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Commentary

Everyone Wins from a Realistic Falkland Islands Compromise


     
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Twenty-five years ago, in one of history’s biggest military blunders, the Argentine military invaded the Falkland Islands (which Argentines call the Islas Malvinas), a self-governing, overseas territory of the United Kingdom. It took British forces just over ten weeks to traverse a third of the globe and rout out the invaders. Two-thirds of the more than nine hundred people killed were Argentines.

While we might wish to spend our time now more constructively counting penguins, the dispute persists. Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana told the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization on June 21 that Britain is abusive and refuses to negotiate. But how is dialogue possible when Argentina, the weaker party, insists on the total capitulation of the United Kingdom, the stronger party?

A major anniversary like this one is both a time for mourning losses and thumping chests, but it also reminds people of what could be done if everyone would just follow Gilbert’s advice in Iolanthe to turn “the hose of common sense” on a problem. Unfortunately, the stakes and hang-ups are such that, even with uncommon good will on all sides, a long-term interim agreement is all one can hope for, though that would greatly affect everyone’s interests.

Argentina demands a total reversal of the 174–year status quo on four grounds: 1) Spanish colonial claims on the islands that Argentina inherited in 1816 at independence, 2) brief, limited post-independence occupation of the islands by Argentina before 1833, 3) the islands' proximity (about 350 miles) to the Argentine mainland, and 4) the transience of the Falklands' population.

While Argentina demands a complete sovereignty flip-flop, its early nineteenth century legal case, though marginally better than Britain’s, is itself inconclusive. In the end, Argentina’s claim is not bettered by Britain’s, but by the Falklanders’, which London still feels obliged to uphold.

The reality is that the several thousand Falklanders are almost all of Scottish and English origin. They speak English and have administered the island peacefully with British help for 174 years. A Falkland representative told the United Nations on June 21 that Argentina’s policy is colonial. Falklanders overwhelmingly oppose incorporation into Argentina, a distinct culture with a history that has often been violent and unpredictable, a perfect example being the unprovoked invasion 25 years ago. The reality of these long, very different histories and cultures should trump any centuries-old legal claim.

But this Argentine demand transcends the Falkland dispute and means nothing less than the opening of a global Pandora’s box. It argues that any country that wants to regain territory lost a couple of centuries ago, however tenuous its claim then and whatever has occurred during the interim, has the right to take it back. If this ridiculous idea flies, many UN member-states will become prey to one or more self-aggrandizing neighbors.

The proximity argument is equally absurd. Just imagine every island less than 350 miles from a mainland, however distinct its culture, being absorbed by the nearest continental country: Japan becomes part of Korea or Russia, Cyprus part of Turkey or Syria, Cuba and the Bahamas part of the United States, and the United Kingdom (maybe this is Argentina’s ultimate vengeance) part of France.

The most disingenuous argument of all, though, is that after 174 consecutive years the Falklanders are “transients.” More Falkland families have deep historical roots in the islands than today’s Argentines do on the mainland. Argentina, one of the youngest Spanish colonies, was even more thorough than the United States in killing off its original inhabitants, which means that Argentina’s current population, with its European ancestry, is no more native to the mainland than the Falklanders are to the islands.

In reality, the Falklanders have a much more cohesive culture than the Argentines who, for historical and psychological reasons are inhabitants rather than citizens of the land, as argued by their own greatest writer, Jorge Luis Borges.

Argentine leaders say they seek a peaceful restoration of the islands. But Falklanders and others believe that, because of Argentina’s unstable and unpredictable history, any new domestic crisis could overwhelm the best of current intentions.

A potentially lasting resolution of the dispute will require a simple formula that will both pacify Argentine nationalists and produce so many obvious benefits as to survive future unrest on the mainland. Perhaps the United Kingdom could simply recognize (without acceding to) the Argentine claim and then all parties could agree to another 175–year cooling-off period with UN oversight. That would enable London, Buenos Aires, and Stanley to focus entirely on long-term cooperation in developing fishing, energy, and other matters with obvious rewards for all involved. Recent agreements between Australia and Indonesia contain useful examples of what can be done if the will is there.

Who could engineer such a long-term cooling off agreement? Argentine President Nestor Kirchner could, because, like Nixon when he went to China, no one can accuse him of selling out to the enemy. To be sure, doing so might be complicated now because of his setback in last Sunday’s elections, the anticipated nastiness of the up-coming presidential election, and Kirchner's admiration for Venezuela’s militant, anti-imperialist president, Hugo Chavez.

But the key is will. Is Kirchner enough of a statesman committed to the real interests of the Argentine people to strike a practical deal that would benefit Argentines and all others for generations to come? If he isn’t, what other Argentine is? It is time for Argentines to reject foolish nationalism and support a program and a candidate that would bring about reconciliation.


William Ratliff is the late Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and former Curator of the Americas Collection at the Hoover Institution. He travels frequently in China and Asia. His latest book is Vietnam Rising: Culture and Change in Asia’s Tiger Cub.






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