If Argentina and the UK ever go from words to war over the Falklands/Malvinas, the Duke of Cambridge (aka Prince William) would fly one of the first (rescue) choppers that would take to the air, the NYT tells us.
That probably won’t happen, though, and that decision is mostly Argentina’s to make. Sending Prince William and a few top-of-the-line ships to the islands have been passed off as routine, but nonetheless these events, coupled with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Iron Lady-like statements of resolve with respect to the Falklands, suggest Britain is standing firm.
The Argentinean government, on the other hand, has long used the “Malvinas” (as they call these cold and barren islands in the stormy South Atlantic) either as a distraction from other more pressing issues—like a slowing economy—or as a way to rally citizens and force neighboring countries to join in—Brazil, most importantly. Both reasons are at play here, and so too is the prospect of oil in the waters surrounding the Falklands.
Let us not forget, either, the raging “squid war,” as the NYT calls it:
But Argentina has added oil grievances to anger over the “squid wars,” a dispute over rich hauls of squid that are spawned along Argentina’s coast before moving into waters off the Falklands. [Argentinean President] Kirchner said at a summit meeting of regional states in December that Las Malvinas, Argentina’s name for the islands, were “a global cause, because in the Malvinas they are taking our oil and fishing resources.”
Argentine nationalism is a fiery thing. To outsiders, the fanatical attachment to rocky, windswept islets and odd bits of Antarctica (like many nations, Argentina has staked out claims on Antarctica) seems strange. Many of the Argentines who feel most passionately about the subject are confirmed urbanites in Buenos Aires and have never visited the remote wildernesses where Argentina currently rules. Many of them would rather die than live on some isolated rock in the stormy South Atlantic. But even before the prospects of oil discoveries (or studies into the migratory habits of squid) gave the islands an economic allure, Argentines of most classes and political views insisted passionately, fervently and, again from an outsider’s perspective, irrationally that by every standard of law and right — and regardless of the views of the irrelevant people who happen to live there — the islands belong to Argentina.
Perhaps it is that 180 years of powerlessness to change a situation they do not like has become for Argentines a painful reminder about so much in the international order that they do not like. Perhaps, given that Argentina like the US is an immigrant society in which the questions of unity and identity are always up for discussion, a common emotional commitment to this issue is one way people have of expressing and communicating their patriotic feeling. Grievances can help hold a nation together.
Most of the time, this element of the Argentine character is picturesque rather than dangerous. Being surrounded by prickly people on the subject of the Malvinas is one of the ways one knows one is in Argentina; it is expected, like the eternal laments of the Cubs fans in Chicago and of the Red Sox nation. It is endearing, as long as you don’t think about the link between this kind of nationalism and war.
It also stirs up the British; David Cameron’s government is happy to have the country discussing the prince in the Falklands rather than the unemployment rate. And from a more serious angle, Britain’s stand on the Falklands is directly connected to its stand on Gibraltar. This strategically vital rock that guards the entrance to the Mediterranean has been British territory since the early 18th century. Spain wants it back; the British defend their possession on the ground that as long as the people who live on Gibraltar prefer British rule to Spanish rule, the Union Jack will stay. To give up the Falklands means giving up any serious claim to Gibraltar; it would be hard to see the British doing that.
What’s clear is that the economic issues, whether having to do with squid or with oil, can be negotiated, assuming a modicum of goodwill and rationality on both sides. There are possible face saving compromises for Argentina, if the Argentines wanted that kind of a solution. There is little sign that they do; Argentines, and their politicians, prefer a grievance to a compromise that doesn’t put the islands under Argentine sovereignty.
Most of the time, the whole dispute stays in the realm of light opera, a Gilbert and Sullivan production that lightens up the otherwise depressing world of international diplomacy from time to time. Let’s hope that it works out this way once again.