The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Britain Defiant On The Falklands

Prime Minister David Cameron’s Christmas message to the Falkland Islanders was as clear as anything Mrs. Thatcher would have said.

Whatever challenges we face in the UK, the British Government’s commitment to the security and prosperity of the overseas territories, including the Falklands, remains undiminished.

”So let me be absolutely clear. We will always maintain our commitment to you on any question of sovereignty. Your right to self-determination is the cornerstone of our policy.

We will never negotiate on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands unless you, the Falkland Islanders, so wish. No democracy could ever do otherwise.

At the same time, Britain has joined the United States and other European and Arab countries in rattling sabers in the general direction of Iran.  These are some large commitments from a country that ranks toward the bottom of the top tier of European economies, and which faces stringent military spending cuts in a series of austerity budgets expected to last through the life of Cameron’s government.  With a secessionist party in power in the Scottish parliament promoting a referendum of Scottish independence, Britain could face yet another jolting moment of national decline.  Would England be willing or able to honor the promises Britain made?  (And would England alone be able to hold onto its permanent seat on the Security Council for long?)

Fortunately for Britain, Argentina is not a rising military power and in any case President Fernandez seems more interested in distracting the voters’ attention from a faltering economic program than in starting a shooting war she would be very unlikely to win.

Nevertheless, Britain must make some hard choices moving forward.  It remains a trading nation with global interests, and the re-emergence of the City as a global financial center has brought the UK back into the center of world affairs.  Russian oligarchs, Arab sheiks, Chinese and Thai businessmen, American investment bankers and African political and economic magnates continue to flock to London, bringing plenty of money with them.  More than the memories of a long vanished empire, it is the global range of the interests concentrated in Britain that drives British prime ministers towards ambitious foreign policy goals despite the limits of British power.

It can be an uncomfortable role, both for the country and for the politicians.  Tony Blair’s high profile support of the invasion of Iraq cut short his time in office.  Gordon Brown’s effort to orchestrate a global economic response to the financial crisis through the G-20 exposed the limits of his and Britain’s influence. Britain’s failure to carve out the kind of role that it seeks in the European Union has weakened a series of British governments, including Mr. Cameron’s.

Although it is passing through a rough patch, Britain seems to have brighter prospects in the 21st century than some of its EU partners.  Its population is growing; it has reinvented itself as a global investment hub; and it avoided the euro.  Despite tensions, it manages to integrate immigrants with considerably more success than some of its neighbors. If it plays its cards well it may yet emerge from the current European turmoil in good shape.

One of the central dynamics that made Britain great for so long still seems to be working.  Financial and economic crises recur in healthy capitalist economies.  When these crises come, some countries that have only reluctantly embraced a capitalist system (and usually done so poorly and half heartedly), see the crisis as proof that capitalism is a flop, and lurch toward “alternative models” that generally lead to stagnation and the capture of the state by rent-seeking elites spouting empty populist slogans.  Think Argentina.  Think Greece.

Britain is one of the countries that historically responds to crises of capitalism by doubling down: seeking reforms that make capitalism work more effectively rather than trying to hobble and block it.  Between World War Two and Maggie Thatcher Britain lost its way, bumbling through decades of decline and well intentioned but hopeless efforts to find some other way to grow.

Whatever ones views of specific steps the Cameron-Clegg coalition has taken along the way, the overall thrust of this government is clearly to facilitate rather than hobble capitalist development.  History suggests that some of the government’s policies will work, some won’t, and some won’t make a difference either way.  The specific outcomes are important, but they matter less in the long run than the continued commitment of the British to the core values of a liberal, capitalist society.  If the government can hold onto the Union, manage the relationship with Europe, and create the conditions for a new era of growth as this crisis like all previous crises is overcome, then Britain will continue to recover and, among other things, the kelpies in the Falklands can sleep soundly at night.

Published on December 24, 2011 3:25 pm
  • http://thespiritofman.blogspot.com Winston

    I certainly hope they can deliver. But with what aircraft carrier? What ground troops? The last time the UK fought a war independently of any allies was the one in 1982 against the same adversary over the same territory. The current British military is not even half the shadow of its former self. I hope they can stand up to Argies and their bullying but I doubt they will. Especially now that a pro-Argentina president is in the White House.

    God save the Queen…

    (Disclaimer: I am a loyal subject of Her Majesty in Canada)

  • James Bennett

    It’s not clear the separation of Scotland would weaken England. Scotland is now highly dependent on its state sector and a drain on the British treasury. It also drives British politics well to the left, impeding the “doubling down” strategy on the market economy you accurately describe. Shale gas finds in England have the potential to make up for any losses of the North Sea oil fields, of which England would still own a part in any event. Finally, an independent England would probably exit the EU sooner than an intact UK would, which is highly likely in any event as the EU centralizes further. The earlier England departs, the sooner they can begin strengthening their alternative economic ties, and the more money they’ll save on EU dues and bailouts.

    As for the Falklands, although they have fewer ships and planes than in 1982, they have more capabilities in other ways. They are no longer dependent on the US for satellite imagery, and are less likely to be taken by surprise. They have highly accurate submarine-launched cruise missiles and other precision-guided weapons that didn’t exist in the first war. The Argentine military has also been greatly weakened by the economic crises of the past decade. It would be indiscreet of them to presume too much.

  • SC Mike

    To expand a bit on Winston’s concerns, the Royal Navy can support only helicopters from the ships it now has. Its last remaining aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, lost its ability to support fixed-wing aircraft when the Harrier force was axed over a year ago now. The ship itself will be deactivated by mid-decade, four to five years before a new carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth is commissioned in 2020 or so and begins service with some version of the F35.

    Now it is logical that if one has no carrier-based fixed wing aircraft, one does not need a carrier. The problem is that fixed-wing aircraft, specifically attack/fighters and bombers, would probably be essential in mounting an effective defense of the Falklands.

    The 1982 war lasted only 74 days, but stressed British capabilities close to the breaking point. While training and morale of Brit forces is conceivably better today, there are fewer on active duty and they’ve less materiel.

    Would the U.S. today offer the material support to Britain it provided in 1982? That’s the big question and I fear what the answer might be.

  • Lexington Green

    The British have seven nuclear powered fleet carriers.

    If the Argentines looked serious about attacking, the Brits could announce that they were deploying submarines to the theatre. An invasion force would be decimated by torpedoes. The Argentine mainland could be attacked with cruise missiles. If the British can retain some of their traditional ruthlessness they can face down this threat, or impose shocking, bloody harm to defeat it. But, yes, they need a bigger and better Navy. Drake, Jervis, Nelson, Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty, Pound and Cunningham are glaring down from Valhalla. Where is the Royal Navy they left to those who came after? Shame.

  • Mick The Reactionary

    WRM wrote:

    “These are some large commitments from a country that ranks toward the bottom of the top tier of European economies”

    Accordingly to CIA World Factbook,

    (www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2001rank.html?countryName=United%20Kingdom&countryCode=uk&regionCode=eur&rank=8#uk)

    UK has 7th largest economy in the world with GDP (PPP based?) of $2.173 Trillion.

    In EU only Germany’s economy with $3T is larger.

    In Europe, UK is in third place, with Russian econ also larger due to high oil prices and general government fraud.

    Unless “top tier of Euro economies” consists of De, Ru and Uk, Dr Mead statement makes no sense.

  • http://thespiritofman.blogspot.com Winston

    #4
    Where did you get 7 fleet carriers? You meant their nuclear powered submarines?

  • Lexington Green

    Oh blast! Yes, of course, my typo: I meant Britain’s seven fleet submarines.

    That is what I get for commenting by phone amidst much hubbub on Christmas Eve.

  • Mike James

    “African political and economic magnates”

    That’s a very kind way to refer to the winners of the most recent tribal massacres in any given African country.

  • ccoffer

    Defiant? Owning your own [...] country is now defiant? Are the police “defiant” in arresting thieves?

    Please.

  • TS

    Lex, I thought the typo was that you intended to say 11, not seven carriers.:) After all, if Argentina attacks the Falkland’s, can’t England invoke the NATO charter and de-facto being U.S. carriers to bear on the Argentine Navy? We did the same after 9-11 to bring NATO into Afghanistan. Turnabout is fair play, yes?

  • Mike Gordon

    In the Falklands War, Britain received more than a little help from the U.S., mostly in the form intelligence gathered by satellite. I doubt the Obama administration would lift a finger to help Britain today and may more likely side with Argentina.

  • Jim Woodward

    For a good read try “One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander” by Admiral Sandy Woodward with Patrick Robinson, foreword by The Rt. Hon. Margaret Thatcher. Harper Collins, 1992.

  • asdf

    This entire conversation would be entirely academic if the Obama administration hadn’t, out of the blue, demanded that the whole dispute be re-opened and subjected to an international conference. It was part of their chain of anti-England snubs, which still hasn’t been adequately explained.

    Not that a war between two putative US allies was what Obama had in mind. But then what DID he have in mind? A pique of anger at steadfast British support of the US war in Iraq? An attempt to mend fences with France and Germany by snubbing their EU rival? Political calculation to win support of liberals at home? A signal of a major shift away from our alliances?

  • John Stephens

    It would be unwise of Britain to count on any effective assistance from the US so long as Barack Obama is President.

  • mockmook

    “austerity budget”

    Was the budget actually cut? I doubt it.

  • Locomotive Breath

    What’s different this time is that Obama would probably help the Argentines as Reagan helped the Brits. That would almost certainly swing the balance the other way.

  • gringojay

    Lived in Argentina late 1980′s – Buenos Aires is crucially a port. UK submarines off their eastern coast declaring it a no-go war zone would make it too dangerous for exporting. No insurers will cover any freighters to run that blockade. Bombing the commercial transportation links out to northern neighbor Uruguayan port & the lesser links over Andes to western Chilean ports is possible for missiles to do.
    If the Falklands were occupied by Argentinian troops the islanders would probably be hostages until the mainland economy & infrastructure was systematically wrecked. Many of the people of Argentina are of European ancestry & the indigenous have other gripes; but all have already seen h is not causing the government to relent.

  • willis

    “Especially now that a pro-Argentina president is in the White House.”

    Well, not really. Obama is just anti-America, and probably anti-UK, but not pro-Argentina. In such a war, he would probably stay on the sidelines. I believe the British subs would make the difference and Great Britain would prevail. In the meantime, I think focusing on strengthening capitalism will benefit the British more than strengthening their wellfare programs. The more they grow such programs, the more they grow the number of people dependent on them. Sadly, we’ve learned nothing from Great Britain’s experience in this arena and are having to experience the destructive effects of socialism to one’s country for ourselves. As the great Sir Winston Churchill said of the US: Americans will always do the right thing, after they have exhausted all alternatives.

  • gringojay

    Lived in Argentina late 1980′s & devaluation of the peso against hard currencies regularly happened while waiting in line to change money. Power brown-outs were hours long daily & the people already know economic hardship is miserable.
    Buenos Aires is crucially a port aside from a huge population center – everyone calls them “Portenos”. UK submarines off the entire Argentine eastern coast declaring it a no-go war zone would make it too dangerous for exporting. No insurers will cover any freighters to run that blockade or enter mined waters.
    Bombing the commercial transportation links out to northern neighbor Uruguayan port & the lesser links over Andes to western Chilean ports is possible for missiles to do. Other export routes would be to landlocked countries & Argentina’s reliable product is foods, which entails moving bulk volume.
    If the Falklands were occupied by Argentinian troops the islanders would probably be stuck as hostages until the mainland economy & infrastructure was systematically wrecked. The poor Argentinians would get to eat better in the interim with all that food staying in the country.

  • ParisParamus

    However diminished the UK’s forces are, can’t they pre-station military on the Falklands? Wasn’t at least part of the problem last time the surprise aspect of the attack?

  • Tom The Friendly Ghost

    I don’t understand why people are puzzled by Obama’s dislike of the British. His grandfather was held for two years during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and according to the family was tortured daily. If you heard stories like that growing up, you might take some action against the UK if you ever got the chance. Obama has the chance and he is taking advantage of it.

  • http://blog-in-the-box.blogspot.com Orion

    I’m sorry, there is simply nothing the UK could do to prevent an Argentine invasion, nor to retake them if one occurred.

    You no longer have the long rang air assets, naval air strike assets, transport, troops, supplies (how many missiles and bombs do you have left after Libya? THAT little effort pretty much exhausted your supplies), logistics capabilities, etc. Argentina would end up with the four Typhoons that you’ve got stuck down there as well.

    The Falklands are Argentina’s for the taking. The US will, if anything, likely cheer them on while pressing for a ‘civilized’ solution involving the UK negotiating them away afterwards. My worry would be not “Will the US help us?” so much as “How much assistance will the US provide Argentina?”

    Orion

  • Robert Schwalbaum

    Can there be aby greater comparative analysis in thios curent situation than to comapre just exactly who is sitting in the oval office.
    Then.. Reagan with a very strong affection for Maggie and Vice V
    Bow.. Cameron who probably has not passed two words with the current occupant.. who can only be described as the antithesis of Reagan

  • Peeler7

    The last time Argentina invaded Las Malvina’s was precisely because the president was diverting attention from a major economic crises in Argentina, much like is being created today. Don’t underestimate the stupidity of the leaders there. They just might try it again if things get worse. But, like before, will not succeed

  • avidus

    I will suggest it is not a matter of capabilities but will. If Argentina was to send a “Peace Flotilla” of civilian ships loaded with marines towards Port Stanley would PM Cameron order them destroyed? If Are gentian transport aircraft loaded with paras began to breach Falklands airspace would PM Cameron order them shot down? And if both the Argentinian marines and paras both successfully landed and overwhelmed the garrison, would PM Cameron be able to muster enough support in the house to even approve offensive operations to retake the islands?

    I do not know the answer. But we have repeatedly seen that PM Cameron is rarely one to take and stick with a difficult stand. The recent use of his EU “veto” is a case in point as it changes almost nothing other than ensure his fingerprints won’t be on any anti-financial measures. Would he be able to keep his Lib-Dem/Conservative government together, let alone build consensus support? Would the population support the measures required? Would he be able to bring the media around? What would he do if the EU was against him, which as Britain would be tarred as the colonial power is not outside the realm of possibility.

    Britain has a leader whose entire career is based upon rhetoric not results. It has an armed forces at its weakest level in decades. It has a population weakened in moral spirit. It has a virulently anti everything media. And finally it has traditionally allies who are anything but.

    It will do us all good to remember that everyone said the same thing about Argentina’s military junta’s Falklands rhetoric that they know say about their PM’s.

    We know the result of that.

  • SC Mike

    # 15 – The budget really was cut big-time, especially defense. The Brits even cut up several (4?) Nimrod MRA4 aircraft that were under construction, turning a $4B investment in defense into scrap.

    As a maritime patrol and attack aircraft, the Nimrod’s role is somewhat relevant to the threats against the Falklands, not to mention protection of the Queen back home… When a Brit sub fired 12 cruise missiles in the Libyan campaign, that represented 20% of its cruise missile inventory according to one report.

    I fear Orion (#20) is correct. The only good news for Britain is that Argentina’s president was recently re-elected and may not perceive any sort of political benefit for a takeover attempt now. So why bother with the expense of cruise missiles, aircraft carriers capable of support fixed-wing aircraft, etc.?

  • JohnJay60

    So Cameron announces he’d like a constructive relationship with Argentina – and Obama says he’d like closer relations with Argentina.

    what can we conclude from these statements?

    Confronted with these nearly-identical statements, many of the posters in this comments section conclude that (1) Cameron is strong and heroic and (2) Obama is anti-UK. This reflexive attack on a perceived political enemy leads only to logical contradictions and extraordinarily bad policy. In a round-about way, it seems that anti-Obama hatred in this thread is designed to cause harm to clear thinking and thus harm to the UK.

  • Estragon

    If both sides were smart, they’d look into something like the Aland Islands solution, which prevented a potential conflict between Finland and Sweden in the 1920s.

    Something like: Argentina gets to hoist its flag over the islands and be the official owner, while local self-gov’t and the English language are respected in the islands themselves. UK companies could get preferential deals on any resource discoveries in the area.

    Maybe or maybe not an optimal solution – but a lot better than having to keep paying and saber-rattling to defend a few rocky islands 1000s of miles away. (Borges’ description of the 1982 war: “two bald men fighting over a comb.”)

  • Rick

    Argentina would do well to recall the body bags of 1982.

    They sent many conscripts, children at that, to fight seasoned warriors, well equipped and seeking to free the people who have lived on the Falkands for six generations from the tyranny and imperialism of a dying Argentine dictatorship.

    Do not underestimate the public support our government has over this and never underestimate the fighting capabilities of the British, with or without a fleet of carriers, we pack a punch.

  • Pablo Battisti

    Almost all of the British side comments published get on the war and military options. Nobody like to remember that Great Britain has no legal rights at all over the Malvinas, and thats why it refuses to discuss over sovereignity with the “Argies”.

  • Harold

    Once the Argies and their Brazilian/Venezuelan/other allies come ashore and overpower the local Brit forces, Las Malvinas will belong to the Argies forever. They cannot be recaptured without control of the air, and the Brits no longer have capability to project air forces, once that handful of aircraft are neutralized, and the islands taken. The Argies will reinforce by air transport, despite Brit submarines, which they’ll just fly over.

    So the Brits are gonna bomb the Argie mainland? With what? Spitballs? And they wouldn’t do it if they could.

    Cameron’s currently paying tribute to the Argies, through various means, which can only be visible in the balance of payments between countries, as they’re camoflaged well. He’s going to have to raise his monthly protection payoff, now. If we see another fiscal crash in South America, goodbye Falklands.

  • gringojay

    2008 Argentina nationalized private pensions & still the placation subsidies = >4% of GDP. The negative current-account deficit entails inflation (officially 10% but deemed >20%. Invented rules to stymie capital flight into hard currency presage devaluations that menace rising prices on daily necessities.
    Talk of conquering the Falklands is a political circus distraction. I was in Argentina in 1987 & most urbanites tried to ignore their ’82 lost war some generals got them into.
    The governing party knows it risks falling from power in a prolonged methodical war of attrition. British special forces without any allied troops cab progressively cripple the mainland’s economic infrastructure while submarine missiles are destroying military & naval assets.
    Argentina couldn’t punch back hard enough directly to the UK heartland to stop the successive batches of missiles ordered up from being used sequentially on them. Due to the potential energy resources off the Falklands any war will make economic sense to endure until the UK wins again – early prisoners & casualties would deserve our sympathy.

  • Robin

    To all those who said above that Obama is anti-American, they are correct. His actions towards Britain have much less to do with Britain than it does with the desire and goal of some people here in the States who seek to “fundamentally transform America”. Part of that transformation involves alienating our traditional allies.

    There are many people here who would choose to stand loyal with those allies. I just don’t know what it will actually be within our means to succeed in doing to be of assistance in this case.

  • petras

    Posters have missed the significant strengthening of air defenses established AFTER the Falklands War at RAF Mt Pleasant Airbase. Really from 0 to strong.

    Flights of Eurofighter Typhoons since 2009 are also supported by Lockheed Hercules C.1s and (since 1996) Vickers VC10 C.1s equipped for aerial refuelling, transport, search and rescue and maritime patrol.

    The Typhoon is the latest generation of multi-role combat aircraft that compares favourably with the best Russian SU model and the top American F22 Raptor. Rated better than F14, F15 and F16s currently deployed around the world.

    The Argentine Air Force ? 8 aging Su-29s, ~30 old Mirages. No match for even a handful of Typhoons.

  • Eric

    I should point out that a big part of the reason for why the Falklands were taken, last time, was PRECISELY the same situation – to distract the public from a horrific economic situation.

    History teaches that this does NOT make it in any way less likely. If anything, it makes a potential repeat more so.

    There are many other factors involved, of course, but saying that’s a reason they would be dissuaded is the complete opposite to what took place.

  • Asbo604

    Well we (the Brits) have actually fought in Sierra Leone in 2002 without any assistance other then local forces.
    As for a Falklands war in future, some comments are correct, if it came down to numbers, Stalingrad style, then Argentina plus allies would win hands down. Other scenarios are less certain due to various treaties and pacts etc.
    Ultimately Argentina has about as much claim as we do to the original 13 colonies, or more similar, Hawaii.
    Its sad because traditionally Argentina and Britain have been quite close.
    Also with major Argentine politicians such as KIRCHNER and TIMMERMAN, you have to wonder what their grandparents did in WW2, not exactly latino names huh?

    P.S I would swap the islands, plus oil for half or the Argentine women from Bailando Por Un Sueno any day.