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.
The Obama administration has ignored the Gibraltar contretemps while opining that the Falklands are “a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between Argentina and the United Kingdom,” in the words of State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland: “we are encouraging Argentina and the UK to work this out peacefully, to work it out through negotiations.”
The Heritage Foundation’s Nile Gardiner, Luke Coffey and Ted Bromund reject this concept of “neutrality” and take the administration’s position as a call for London’s surrender, but how else to resolve what looks to be a growing confrontation? Instead, the Heritage analysts call for full American support for London: drop the call for negotiations, endorse British sovereignty, condemn Argentine behavior, recognize self-determination, revoke Argentina’s allied status, block international loans to Buenos Aires, and support the British military. Overall, “Washington should...make it clear that it stands firmly with America’s closest friend and ally.”
The three are less demanding toward Spain. Still, Madrid’s “aggressive behavior toward Gibraltar and the UK cannot be ignored.” Thus, “the U.S. should encourage Spain to cease its insolent behavior toward the people of Gibraltar and the UK”
Why should Washington, with a full international plate, jump into other nations’ peripheral but emotional controversies?
Gardiner offers the argument of self-determination, since both sets of islanders have voted to remain British. However, America and the UK believe in self-determination—except when they don’t. London didn’t care about the votes of popular assemblies and conventions in the North American colonies in 1776 or the wishes of the Irish for centuries. Washington didn’t care about the votes of Southern residents who chose to secede in 1860 and 1861.
More recently, neither Britain nor America was bestirred by ethnic Serbs seeking to secede from Bosnia, Croatia, or Kosovo, Abkhazis and South Ossetians desiring independence from Georgia, Kurds seeking to escape Turkey, and Palestinians pursuing independence for the territories occupied by Israel. Self-determination is not a controlling factor in international relations.
Britain and its backers also have pushed the line that Washington should stand by its ally. Of course, Spain is a fellow member of NATO and joined London in strongly backing the Bush administration’s misadventure in Iraq. Madrid, like Britain, sent troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Argentina has been designated as a Major Non-NATO Ally by Washington.
Nevertheless, when Argentina began pressing its claim three years ago the Daily Telegraph’s Con Coughlin reported that “British officials are angry at what they regard as a cavalier disregard for Britain’s interests at a time when Britain is the only major European power committed significant numbers of combat troops to fight in Afghanistan.” Gardiner made much the same argument, writing that the Obama administration is “appeasing a third-rate, declining socialist regime in Latin America [rather] than standing with America’s closest friend and ally.” Indeed, “ Britain is standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States on the battlefields of Afghanistan and in the wider war against Islamist terrorism, and on countless fronts is an indispensable ally to Washington.” In comparing Britain and Spain, Gardiner, Coffey, and Bromund were more restrained: “ The UK is America’s number one ally, and Spain is an important NATO ally.”
However, British involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq presumably resulted from London’s conviction that the wars were in the UK’s interest, not because of the “Special Relationship” between the United States and Britain. And America would have been better served had London (and Madrid) been less supportive, since both governments reinforced President George W. Bush’s worst instincts. During World War II it might have made sense to unreservedly back London in marginal disputes while the future of Europe and Asia hung in the balance. However, nothing today justifies a similar “love it or leave it” attitude when it comes to bilateral relations between the two governments.
Indeed, “special relationships” make more sense among individuals than nations. There are reasons for the American and British peoples to feel a special kinship. I spent my high school years in the UK because my Air Force father was stationed there. I enjoyed exploring a nation rich in history with common values, shared history, and deep ties to America. However, that doesn’t mean the two governments should adopt a “my ally, right or wrong” approach.