As have many Brits these days I’ve been thinking about what a lot reckon is a rather one-sided US-UK relationship in the context of the latest flare-up between Argentina and Britain over the Falklands. Now I think it is worthwhile reminding ourselves of a few things before going on:
- I can barely conceive of the Argentines invading and if they do I suspect that the UK forces will have not too great difficulty handing their asses to them on a plate;
- the Latin American Alliance Against Britain, or whatever they’re calling it, is not very good for business but they don’t seem to be putting together any sort Falklands bound armada; and so,
- there’s not really much need of an American role from the UK perspective.
And there’s the problem, you see. Britain is the status quo actor here. We see no reason to talk to the Argentines about the sovereignty of the Falklands. The issue is settled. Finished. Nothing to discuss. Which makes Secretary of State Clinton’s offer to ‘help’ in Buenos Aires extremely uncongenial (to us, that is–the Argentines are thrilled):
We want very much to encourage both countries to sit down. We cannot make either one do so but we think the right way to proceed, so we will be saying this publicly, as I have been, and we will continue to encourage exactly the kind of discussion across the table that needs to take place.
I probably don’t need to point out for most KOW readers that there is nothing inconsistent about what Clinton said. It is entirely in line with US policy over many years. But anyway have another read of President Ronald Reagan’s letter to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher before the invasion in 1982:
I have just talked at length with General Galtieri about the situation in the Falklands. I conveyed to him my personal concern about the possibility of an Argentinian invasion. I told him that initiating military operations against the Falklands Islands would seriously compromise relations between the US and Argentina, and I urged him to refrain from offensive action. I offered our good offices and my readiness to send a personal representative to assist in resolving the issue between Argentina and the UK.
The General heard my message, but gave me no commitment that he would comply with it. Indeed, he spoke in terms of ultimatums and left me with the clear impression that he has embarked on a course of armed conflict. We will continue to cooperate with your government in the effort to resolve the dispute, both in attempting to avert hostilities and to stop them if they should break out. While we have a policy of neutrality on the sovereignty issue, we will not be neutral on the issue involving Argentine use of military force.
And remind yourself of what he was advising Thatcher at the penultimate moment of British victory.
The conversation recorded in Washington took place on May 31, 1982, after paratroops had taken Goose Green and were poised with other troops for the final assault on Port Stanley. The State Department was worried that the British advance looked too much like American-backed “colonial an” [sic] Reagan approached the subject carefully, employing some old-fashioned Hollywood charm. “Your impressive military advance could maybe change the diplomatic options … Incidentally, I want to congratulate you on what you and your young men are doing down there. You’ve taken major risks and you’ve demonstrated to the whole world that unprovoked aggression does not pay.”
“Well, not yet, but we’re halfway to that,” replied Thatcher, then corrected herself. “We’re not yet halfway, but a third of the way.”
“Yes, yes you are,” said Reagan, moving on quickly to outline “… some of our ideas on how we might capitalise on the success you’ve had with a diplomatic initiative … ” Argentina might turn it down, he conceded, but “I think an effort to show we’re all still willing to seek a settlement … would undercut the effort of … the leftists in South America who are actively seeking to exploit the crisis. Now, I’m thinking about this plan … ”
Reagan got no further. Thatcher stopped listening and butted in. “This is democracy and our island, and the very worst thing for democracy would be if we failed now,” she stated.
“Yes … ” said Reagan. But Thatcher cut in again. A verbal broadside from Downing Street followed. His contribution to the debate became piecemeal.
“Margaret, but I thought that part of this proposal … ”
“Margaret, I … ”
“Yes, well … ” Defeated, Reagan resorted to charm again. “Well, Margaret, I know that I’ve intruded and I know how … ”
“You’ve not intruded at all, and I’m glad you telephoned,” replied Thatcher.
And take a gander at this Reagan Letter to Thatcher also from during the war, the salient point of which is:
You know that we have always been neutral on the question of sovereignty. And we have always favored peaceful solution of the issue by negotiation.
Which is kind of but not exactly what Clinton said–the difference being that Reagan was advocating a peaceful resolution by negotiation of an actual conflict whereas Clinton is, it seems to me, actively pushing talks to resolve a conflict which, as I’ve noted above, exists solely in the mind of the Argentine government. I can see the rationale of why she said it. The United States has delicate relations with Latin America (not just now, but always–Reagan and Obama had very similar issues as you can see in his letters) which it has to balance against other relations–namely in this instance with us. That said, from the UK perspective you have to wonder, WTF? Wouldn’t this have been a good opportunity to exercise some diplomatic silence?
Britain’s strategic dilemma is this. Our best girl is the circus fat lady. She takes up a lot of bed and she needs a lot of blanket. Even when the loving’s good it can kind of hurt and it’s more or less always on her terms. And she’s interested in other boys too from time to time. When your 800 pound girlfriend says ‘Honey, you know I have always been neutral on the desirability of [insert fantasy of choice]’ there isn’t a lot you can do beyond pester and beg. Let’s not go there. The international politics of dignity require that this country possess sufficient guns to protect its own interests where it needs to on its own. I think we’ve enough to do so in this case but surely we can’t afford to whittle them down much further.
*Circus Fat Lady picture is from The Ballyhoo website of artist Carlyn Beccia. Go there and buy her books.