Britain Is Losing the Falklands Battle

The dispute that in 1982 led to an improbable war over the remote Falkland Islands is back, only this time it is not likely to end so well for the Brits. The Falklands War began when a faltering Argentine military dictator tried to resurrect his popularity by sending troops to seize the islands, claimed by Argentina as the Malvinas. It ended when Margaret Thatcher sent the Royal Marines to reclaim these sparsely populated rocks and rescue the British sheepherders who lived there from the unprovoked invasion. Thatcher's popularity soared. Now, however, oil has been discovered off the Falklands, and the dispatch of a huge British oil rig has triggered near unanimous protest from a continent where democracy has overtaken dictatorship almost everywhere, including Argentina. Even if Britain finds what it is looking for, up to 60 billion barrels of oil, it is also digging its way to the wrong side of history.

Neither side is threatening gunplay, but the battle for global sentiment is going badly for Britain. Thatcher's triumph in the small war (255 Britons dead, 649 Argentines) drew strong support from Ronald Reagan and relatively mild criticism from Latin America (Argentine leader Leopoldo Galtieri was not a beloved figure), and led to the resounding 1983 reelection victory that in many ways capped Britain's global resurgence during the Thatcher era. Now Britain is led by an increasingly unpopular prime minister, Gordon Brown, presiding over a nation in economic decline, and looks a bit desperate grabbing for Falklands oil, when even Britain's special friends in Washington won't back Brown up. Far from rallying to the P.M.'s side, the Obama administration has declared U.S. neutrality on the dispute, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has offered to mediate. Britain promptly rejected the offer, and the British press attacked Clinton for handing Argentina a "propaganda coup." But by this time Britain was looking alone and out of touch. The Latin leaders denouncing Britain for imperialist overreach ranged from Hugo Chávez, the brazen Venezuelan, to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the moderate who has made Brazil the China of Latin America—an emerging economic superpower that Britain can't afford to insult.

Meanwhile, Argentina's President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, of all people, is looking like the Iron Lady of this drama. Coming into this dispute, Kirchner was losing popularity due to economic stagnation. Now she has indeed been handed a coup—by Britain itself. Some 80 percent of Kirchner's countrymen believe the islands are part of Argentina, so she is pushing the issue hard. In February, Argentina responded to Britain's plans to drill by detaining a ship that Buenos Aires said was carrying tools for further British oil exploration, and announcing that any vessel crossing Argentine territorial waters must obtain a permit.

Britain rejected the decree, but Kirchner is winning allies. Two weeks ago she used a meeting of the Rio Group of 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries to elicit unanimous support for her position, including from Chile, which had covertly supported Britain in the 1980s dispute. A few days later, Argentina's Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana took this LatAm bloc backing to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and called for the U.N. to condemn Britain's actions as a violation of numerous resolutions and to pressure it to come to the table. The request is still under review, and like Argentina's previous attempts to assert sovereignty over the islands, it is likely to have no real effect. Argentina has routinely filed legal claims on the Malvinas, but U.N. resolutions on the matter would have no force of law without their adoption by the Security Council, where the United Kingdom is a permanent member with veto power.

This time, though, Argentina is receiving far more vocal support for its position from its neighbors than ever before. On Feb. 23, Brazil's Lula lashed out: "What is the geographic, the political, or economic explanation for the U.K. to be in Las Malvinas?" he asked. "Could it be because the U.K. is a permanent member of the U.N.'s Security Council, where they can do everything and the others nothing?" Somewhat predictably, Chávez has also come out to turn the Falklands dispute into a cause célèbre for Latin America. If it comes to armed conflict, he warned, Argentina would not be alone. "Queen of England, I'm talking to you," he addressed the British monarch from his television show, Aló, Presidente. "The time for empires is over, haven't you noticed?" Bluster aside, he may have a point.

The Brown government has stated that Britain will maintain land, air, and maritime forces as a deterrent to protect both its commercial vessels and the Falklands, where an active force of more than 1,000 British troops are still stationed. But the continued protection afforded to the isolated islands, not to mention the cost to supply them, has been an economic inefficiency for Britain for decades. As far back as 1980, British parliamentarian Nicholas Ridley, a Conservative minister of state, proposed a plan to release ownership of the islands to Argentina, which would then lease back the territories to Britain, allowing the 3,100 occupants to remain British citizens but providing Argentina with some of the benefits of sovereignty. Ridley's proposal was shouted down in the House of Commons. But now support for spending money on the islands is low in Britain, at least compared with 1982. A recent Guardian editorial urged the government to reconsider Ridley's plan, arguing that the Falklands can no longer remain Britain's "expensive nuisance," because "the world will insist on it."

Indeed, the world has come a long way since Britain's last war over the islands. Democracy has swept across Latin America, and many of the traditional tensions between countries on the continent have been tempered, allowing for greater regional cooperation and economic integration. The potential value of the Falklands oilfields to Britain is obvious at a time when its North Sea reserves are drying up. But there is no telling how much oil is really there until exploration begins, making this an extraordinarily risky business proposition. Good relations with the emerging Latin trade bloc, led by Brazil, may be worth more in the long run, so Britain would be wise to accept mediation offers. After all, the increasing interdependence of Latin interests has enabled Kirchner to achieve a unified front for her diplomatic war on Britain, which in turn has secured a level of legitimacy for the continent that Britain and the rest of the world should not—and can no longer—ignore.