Argentina has been making the international news again lately, penalised over the legal terms of a debt-restructuring saga stretching back to 2001, but succeeding in swaying the UN Special Committee On Decolonisation to back its view that the Falkland Islands are occupied Argentinean territory. Economically Argentina cannot support a military invasion of the islands at present, but this does not rule out an aggressive “lawfare” strategy of annexation.
Argentina has recently succeeded in persuading the UN Special Committee on Decolonization to call for negotiations again over the Falkland Islands territorial dispute. It has therefore succeeded in persuading the other nations on the committee to ignore the results of a referendum conducted by the local Falklands population in 2013 that voted overwhelmingly to remain an overseas UK territory. Argentina maintains that the issue is one of UK occupation of sovereign Argentine territory, so the islanders’ opinions are moot under international law.
Since neither Argentina nor Britain are economically or militarily strong enough to afford a war over the islands, the risk of a formal interstate conflict remains low. This does not guarantee the Islands’ future as a British possession however. It ignores the UK’s weakening geopolitical position since 1982 vis-à-vis states which may aid Argentina to further their own policy goals; it also ignores the possibility of an aggressive postmodern “lawfare” campaign of economic, legal and diplomatic sabotage which the Argentine government could conduct to delegitimize the UK administration of the islands. Witness the American effort against Iran over that country’s nuclear programme, or the more violent Russian drive to subvert the territorial integrity of Ukraine for the kind of costs which could be imposed on Britain and the Falklands. Occurring below the level of open war, this nonetheless could result in the end of the Islands’ status as a UK overseas territory.
From the British point of view the UK longer commands the hard and soft power the country had in 1982. Iraq ended a twenty year run of battlefield successes in the Falklands, the Gulf, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The 2008 financial crisis completed what the war on terror had begun, debilitating Britain’s military machine and undermining the economic engine any modern state needs to project power and influence other actors. Britain is also going through a tense period with its European Union partners at present and faces an uncertain political future as a united political entity. The UK’s ability to shield the islands from the machinations of their giant neighbour is correspondingly diminished.
This is significant because South American states which are friendly towards Argentina’s point of view have gotten stronger. The UK has no real remaining regional allies in South America, a continent with dim views on former European colonial powers. There is also a generational issue; key figures in Latin American states with left-wing governments today, such as current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, remember when Britain helped to back many of the repressive dictatorships in Latin America they grew up in, for example by helping to train military torturers in interrogation tactics. Relations with the Pinochet regime in Chile were particularly close until the return of democracy there in 1990. The Latin America of today is increasingly integrated economically and run by self-confident democracies, not pliable dictatorships in need of outside support to bolster their rule. Britain is therefore kept isolated in South America by its past associations for Latin Americans.
Presently Buenos Aires does not seem politically in a place where it can take advantage of British weaknesses. Its government is preoccupied by economic difficulties and foreign litigation. Inflation is a growing problem, and a recent ruling by an American court that Argentina must pay a group of “vulture funds” the full amount of their defaulted loans threatens its scare foreign currency reserves. If so, what kind of threat can Argentina pose to the Falklands today?
It must be remembered that the 1982 invasion was sparked in part by the unrest caused by the disastrous economic policies of the country’s then-military government. If Argentinean politics were to again become destabilised by economic difficulties, it is not hard to see a case where a populist government comes to power with a nationalist worldview that is more committed to “recovering” the Falklands. In the same way that Hong Kong was used by Communist China as a bargaining chip before 1997, Britain’s Falkland’s policy could even become hostage to Argentinean political jockeying.
Coercive gestures towards the islands could easily become a substitute for hard economic reforms or their “price”. Argentina could easily unilaterally escalate the crisis on the ground by, for example, sending an exploratory oil rig with a naval escort to drill inside the Falklands maritime boundary. Alternatively it could try to undermine the Islands economically with a blockade. Given the parlous state of Argentina’s navy this makes no military sense. But as a public relations gesture to rally regional support for itself against Britain, a clash could be easily be spun as a moral victory.
Much still depends on the attitude of the Latin American states and on the UN Decolonisation Committee. While Argentina could make life very difficult for the Falklands, it would still be reliant on its neighbours and international patronage for any future success in getting the islands placed under Argentinean legal jurisdiction. At present these parties make sympathetic noises, but real Latin American support does not extend much beyond symbolic gestures like supporting the UN vote or blocking Falklands-flagged ships from docking at their ports. This could change if, for example, the regional giant Brazil resumed campaigning again for a Security Council seat and opted to use the issue as leverage to put pressure on the UK. In this sense the futures of the islands, Argentina and the UK are hostage to the unpredictable horse-trading of international relations.
The Decolonisation Committee has repeatedly called for negotiations over the Falklands between Britain and Argentina, therefore inferring that the UN already sees the dispute as a colonial one. The committee is an unsympathetic forum for Britain with influential members. It numbers Russia and China as permanent ones; while people might scoff at states with their record calling for decolonisation, they are veto-wielding members of the Security Council. Nonaligned great powers India and Brazil are also represented. The committee therefore contains no allies of Britain, several strategic competitors, and some states whose governments are downright hostile to it, such as Iran. While it has no power to compel the United Kingdom to obey its resolutions (which the UK could veto in any case), the repeatedly ignored injunctions from the committee provide Argentina with a useful symbolic legalistic pretext for any actions short of war that it chooses to take to “enforce its sovereignty”.
I do not believe that a military occupation of the islands is a strategic goal of Buenos Aires in the present political climate. Argentina lacks the advantages of a superior local military presence, a friendly local populace and a disorganised opposing state that allowed Russia to “peacefully” occupy and subsequently annex Crimea earlier this year. In my opinion the real threat Argentina poses today is a legal and moral one; should it lead a successful propaganda campaign to convince the right international actors that they should enforce her claims, Buenos Aires could create a situation where the economic and political burden of maintaining UK control over the Falklands becomes prohibitively costly. Similar “delegitimisation” campaigns have been tried in the past against apartheid South Africa and modern Israel with mixed results.
Under this worst case scenario, a “Diego Garcia” situation could occur where, under the aegis of the UN declarations, the “implanted” British population is removed/evacuated back to the UK by the British government. The administration of the islands would then pass to Buenos Aires. It would be an injustice, but with good diplomacy the operation could acquire the veneer of legalism that state conductors of “lawfare” rely upon to win international acquiescence in their actions. There are plausible modern precedents for the surrender of overseas territories with large citizen populations.
In 1962 then-President Charles De Gaulle gave up the three French overseas territorial “départements” in what is now Algeria. These had been regarded as an integral part of France up to that moment. Almost a million European Algerians (Pied Noirs) fled to mainland France afterwards, and today there is no significant French population in Algeria. The Falkland Islands had no indigenous population for Britain to mistreat the way the French did native Algerians so the parallels here are not exact. But the point I wish to make is this; France did not lose militarily in Algeria, anymore then Britain lost in the Falklands War. Yet legally it could be argued there are similarities between the two situations. When France retreated from Algeria, it did so because it was widely seen as having lost the “battle of ideas” with its nationalist enemies. Britain must not rest on its laurels and allow the same to happen with Argentina.