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On this day in 1982, Argentina’s military junta launched an invasion of the Falkland Islands, a British protectorate in the South Atlantic. The ensuing conflict still resonates thirty years later, especially over the last six months or so. The war was not epochal; the location geographically peripheral. Yet its memory and the heated rhetoric it continues to provoke may encapsulate two of the most important trends of the 21st century: energy politics and the north-south divide in the international system.

The stories are pouring in today. Retrospectives from widows, soldiers, residents, and radio broadcasters bring the war back to life, while worriers from the Financial Times weigh in on the economics of it all. British Foreign Minister William Hague has written an editorial offering to work with Argentina but taking a hard line on the self-determination of the protectorate itself, a position echoed by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Two years ago I covered some of the Falklands vitriol here and here. At the time, oil exploration had pushed the issue into the news. It’s back, and the reason seems to be that Argentina under President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has made a calculated diplomatic offensive against Britain in the months running up to the anniversary. So, how to make sense of the dispute over the Falklands and the reason it’s all over the news? I’ll provide some brief context.

The History

The Falklands flag with excellent sheep theme

The Falkland Islands, which the Argentines call Las Malvinas, were uninhabited when they were discovered by Europeans some time in the early seventeenth century. In this case I don’t mean “uninhabited” in the Western Eurocentric historical sense of “no white people/developed civilizations,” I mean there’s actually no evidence of inhabitants. The 1760s were the first decade of documented action in the Falklands: competing French and British colonies sprung up within a year of each other on East and West Falkland respectively. Spain later assumed control of France’s interests, and supervised them from Buenos Aires (then itself a Spanish colony). Within a decade, the Revolutionary War forced the British to evac their colony, but they figured this would be ok if they left a plaque staking their claim. 30 years later, Spain did the exact same thing, and by 1811 the Falklands were devoid of human life again.

Argentine pirates camped out in the Falklands periodically through the 1820s, and the British returned in the 1830s, formally establishing a permanent colony in 1840. Since that time the population of the islands has been ethnically and culturally British. Argentina’s claims to the Malvinas stem from its claim to inheritance of Spainish colonial territory (which it believes was the legitimate original claimant) and from Britain’s expulsion/dissolution of the Argentine garrison on the Falklands that was there to combat piracy in the 1820s (and whose commander actually requested British help).

The War

Photo: Guardian

On 2 April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falklands as well as the neighboring South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. Apart from the long-running sovereignty dispute, the junta’s motivation to strike was the need to distract the Argentine people from their collapsing economy and repressive rule, and because military juntas work better when they can justify their existence with military activities. Initially, they overran the islands with ease – Britain didn’t have any military assets in place to oppose them.

Backed by a UN Security Council resolution calling for Argentina to withdraw, Britain gathered a force to retake the islands, which it accomplished after 72 days and 907 deaths on all sides. The Falklands remain a voluntary British territory, while the war hastened the collapse of the junta, which was soon replaced by Argentina’s present constitutional democracy. Democracy, however, hasn’t weakened Argentina’s claims to the Falklands. It wrote them into its constitution in 1994.

The Shenanigans

Suspiciously full: Argentine lips, British hair

Cristina (using just her first name feels apropos) doesn’t share the junta’s military proclivities, but she does share its problem with economic instability and an unruly populace. In addition to dangerously high inflation and slowing growth (for a BRIC-bloc country), Argentina cooks its books in a vain attempt to cover up the dismal reality that life is getting harder for its people. Things aren’t going great in Britain either, where austerity measures are biting just as economic growth struggles to avoid Euro-contagion and remain in the black.

In purely economic terms, this dramatically raises the stakes of the oil exploration that has occurred near the Falklands over the past few years. Though no major strikes have occurred, both Britain and Argentina would love some extra petrodollars. If a significant oil strike did occur, the present diplomatic confrontation will immediately get more…tangible. Meanwhile, the significant British military installation on the Falklands, the deployment of future King and 1/2 of the Royal Wedding Prince William to the Falklands as a rescue pilot, and the “routine” dispatch of HMS Dauntless, one of the world’s most advanced missile cruisers to the area have allowed Argentina to argue that Britain is “militarizing” the South Atlantic.

Cristina has threatened to ban mainland flights to the Falklands (which run through Chile) from passing through Argentine airspace and accused Britain of colonialism. Britain responded to this with a simple “NO U“. Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman even tried to pull an Adlai Stephenson and accuse Britain of parking a nuclear-armed sub in the Falklands in some sort of bizarre Khrushchevian gambit. Meanwhile, Argentina has placed the Falklands under a virtual economic blockade by attempting to start a “squid war” by squelching the lucrative fishing industry, denying port to ships flying a Falklands flag, and likewise to any ship that even dared to dock at the Falklands on its way to the mainland. Perhaps worse still, Cristina has managed to get many South American countries, including Brazil, to endorse her behavior, and even Desmond Tutu has been baited into the row by an Argentine fellow Nobel laureate (not to mention predictable bleating from the likes of this man).

The Meaning?

Hopefully, we will not see a re-hash of the 30-year old war. It doesn’t look likely; despite considerable alarum from British defense wonks over the merciless SDSR cuts, Britain’s military presence in the Falklands is significantly greater than it was in 1982, and as one Admiral pointed out, the firepower on HMS Dauntless alone could destroy the entire Argentine Air Force.

“Welcome to Argentina! Have you heard about our cuisine and our petty territorial dispute?”

No – all the yapping about the Falklands signifies something deeper. Two things about the future, I’d say, and one about the past. Looking ahead, it’s clear that South America believes its star is rising. Economic data from its larger economies seems to bear that out. Argentina’s swelling patriotism, whipped up by the Falklands (even its random border-crossing signs mention the Falklands in the same vein as “Welcome to Maine – The Way Life Should Be“) is linked to its sense of destiny as a self-respecting regional power. One reason it has managed to get neighborly support is that other South American countries feel the same, and like the idea of repudiating “foreign influence.” So much for the Monroe Doctrine, I guess.

It also points to worrying trends in energy politics. Gas prices are rising across the world as diplomatic efforts to contain Iran freeze out a significant producer of world oil supplies. An upcoming election in the United States is making Barack Obama seriously consider tapping the Strategic Oil Reserve to keep voter rage at bay. If war with Iran happens, that will be a grave mistake. In any case, the recent furor over the Falklands cannot be understood apart from the oil exploration taking place there. Energy security is likely to be the most important global trend of the next half-century, and would be a probable factor in any major multi-state war. An oil strike in Falklands waters will rapidly take this dispute out of the realm of abstractions.

Looking backwards though, the Anglo-Argentine banter also indicates a larger macrohistorical point: rather than an aberration, empire is the normative mode of world politics and state power. While rhetoric about empire and colonialism has been unsavory since World War II ended (see the vapid slings and barbs traded over “colonialism”), it is more the rhetoric and less the reality that has changed. The minutia of the sovereignty dispute concern centuries-old imperial claims. The present administration of the Falklands is an imperial one in 21st-century clothes, and its inhabitants are there because of empire. In fact, Argentina’s short-term wishes for the Falklands (to make Buenos Aires the sole air-link and open the islands to Argentine migration) are essentially a reheated version of Britain’s 17th-century Plantation of Ulster. The Falklands can have any status quo it wants, as long as it’s colonial.

In addition to the broad sweeping significance, there are still the real people who live on the islands and the soldiers, British and Argentine, who fought and died there. It wasn’t a splendid little war thirty years ago, and its sequel wouldn’t be either.

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