Friday, 30 December 2011

The reality of the Falkland Islands dispute - why quiet diplomacy matters more than willy waving...

Why the Falkland Islands are unlikely to be invaded again.
A perennial favourite headline of so many newspapers, particularly tabloids, is to proclaim that Argentina threatens the Falklands, that the Royal Navy couldn't possibly mount a task force again, and that western civilisation as we know it is threatened by the fact that a  territorial dispute exists between Argentina and the UK. For this inaugural analytical blog article, I want to try and look beneath the dispute, to try and examine the real level of threat to the Falklands, and to also explain why it is highly unlikely that the Argentineans could repeat 1982 without some spectacular investment, planning and luck.

Argentine Bellicosity
The Falklands are an election issue, and an easy means of unifying the Argentine people against an external wrong that must be righted. At its most simple, the dispute has little to do with any geographic claim, but instead provides successive Argentinean leadership figures with an easy means to distract attention from any internal domestic woes, or political problems.

Almost without fail, the Falklands will be mentioned in any Argentinean political campaign, usually to much alarm from the UK media, but this is as much a reality of Argentine politics as an election campaign is in the UK when the parties roll out the tired old cliches of protecting the NHS, investing and whatever else is the mantra of the day. In other words, to talk of the Falkands in an Argentine election is normal - its when they don't get brought up that we should start to worry.

In recent months, there has been much alarm in the UK over the fact that Argentina appears to be placing pressure on other South American countries to ban Falkland Islands registered vessels from ports, to increase pressure on the UK getting access for its military assets staging through South American countries, and to try to raise the issue at every opportunity in international fora.

The reality is that these efforts have achieved very little - international initiatives are commonplace, and many countries sign up to them, not because they passionately care about the issues at stake, but because it is easier to go along with something in order to keep your neighbour sweet, so you can call in the favour when you need it. It is highly unlikely that Brazil or Uruguay particularly care about the Falkland Islands, but they do care that they share borders with a large nation with a reasonable economy, and that annoying them over something like the Falklands is more hassle than its worth.

So, even though the press would have us believe that the world as we know it is threatened by these statements, the truth is that nothing has really changed, and that the dispute remains primarily one between the UK and Argentina. What could change this? In reality, it is hard to see a situation emerging where Brazil or Uruguay would willingly close access to their ports permanently, or send vessels to side with an Argentine cause - it would cause immense economic damage, and the potential political fallout would be enormous. Is Brazil seriously willing to risk isolating itself for an attack on a foreign nation in support of Argentine goals?

The reality is that we'll probably see Argentina continue to try to press the small advantages in local organisations, and see very verbose declarations which will then be seized on by the Argentines as evidence that others support them. Then, in reality, nothing will change and Argentina will continue as before. The moment that the UK should really begin to worry about wider South American support for the Argentines position is when they follow through on pledges, or begin to link wider diplomatic support or pledges of assistance to movement on the Falklands issue. Until this point, declarations are little more than worthless - great if you want to feel good about something, but in reality delivering nothing of tangible value.

UK Diplomatic Response
There are some who feel that the UK should be far more assertive over the falklands, and take a tougher line with countries that support the Argentine position. The question is what would this achieve? Having worked in the diplomatic arena, it is clear that while in the short term highly emotive statements make the originating country feel good about itself, it quickly causes more harm than good. If the UK threatened to sever relations, or cut off trade to countries which supported Argentinas stance, then what would actually be achieved? In reality such a move would isolate the UK in South America, do immense damage to our long term reputation in the region, and bring countries on the fence into the Argentine camp.

It is important to remember that diplomatic actions have very long term consequences - arguably the UK is still dealing with the aftermath of messy colonial incidents from the 19th century today as a result of its possession of the Falklands. If the UK sought to view its entire relationship with South America through the prism of the Falklands, then there is real danger that our longer term ability to influence, support and work with many countries would be harmed. Countries remember insults for far longer than compliments - in many ways diplomacy is like children at school arguing over who likes or hates one another the most. Flexing the UK muscle now would merely irritate and in the longer term, isolate us and do more harm than good to our position.

What can the UK do to counter the constant Argentine charm offensive? Well for starters it needs to be realistic about goals - the UK has to ensure it retains good relations with the continent to ensure that 8000 miles from home, 2000 people and 1500 plus service personnel remain safe, secure and with open lines of communication in perpetuity (or until the Falkland Islanders determine they want another way of life). Pissing off your neighbours, acting like the local bully and generally throwing your weight around won't achieve this - it will achieve the opposite.

The UK has to try to secure a form of quiet diplomacy in South America - an accepting policy which realises that other south American countries have to live with Argentina, and that they will sign up for things, but equally one which applies discrete threats / carrots / sticks at a point where nations will not be publicly humiliated, nor in a way which merely fuels Argentina's policy goals. This means not reacting in a manner which will make tabloid readers feel good about themselves, but which ensures continuity of access to ports, airports, logistical facilities and prevents South American nations from feeling isolated, humiliated and unwilling to make concessions to the UK.

The worst thing the UK can do now is to go on an aggressive diplomatic offensive - it would play straight into Argentine hands, and make our life much harder. Our primary goal is to keep the Falkland Islands secure and British for as long as they want to do so - this goal is much easier to achieve when other nations are unlikely to back Argentine actions.

In the next part of this article, we'll look at why the Argentines lack the ability to invade the Falklands, and also why, despite the best efforts of the Daily Mail, it is unlikely that a small team of special forces soldiers (even if they had escaped from a military stockade to the LA underground), could take out the UK garrison in one night.


  1. Congratulations and good luck with your blog

    Indeed, quiet diplomacy is a far better option for the UK than military or diplomatic sabre-rattling, which risks upsetting until now relatively friendly South American countries such as Brasil, Uruguay and Chile.

    Calling for an increased defensive effort on the FI (a batallion instead of a company of infantry, a squadron instead of a flight of Typhoons, a frigate instead of an OPV, a permanent submarine, …) will cost a lot of money that we all know is not there, will set off counter-measures by Argentina (and maybe other South American countries) which in turn will require the UK to do more of the same, and most of all will not change for better the situation or solve the dispute. The defensive effort must be credible and sized to make it (too) expensive for Argentina to try and conquer the islands and/or to make a succesfull attempt beyond their abilities. IMH-civilian-O the current arrangements are sufficient to achieve this. Appropriate reinforcement plans should be (and probably are) put in place in case the situation suddenly escalates. There for sure is also no need for a provocative grand rehearsal of these plans as advocated by some.

    On the other hand, no dispute between countries has ever been solved by both sides sticking to their point of view. Moving towards a solution means changing positions, step-by-step. The UK and the Falkland Islanders must realise that in order for the FI to prosper and to be economically viable (i.e. not being too dependent on the UK), there must be normal diplomatic, economical and cultural relations between the FI and their neighbours. This is even more important when indeed oil is found in exploitable quantities around the FI. While the FI may welcome the revenue from exploration licenses and royalties, I am not sure they are also prepared for Port Stanley to become Little Aberdeen or South Stavanger. Oil companies too may prefer to use or further develop existing port infrastructure, refineries and supporting industries on the nearby South-American mainland rather than develop everything from scratch on the FI. Also, and even more so without oil, the economy on the FI will benefit from normal relations with South America (including Argentina). Think about tourism and visiting cruise ships (almost none today as operators are forced to choose for either Buenos Aires or Port Stanley) and about the proverbial kitchen sink which will be cheaper when shipped from Argentina rather than from the UK or even from Punta Arenas in Chile.

    Both UK and Argentina someday will have to change their diplomatic position and meet somewhere in the middle: some kind of ‘floating’ FI to start with (not a full UK dependency any longer, but not –yet– an independent country either) with backing and guarantees from the UN Security Council (which by that time most probably includes Brasil).

  2. WW,

    You have some valid points re diplomacy. I am not so sure about your point there must be give from both sides. By the same token I could express an interest in owning Russia, and could expect that Russia would give something to me. In the same way that I have no right to anything Russian, the Argentinians have absolutely no right to the Falklands.

    You may well be correct that the Falkland Islanders do not know what they are letting themselves in for by the introduction of a whole pile of new people. They did get used to a new garrison though.

    If we give the processing of oil to South Amerioca, the Falkland Islands lose out on billions. Why should they?

  3. i think the main reason we should contest over the Falklands is to keep our reputation... a reputation that is slowly falling as more and more countries realize that we are not as powerful as we once were. we need a grand victory to keep our country a major power in the world !

    God save the Queen

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