Saturday, 6 March 2010

Rumblings in the Falklands

Earlier this week, Gordon Brown felt the discomfort of having to reject a US offer to help mediate the latest spat between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands. At one level, we can easily ignore the irresponsible - and cheap - populism of Argentine President, Cristina Fernandez, who is using the issue of oil exploration in Falkland waters to try to revive her flagging popularity at home. But the episode is a telling illustration of wider failings in British foreign policy.

On the one hand, it is worth remembering the strength of Britain’s claim to the Falklands under international law. It is based on two principles. First, Britain’s effective and continuous occupation of the Islands since 1833. Second, the democratic right of self-determination of the Islanders.

History supports British title to the Islands. The Falklands have changed hands – in terms of physical possession – several times. The first authenticated sighting of the Islands was by a Dutch mariner in 1600. The first landing was conducted by a British Royal Navy captain in 1690. After that, there were various temporary settlements – by the French, British and Spanish. The Spanish left the Islands altogether in 1811, leaving them virtually uninhabited for a decade. Argentina claimed independence from Spain in 1816, claiming the Falklands as its ‘inheritance’, but making no serious attempt to take control or govern until 1829. At that point both Britain – and ironically the US – roundly rejected Argentine claims. Britain re-asserted control over the Islands (without bloodshed) from 1833, and has remained in charge ever since. Of course, the ownership of the Falklands is a historical and geographic anomaly, but that is true of all borders. Under international law, British title was settled by effective occupation – those were the rules of the game that every nation played by until 1945. In that year, the United Nations Charter banned the use of force to claim territory, and bolstered the principle of self-determination, both of which only strengthened Britain’s claim when the Argentine military junta invaded in 1982.

At that time, Argentina tried to combine nationalistic fervour with regional solidarity to put diplomatic pressure – and even economic sanctions – on the UK. That effort largely failed, because of effective British diplomacy and strong bilateral relations in the region. Compare that to the united front shown by Latin and Caribbean leaders, who recently unanimously backed Argentina’s claims. Clearly, the context is different today compared with 1982, and little of consequence will follow. But, it throws into sharp relief the importance to Britain of maintaining a global foreign policy.

We remain a global nation with the sixth largest economy in the world, the ability to project force at a distance, membership of the top diplomatic tables and tremendous ‘soft power’, primarily as a result of the English language and British culture. But, we risk selling ourselves short, if we allow Britain’s voice to be submerged by insular, inward-looking, European priorities – or, for that matter, if we automatically tie ourselves too closely to the US, when it is not in the British national interest.

One reason that Britain’s claim to the Falklands is now being ignored in Latin America is that – fixated on Europe, and overstretched with problems in the Middle East - we have systematically downgraded our diplomatic presence in the region since 1997. We have muted Britain’s voice in one of the rising region’s of the world.

I served in the Foreign Office between 2000 and 2006, and one of the most consistent gripes from professional diplomats was Labour’s obsession with central targets. Because Whitehall targets only measure tangibles, they overlook the value of intangible assets – like strong bilateral relations between the UK and its friends and partners abroad. The bean-counters may just see the costs, but their value is unmistakable in times of crisis.


The Count said...

I found your post helpful when writing my own article on the Falklands:

Post a Comment

The site policy is to publish all comments, unless abusive or anonymous.

Welcome to Dom's Blog

To sign up for my monthly bulletins, click here.

For my Privacy & Cookies policy, click here.

Dom's Podcasts

Watch Dom's Hardtalk interview here.

To watch Dom's recent podcasts, visit his You Tube channel here.

Local Campaigns

Local issues, National debate

Blog Archive

Follow Dom on Facebook