Should America Help Britain Hold onto Its Colonies?

The UK faces pressure from Spain and Argentina over Gibraltar and the Falklands. 

British territorial disputes with Argentina and Spain are heating up, leading to demands that Washington support its foremost ally. The issue offers a reminder that military alliances should be directed at serious geopolitical threats, not used to accumulate international Facebook “friends.” George Washington was correct when he warned the United States against permanent foreign entanglements.

Once the world’s greatest colonial power, Great Britain retains territorial oddities about the globe. The Falkland Islands and “the Rock” of Gibraltar (a peninsula) are causing particular difficulties with Argentina and Spain, respectively. No one is likely to go to war, but the disputes have gotten ugly.

The Falklands lie near the coast of Argentina, which calls them the Malvinas. Buenos Aires began pressing its claim when it joined the United Nations in 1945, but negotiations foundered on the understandable desire of island residents to remain British. The Argentine military junta embarked upon what it thought would be an easy conquest in 1982, but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched a successful counterinvasion.

The generals fell from power, and the two countries eventually restored diplomatic ties. But three years ago the prospect of energy exploration under British control triggered renewed claims from Buenos Aires and a campaign of harassment—blocking supplies for drillers, forbidding access to cruise ships which also visited the Falklands, boarding fishing vessels licensed by the island government. Argentina also sought support from other Latin American governments and earlier this year renewed its request for debate before the UN Security Council.

Tensions between the UK and Spain over the Gibraltar, or “the Rock,” also have flared. Madrid ceded ownership of the Rock to London in 1713 after losing the so-called War of the Spanish Succession to Britain. Last year Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy urged talks over sovereignty. But these residents, too, wish to remain British. Thousands of Spanish work on the Rock, while Gibraltarians routinely shop on the mainland. In July the Gibraltar authorities blocked access by Spanish fishermen to surrounding waters. Spain retaliated with lengthy border inspections of the thousands of cars which pass each way every day. Madrid cited tobacco smuggling and tax fraud. The Rajoy government threatened to impose a hefty entry fee on islanders entering Spain, close Spanish airspace to planes landing on Gibraltar, and investigate islanders with Spanish investments. “The party is over,” said Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo.

The UK considered going to the European Union, to which both countries belong. There also is talk of challenging Madrid’s actions in the European Court of Human Rights. The Rajoy government talked of going to the International Court of Justice at the Hague and plotted with Argentina to bring both issues before the United Nations.

Both controversies have comic-opera aspects to them, but remain deadly serious. The Falklands war was short but costly in lives and money. Britain left a sizeable garrison on the islands should conflict again erupt.

Although no one imagines Britain and Spain, both members of the EU and NATO, coming to blows, London recently sent several naval vessels to the Rock on what British authorities termed a “routine” exercise. Madrid responded by saying that it would take “all necessary measures” to protects its interests.

On both territories the UK has history, law and practice on its side. London’s control may not be logical or fair, but that’s international relations. Even Spain retains odd historical possessions. America seized Texas and the American southwest from Mexico as the spoils of war more recently than Britain acquired Gibraltar. History can’t be easily “fixed,” at least at reasonable cost to everyone involved.

However, neither issue concerns America. The United States is unlikely to be seriously affected, irrespective of which nation controls which territory. There’s certainly no reason for Washington to endorse the remnants of London’s colonial empire.

So far Washington has avoided taking sides in either dispute. In 1982 the United States tilted toward Britain against Argentina, which was justifiable not only because of London’s allied role during the Cold War but also the fact that the UK was resisting armed aggression. Afterwards America had no reason to judge sovereignty, but it did have an interest in pushing for peaceful resolution of the dispute.

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