiations.

Alas, in London anything other than full-throated support is being treated as disloyalty of the most monstrous character. Officially, the British government expressed its thanks to Secretary Clinton but denied any need for mediation. The private reaction was less restrained. Con Coughlin of the Daily Telegraph wrote that “British officials are angry at what they regard as a cavalier disregard for Britain’s interests at a time when Britain is the only major European power committed significant numbers of combat troops to fight in Afghanistan.”

British analyst Nile Gardiner, of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, argued in late February: “If the Obama administration does not take a clear position in support of London, the Anglo-American Special Relationship will be significantly damaged. It is imperative that in the coming days the White House issues an unequivocal statement backing UK sovereignty over the Falklands in the face of Argentinian bullying.”

Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), who co-chairs the United States/United Kingdom Caucus, has joined the pro-London chorus. He wrote for the same Daily Telegraph that “The Obama Administration’s recent statements regarding the future of the Falkland Islands have been deeply troubling to those of us in Washington who cherish the Special Relationship and the close ties that bind Great Britain and the United States.” Indeed, he added, “The saber-rattling on behalf of the Argentine government is ridiculous and laughable, to say nothing of being factually dishonest, and economically expedient.”

The Falklands contretemps illustrates the problem of maintaining an alliance at a time when none is necessary. “Special relationships” make a lot of sense among individuals. They are a lot more problematic among nations.

In fact, George Washington famously warned: “a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.” What could be better illustrate his concern than the U.S. getting involved in the middle of the Falklands dispute?

America’s historical ties with Great Britain are long, but for decades were largely negative. The two peoples broke apart violently in the American Revolution. They fought in 1812. There were constant foreign policy confrontations over Latin America and near war over Venezuela; Washington also rattled its saber at Britain in the boundary dispute with Canada. The threat of conflict also was real during the American Civil war over British neutrality and the Confederacy.

Since then relations have been much better, though not without disagreement. Only during World War II and the Cold War did a close alliance make sense. (The U.S. was merely an “associated power” in World War I, and had no reason to enter that foolish, bloody imperial slugfest other than Woodrow Wilson’s delusion that he could inaugurate peace on earth.)

Participating in an alliance intended to be fought unto the military death can force one to swallow hard and back even stupid positions taken by one’s friends. The sovereignty of a small south Atlantic island doesn’t look particularly important next to keeping British carriers occupied tracking the Red Navy.

The Reagan administration likely was driven by such considerations. Although temporizing initially, Washington tilted toward Britain. After all, the war was initiated by a military junta against a valued ally in the midst of the Cold War before perestroika had transformed the Soviet Union. But the fact that Washington felt the need to get involved demonstrates why alliances should be limited in time and scope. With the end of the Cold War, there is no reason for the U.S. to be part of NATO and tied militarily to London.

That doesn’t mean the American and British peoples should not feel a special relationship. I spent three of my teen years in Great Britain and loved exploring a nation with such a rich history that effectively birthed America. The common values and related culture also suggest that there will be many issues upon which the corresponding governments will agree and cooperate. That might even include fighting wars together.

However, London should have supported the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq because the British government perceived the operations to be necessary for its own and global security, not out of a misguided sense of kinship. In fact, Washington would have been better served had Prime Minister Tony Blair not been President George W. Bush’s “poodle,” as the former has been widely derided in Britain. A more skeptical British leader might have slowed if not halted the Bush administration’s costly and foolish rush to war.

In the same way, the U.S. should back London when the latter is in the right. But justice is irrelevant to some advocates of a reflexive “special relationship.” For instance, wrote Gardiner: “President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cannot remain neutral and sit on the fence over an issue of vital national interest to the United Kingdom. While British and American soldiers fight side by side on the battlefields of Afghanistan, the United States must stand shoulder to shoulder with the British people as they once again confront Argentine aggression and defend their own kith and kin.”

Washington cannot confront aggression, which has not occurred, though it should discourage any nation resorting to force to resolve territorial disputes. Nor can Washington treat as vital to America another nation’s cause just because the latter believes it to be vital. (Set aside why anyone in Britain would view the status of the Falklands as “vital.”) Without overriding justification, the U.S. government should not reflexively endorse claims and actions that are dubious at best.

A similar problem looms in East Asia. The People’s Republic of China has made extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea, especially regarding the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Exactly who owns what is a matter of much international dispute. Must the U.S. stand by former colony Philippines even if Beijing has the better juridical claim? What about competing claims between China and Vietnam?

Even worse, Japan and South Korea, both long-term allies of America, bitterly disagree over the name as well as the sovereignty of Dokdo/Takeshima Island. Both countries have a “special relationship” with America. Which is deserving of Washington’s first loyalty?

Not every international problem requires America’s attention, even those involving countries with a “special relationship” with Washington. Contrary to the U.S. government’s current practice, America needs fewer allies. Washington should no longer act as the world’s 9-1-1 number.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including “Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire” (Xulon Press).