- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
My, how the times have changed.
In 1992, ten years after Britain beat back an Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands and two years after the two sides resumed diplomatic relations, Argentine President Carlos Menem delivered a speech on the anniversary of the bloody conflict. "Sooner or later, maybe before the year 2000, we will recover the Malvinas Islands without shedding a drop of blood," he pledged, using his country’s term for the South Atlantic islands off Argentina’s eastern coast, which Britain has controlled since 1833. The Los Angeles Times observed at the time that both Britain and Argentina seemed eager to "negotiate patiently" on everything from trade to petroleum exploration to the conservation of fisheries around the Falklands.
Fast forward to 2012, the 30th anniversary of the war. Prince William, a Royal Air Force helicopter pilot, is flying to the Falklands tonight to begin a six-week mission as Britain prepares to dispatch an advanced warship to the islands, prompting Argentina’s Foreign Ministry to declare that Britain is "militariz[ing]" the conflict and sending Queen Elizabeth II’s grandson "in the uniform of a conquistador."
The row comes after Argentina persuaded a South American trading bloc to prevent ships flying the Falklands flag from docking in their ports, threatened to cut the only air link between the islands and South America, and started a "squid war" by instructing Argentine fishermen to catch the creatures (which, along with sheep, are critical to the archipelago’s economy) before they reached the Falklands. British Prime Minister David Cameron responded to these actions by accusing Argentina of "colonialism" since Falkland Islanders "want to remain British."
So what explains this bellicose, nationalistic behavior by both sides regarding a territory with a mere 3,000 inhabitants? Britain’s decision to authorize offshore oil prospecting in the Falklands in 2010 has surely played a role, as has the United Kingdom’s economic malaise coupled with Argentina’s rapid (if checkered) economic growth. In 2002 — the 20th anniversary of the Falklands War — the roles were reversed. As Argentina struggled to recover from a crippling economic crisis, Reuters reported that many Argentine politicians "skipped public ceremonies commemorating the war because they were afraid of being heckled by angry crowds suffering from rising unemployment and bank account freezes."
Now Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, emboldened by a resounding reelection victory, has made the Falklands a centerpiece of her foreign policy. In its statement this week, Argentina’s Foreign Ministry accused Britain of taking an aggressive stance toward the Falklands to distract the public from spending cuts related to "structural crisis and high unemployment." And indeed, the Financial Times notes that some analysts believe Britain — and particularly its Falklands air base — may be vulnerable to an Argentine invasion because of Royal Navy cuts and the government’s decision to scrap its only aircraft carrier. By sending the HMS Dauntless destroyer to the Falklands, the paper explains, Britain may be leaving "nothing to chance" as the anniversary of the war approaches this spring.
In fact, the anniversaries have been growing tenser for some time, as Britain has repeatedly refused to acquiesce to Argentine demands for U.N.-sponsored negotiations on the sovereignty of the islands. In 2007 — the 25th anniversary of the conflict — frustration over Britain’s rejection of talks spurred the Argentine government to reassert its claim to the Falklands, in a move that seemed rather toothless since the claim was already baked into Argentina’s constitution.
But Argentina’s current measures are packing more of a punch. And while a renewal of hostilities may be unlikely, more than just squid has already been caught in the diplomatic crossfire. As the Guardian points out today, Falkland Islanders are contending with "higher food prices and a growing sense of encirclement" even as Kirchner and Cameron score political points. As John Fowler, deputy editor of the Falklands Island-based Penguin News, wrote earlier this month:
You could say we feel like the duck in the basket in the traditional gaucho game of ‘pato.’ This poor creature used to end up belonging to one side or the other, but was likely to be battered to death in the process.