The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The War for Oil… And Squid?

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.

Published on February 4, 2012 4:05 pm
  • Mrs. Davis

    I thought that if they lived in Argentina they were Argentinians and if they lived in The Argentine, they were Argentines. But this all got messed up when The Ukraine became Ukraine but the people remained Ukranians.

    I’ll just keep calling them Argeys.

  • WigWag

    Prime Minister Cameron really is the very model of a modern major general.

  • Eric

    The French colonized the Falkland eastern island in 1764 and the Brits the western island in 1766. The Argentines had a penal colony on the island for 6 whole weeks in 1832 before the Brits kicked them off.

    So if anything the argument should be between the French and the Brits. Argentina’s claim would be equivalent to Occupy Wall Street claiming Zuccotti Park for a new egalitarian republic.

    Get over it guys and gals and do something useful with your lives.

  • Jim.

    Don’t knock the squid, Britain had wars with Iceland over the humble cod in the mid-to-late 20th century… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cod_Wars

    In fact, it makes me wonder if the reason for defending the Falklands immediately after these wars was to show the world that Britain couldn’t be pushed around. (Unless the US was complicit in the pushing.)

  • thibaud

    Light opera? Not really. IIRC, the last time around, an Argentine Exocet sent a few hundred young men to a watery grave, and Britain for its part killed over 600 young Argentine soldiers and sailors.

    Not exactly a joke to the families of nearly a thousand young people who died in the last war.

  • Toni

    “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.”

    Much like Greens who passionately oppose drilling in an Arctic National Wildlife Reserve they’ll never trek to Alaska to visit.

  • WigWag

    It would be interesting to know by what logic the Brits think that residents of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas have the right to chose British sovereignty over Argentine sovereignty while Serbian Orthodox residents of Northern Kosovo (which borders Serbia itself) do not have the right to chose Serbian sovereignty instead of vassalage to the Muslim organized crime families who control Kosovo.

    Similarly it would be interesting to know why Prime Minister Cameron believes that Falkland Islanders have the right to pledge allegiance to the British Crown which is located thousands of miles away while Serbs living in Bosnia should be denied the right to pledge allegiance to Republika Srpska.

    British control of the Falklands is an anachronism but then the entire nation of Great Britain is well on it’s way to becoming an anachronism. The pencil-necked British Prime Minister seems he’ll bent on accelerating the process

  • Jabba the Cat

    @ Mrs. Davis says:
    “I’ll just keep calling them Argeys.”

    The correct short form is Argies, as demonstrated in this Sun newspaper article http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/4018805/Cameron-warns-Argies-Hands-off-the-Falklands.html

  • Walter Grumpius

    The UK had better hold on to the Falklands. The native Britons are gonna need someplace to move to, when the Pakistanis and Africans boot them out of the home islands.

  • M. Report

    When will they ever learn; trade builds ties
    to deter war.

  • Gringo

    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.

    Which reminds me of the Porteño [from Buenos Aires] who was working in a oil field in the subtropical north, 1000 miles north of Buenos Aires. He called the area where he was working “the anus[polite change] of the country.” On another occasion he noted that the people of the provinces didn’t like Porteños [people from Buenos Aires]. Do you think the attitude expressed in his previous statement might have had something to do with the way people from the provinces looked at Porteños? Just wondering.

  • Mike Giles

    WigWag,
    The difference between the Falklands and Kossovo is that the Serbs as opposed to only wanting the North, where the Serbs lived wanted ALL of Kossovo, even the majority Moslem portions. That would be along the lines of Britain claiming a major portion of Argentina because that portion of the country was just onshore from the Falklands.

  • Ethel

    The sun never sets on the horror of the British Empire. The Brits should apologize for their past trespassing and terrorist stripping of others’ lands and leave to to improve their own island.

    And I’m an American who is tired of bailing out/saving Europe.

  • Mark in Texas

    “When will they ever learn; trade builds ties
    to deter war.”

    In 1914 Great Britain and Germany were each other’s largest trading partner. If those ties of trade had not deterred war who knows what horrors might have transpired after Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.

  • JEM

    Oh, dear Ethel, what language are you typing in?

    The British influence has, on balance, been a good one. And if one is going to complain about “terrorist stripping of others’ lands”….that’s a turtles-all-the-way-down issue.

    The Muslims should go back to Medina, the khans back to Mongolia, did the Romans strip the Gauls and the Picts or did the Huns strip the Romans?

    One sometimes tends to think that today we’re watching Will Durant’s wonderful quote – ‘Civilizations are born stoic, but die epicurean’ – play out in real time.

  • Walter Sobchak

    If Argentina wants to take the Falklands back they should do so this year, when the White House is occupied by Ethel’s hero the most anti-British President of our time.

  • http://paterzplace.blogspot.com DonM

    As a member of a country that whipped Britain twice and got good treaties from it, I would say that until you are willing to whip Britain, you don’t have much opportunity to negotiate.

  • http://teapartynews.us David H Dennis

    Darn, Toni, you said exactly what I was going to say – this is the same situation as Americans and ANWR.

    I don’t understand why issues like this should not be left to individual states. My guess is that Florida and California would block drilling, thanks to their tourist industry and reliance on beaches and climate, while Alaska and Texas would say full speed ahead.

    And I think that is how things should be – local control, not Federal.

    D

  • Robert Speirs

    It is idiotic for the Brits to say they will keep the Falklands and Gibraltar “as long as the inhabitants want us to”. Keeping these places is either in the British crown’s interest or it is not. The wishes of the “inhabitants” are irrelevant. Any reference to them is highly disingenuous as well as dangerous, as is consideration of the fate of soldiers fighting for those interests. International policy and democratic politics should be entirely distinct. One or the other must yield.

  • Celebrim

    Ethel: That might well be true of the places where the Brits had gone and forced the local inhabitants to submit to British Rule on penalty of cannon, but the Falklands are not such a place. The Brits and French found them uninhabited, and indeed, probably they had never been inhabited being too desolate to occupy without modern trade and a degree of modern technology. The Brits settled their and have lived their for two centuries. What others’ lands are you talking about? The Brits are quite literally the native inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. It is the Argentines who have repeatedly tried to conquer what was never even theirs. They base their claim to the lands on the Spainish having briefly driven the English from the Islands at a time prior to the nation of Argentina even existing, and the Brits have lived on the islands longer than Argentina has been a country. As for bailing out and saving Europe, America did not support Britain in any way in their prior war with Argentina and indeed Argentine strategy was predicated on the assumption America would (and did) lean on the UK to give up their claim and their people – and that didn’t exactly make for close relations.

  • Pettifogger

    Ethyl says: “The Brits should apologize for their past trespassing and terrorist stripping of others’ lands . . .”

    The Brits have surrendered everything except those places that don’t want to be surrendered. The Falklands are much farther from Argentina than much of the Caribbean, including Cuba, is from us. If Argentina is entitled to the Falklands, are we entitled to a corresponding share of the Caribbean? Why not? Does this principle only work if you’re some economic cesspool that’s removed itself from the First World?

    WigWag asks why “Falkland Islanders have the right to pledge allegiance to the British Crown which is located thousands of miles away while Serbs living in Bosnia should be denied the right to pledge allegiance to Republika Srpska.”

    Because Britain has responsibility for the Falklands and does not for the Serbs. The Burmese do not have constitutional rights. Does that mean that we should not? I see no connection between Serbia and the Falklands. Because a country cannot do everything is not an excuse for doing nothing.

  • Pettifogger

    Ethyl: Following up my point above, if you are OK with economic cesspools controlling things off their shores that the otherwise have no claim to, beware. We’re well on our way to being entitled to much of the Caribbean.

  • gringojay

    1969 in S.America people asked if was Argentinian and thought it compliment until learned that to neighboring people it was like being the southernmost version of “Ugly American”.

  • Ethel

    To #15, JEM:
    Well, yeah, I certainly do think it would be great for humanity if the Muslims returned to Medina and the khans to Mongolia. The Arab Muslims invaded large swaths of North Africa, slaughtered most of the natives while imposing the Muslim religion in the region. A retreat by them and the khans alas, is not about to happen though so let’s learn to minimize the dangers.
    While the British way of life might be fine for well say, Britain it is not great–or the only way–for the rest of the world. Much of the conflict in Africa is caused by the Brits’ deliberate conflicting post colonial boundaries, splitting tribes and regions so the resulting countries would be weak and unable to revolt against the imperial power. The blood is on Britain’s hands.
    I am most certainly not an Obama fan but that’s just the way it is.
    Churchill was such a great statesman that the British electorate rejected him in 1946 after he won the war. So much for the British electorate and their finest hour. In their hearts the Brits prefer a Chamberlain style victory.
    The Falklands are next door to Argentina, not England. And I suppose it is easier for England to occupy them than closer lands and islands such as Ireland, Scotland and/or Wales.
    I don’t have a stake in the game–except I am tired of paying for Europe’s defense. My immediate ancestors fled that bitter, tribal, war torn continent.

  • Blue Hen

    “America did not support Britain in any way in their prior war with Argentina and indeed Argentine strategy was predicated on the assumption America would (and did) lean on the UK to give up their claim and their people – and that didn’t exactly make for close relations.”

    Actually, The United States supplied jet fuel and air-to-air missiles and some intelligence information. Without the missiles, the Harriers ( which were never meant for the air combat role) could not have managed to eke out a degree of control in the air. Let’s all be glad that the Argies never thought to extend the field at Port Stanley; otherwise the UK task force could not have closed with the islands much less conducted operations.

  • TomB


    The Falklands are next door to Argentina, not England. And I suppose it is easier for England to occupy them than closer lands and islands such as Ireland, Scotland and/or Wales.

    Please try to understand this Ethyl, nobody is “occupying the Faulklands”. The vast majority of the people living there are ethnic British. It was the Brits who settled the empty islands. The Argentines have absolutely no valid claim to them. As people have pointed out already, if “closeness” is a claim, the US could claim most of the Caribbean, or maybe Canada?

  • Jim.

    So, does anyone else want to break the bad news to Ethel about Churchill’s opinion of imperialism?

    Anyway, WigWag, could you tell us how members of your tribe reacted when Pompey uttered to them his famous phrase, “Why do you quote laws at us? We have swords.”

    You don’t even need swords sometimes, for that matter. Read WRM’s take on the logic or legality of William of Orange’s ascension to the throne of England.

    Hyper-legalism can be entertaining, sure, but at some point most people just shut up about the rules and play the game.

  • jkl

    America did not support Britain in any way in their prior war with Argentina ??? wrong by far sir. Still today many people is angry at the USA for supporting its Nato ally over the argentinian dictator hanging to the power.
    The President of the USA was Reagan who would never betray the UK or Margaret Tatcher
    Pinochet also supported England as acknowledge by the Iron Lady

  • Tyrone Slothrop

    Ethel–

    You betray a revisionist’s apprehension of history. Wherever the British maintained a colony, they left efficient bureaucratic governments, common law, and a tradition of free trade. Contrast India with Afghanistan, or Kenya with the Congo. To this day, the British recognize inhabitants of former colonies as fellow British subjects. Of course, none of this applies to the Falklands, which, as others have noted, were empty of people when they arrived.

  • Jimmy J.

    Have just returned from a cruise on which one of the stops was the Falklands. They are wind swept, God-forsaken islands with a total population of 2500 people – 90% of whom came from the UK. Sheep ranching is the primary industry, they still use peat (which is found in abundance on the islands) for heat, and when a cruise ship anchors at Stanley, the entire island turns to to show the tourists around. The Falkanders are not well to do. They are hardy, hard-working, and barely make enough to survive. The recent oil find offers the possibility that the islanders may become a tad less impecunious, but they will never thrive economically unless wind and rain become marketable products.

    Why Argentina covets these islands is a mystery to me. Squid and possible oil? Not much benefit to an Argentina that, if they could quit going bankrupt from social spending, has abundant natural resources that made them one of the richest nations in the world back in the early 1900s. But the Argentines have not shown much common economic sense over the last 100 years. Why would they change now?

  • Embra

    Rather than Gibraltar (no longer strategically important – not since the base at Rota opened) I suspect the precedent would be unwelcome in Northern Ireland and Scotland – slightly more important to the UK.

  • john leni madona

    The falkland islands have been under british control long before the formation of argentina as a nation, its inhabitants wish to remain british there for there is no colonial issue, and as a Canadian it all ways makes me smile when americans play off on the american war of independence at how they defeated the british but will not acknowledge or educate themselves on there own colonial past ie THE WAR OF 1812 which I may add was a defeat at the hands of the british and canadian colonials, let’s not be mistaken by the truth as many americans have written on here the uk gave up its empire but look at most of these self governing countries controlled by tin hat generals, poverty stricken countries still relying on western aid, much of which comes from the united kingdom and america I have to admit,

    “IF GOD THEE ALL MIGHTY WANTED THE WORLD EQUAL HE WOULDN’T HAVE GAVE HER ENGLAND”