The Falkland Malvinas Conflict
The Falkland-Malvinas Conflict (March-June 1982)
President Reagan once referred to the Falklands/Malvinas as “That little ice-cold bunch of land down there”1. Indeed, the Falklands/Malvinas islands is an archipelago of approximately 200 islands located 480 km northeast of the southern tip of South America. In March 1982, the archipelago accounted to a population of 1,800 settlers, 658,000 sheep and several million penguins. By all accounts, it is difficult to see how the Falklands/Malvinas islands are worth fighting for. And still, on April 1982 Argentine invaded the Falklands/Malvinas islands, thus touching off a conflict that seemed strangely out of place in the modern world and that would result in 700 Argentine fatalities, 250 British deaths and the eventual overthrow of the military Junta in Buenos Aires.
Because of the apparent unimportance of the Malvinas Islands, many scholars have analysed the war within the scope of “diversionary war” theory, arguing that Argentinean and British actions were an effort to divert public attention away from domestic troubles. The purpose of this paper is to challenge this orthodox interpretation by analysing the conflict from a realist and “two level” perspective. The first part of the essay provides a conceptual set outlining the theoretical framework of realist and two-level theories. The second part will address the issue of what ignited the crisis over the islands 2; and the final section, centred on V. Gamba-Stonehouse’s discussion of the interaction between states, will answer why this crisis escalated into open warfare.
I/ Theoretical support
The core of the realist theory of international relations is based on the notion that the defining characteristic of international relations is anarchy3; in other words, there is no institution in the international system that possess a monopoly of force able to coerce disputing parties to accept a settlement as the state does in the case of domestic politics. This condition has several important consequences for international relations.
First, the lack of an overarching authority means that the disputes between nations are resolved either by the states willingness to reach a “rational” settlement or by the states resorting to the use of force to resolve their divergences. Moreover, states will be more likely to go for open warfare if a perceived imbalance of threat exists4. In such a case the stronger state may believe that the costs of armed conflict are outweighed by the spoils of victory, or the weaker state may believe that armed conflict is necessary to reduce the disparity between the states. Second, states will exhibit balancing behaviour in their efforts to minimize the threat to their security. Balancing occurs when “states form alliances in order to prevent stronger powers from dominating them”5. The objective of balancing behaviour is to form a strong enough coalition to deter the threat from attacking. Interestingly enough, balancing behaviour may sometimes undermine the security of states involved in a given conflict. This is an extension of the security dilemma, whereby each state’s pursuit of greater security (in this case by forming alliances) drives its neighbours to pursue similar countervailing policies, the end results in that the states are less secure. The security dilemma occurs because of an endless spiral of balancing; thus the only situation in which balancing behaviour will successfully act as deterrence occurs when one of the two states exhibits bandwagoing behaviour and capitulates 6. Finally, the fundamental oversight of realist theory is that it fails to consider the effect of domestic pressures on international relations7. Especially in a democratic society, where the government is accountable to the population at large, it is influenced by those he represents. Therefore, realist theory is an insufficient explanation for the foreign policy behaviour, because the vast majority of the population does not employ a realist calculus in making foreign policy choices. Thus, even if decisions by policy-making elites are motivated by realists factors, those policy choices must often be justified by some other means: one cannot fully trust the public statement of policy makers because they usually try to dress their actions in the most acceptable garments. Instead, one must mainly rely on inferential analysis and base one’s conclusions on the “feeling that the argument somehow makes sense”8. In turn, the publicly stated justification for given policy choice will often influence the public’s attitude towards subsequent policy decisions and consequently the behaviour of states is more accurately portrayed as a two-level process9.
II/ A Realist Analysis of the Causes and Reasons
In 1820, the independent government of Argentina claimed sovereignty over the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, which had been a Spanish colony since 1766. In early 1833, British forces expelled Argentine settlers and claimed the Islands for Great Britain. It resulted that both countries started arguing on the philosophical lines between two competing conceptions of legitimate entitlement (self determination and historical rights) from which neither side would budge before, during or after the conflict10. For the following one hundred and fifty years, numerous attempts by Buenos Aires and London to negotiate a final settlement to the disposition of the islands ended in deadlock. However, this potential conflict degenerated in an aero-naval confrontation when Argentinean forces invaded the islands and overwhelmed the small British garrison. This basic conflict between competing conceptions of legitimate entitlement was the overwhelming factor conditioning the outbreak of war11. But this can be seen more easily in retrospect, and so it will prove more expedient to concentrate on the proximate causes of the war. This section explores the causes for the Junta’s decision to invade, exploring three crucial relationships involving Argentina-Chile, Argentina-Britain, and Argentina-United States.
Disputes between Argentina and Chile in the Beagle Channel area was the basis for a long-standing rivalry between the nations. In 1978, Argentina’s refusal to accept a decision by the International Court of Justice awarding the disputed territory to Chile almost provoked open warfare between the nations. War was avoided by a “timely offer of mediation from the Vatican” by 198212; yet the Argentinean Junta deployed important numbers of troops in the Southern Cone as the mediation showed signs of complexity, volatility and slowness due mainly in part to the unwillingness of the Junta to foster any compromise. The resulting uncertainty as to the outcome of the dispute with Chile over the Beagle Channel limited the Junta room for maneuver and exacerbated the level of significant implications for Argentina’s security interests13. The “perception of an eventual deadlock in the Vatican mediation, leading to a loss of the contested territory to Chile”14 was a substantial blow to Argentina’s geopolitical interests to control the key exit and entry points to and from the South Atlantic and Antarctic regions, and dominate access to the Strait of Magellan and Cape Horn. Moreover, the Junta felt that its bargaining position regarding the Falkland/Malvinas islands would steadily worsen if Chile consolidated its control over the Beagle Channel territories, because “[o]nce Chile was confirmed in the Channel it could ‘legally’ offer logistics to the Falkland Islands should Argentina cut them off”15. Thus, the potential loss of the territory in the Channel greatly increased Argentina’s geopolitical interests in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, and the prospect of British-Chilean cooperation, possibly through an alliance, gave a sense of urgency to those interests. The ambiguous and unsettled dispute with Chile coupled with the 1959 Antarctic Treaty forbidding any attempt to strengthen Argentina’s presence in the Antarctic Peninsula, Argentina’s only realistic hope of recouping its ‘losses’ rested within the Falklands/Malvinas Islands16. The ‘hard liners’ militaries sought to take advantage of the cultural trait of Argentinean territorial nationalism to foster the idea of a re-possession of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands by any means17. Escude suggests that the Junta benefited from the Argentinean educational system which inculcates the myth of Argentine territorial losses – all Argentines are familiarised with the arguments of Quesada, Alberdi and Sarmiento – so as to rally the population.
Territorial nationalism is a feature of Argentinean political and educational culture as a study by Webley and Cutts comparing the attitudes of 300 British and Argentine boys between the ages of seven and seventeen on the Falklands War demonstrates. What this study suggests is that the educational system plays a prime role in maintaining a national identity that is infused with territory in Argentina18. It follows that territorial socialization that schoolchildren undergo from an early age helped the Junta to shape public opinion about potential territorial conflicts19. The role of public opinion in the development and maintenance of the rivalry between Argentina/Chile and Argentina/Britain confirms Roy’s judgement that official policy and public opinion influence each other reciprocally depending upon the political and social context20. Indeed, at times the public agitated for war between Argentina and Chile, but the leadership failed to some extend to be driven by that impulse21. In contrast the Junta leadership’s impulse lead public opinion towards the impetus of war for territorial recovery and nationalistic claim of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. It results that the relationship between public opinion and policy choices does not conform to either a simple bottom up or top down approach22 thus in line with the argument against a ‘diversionary war’.
Furthermore Argentina’s public perception and media coverage of British attitudes regarding the Falklands/Malvinas was critical in the Junta’s decision of the use of force to achieve its security interests23. Fundamentally, Argentina had received mixed signals from Britain regarding its interests in the islands. On one side, British security policy after WWII, and in particular after the Suez crisis in 1956, was characterised by a general trend of reducing overseas commitments.24 The Defence White Paper of June 1981, which called for the recall of the only British naval presence in the South Atlantic and Antarctic region lent weight to the notion that Britain has little interest in the Falklands/Malvinas. Indeed, this was perceived in Buenos Aires as “a deliberate political gesture, a calculated diminishment of British interest in the Falklands/Malvinas commitment”25. On the other side, ever since 1968, various diplomatic efforts to negotiate a settlement on the islands had been derailed by lobbying from the Falkland Island Committee in Parliament, who insisted that the “wishes of the islanders” be considered26. Hence, by 1982, Argentina was receiving confused signals regarding Britain’s intentions in the islands. This equivocal attitude from the British influenced the Junta’s decision to use force in several ways. First, the Junta believed that Britain’s current policy of “talking for the sake of talking” was caused by a lack of “any countervailing pressure to that of the Falkland Islands lobby”27. Ergo any diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue would be doomed without placing enough pressure on Whitehall to offset the pressure from the lobby. Finally, and most importantly, the overall lack of any substantial British interest in the region led the Junta to conclude that if sufficient pressure was applied – by way of increased diplomatic agitation and/or military operations – Britain would submit to Argentina’s demands28.
Meanwhile, relations with the United States (US) had substantially changed as well.
Under the Carter Administration, the US had taken a policy of “critical detachment” towards Argentina in light of human rights abuses during the “dirty war” against left-wing dissidents. However, under Reagan’s mandate, the US reached out to Argentina in an effort “to reinforce the inter-American system so that the two areas could face jointly the ‘seed of revolution’ in Central America”29. Indeed, Argentina provided military and material assistance to anti-communist efforts in Central America. Thus the rapprochement between Argentina and the US during the Reagan Administration had two significant implications. Primarily, it augmented Argentina’s participation in inter-American affairs, reinforcing the notion of the country as a rising player in the international system, which in turn bolstered the Argentina’s interest in seizing back control of the Falklands/Malvinas Islands. More importantly, Buenos Aires felt that in the event of an Anglo-Argentine standoff regarding the islands, Washington would initially refuse to back one ally over another and take a position of initial neutrality. Finally, the Reagan Administration’s apparently singular focus on the Cold War led Argentina to believe that Washington would not be interested in the dispute and would ultimately acquiesce to the Argentinean position.
Thus, Kurt Dassel’s sweeping assertion that “nothing had changed at the international level of analysis to suggest that 1982 was different from previous years”, ignores the important changes in the balance of power between Argentina and Chile, Argentina’s perception of British interests in the region, and the implications of a newfound alliance between Washington and Buenos Aires. Taken together, the changes in these three relationships gave the Junta the motive, means, and opportunity to pursue military operations in the Falklands/Malvinas Islands.
III/ Escalation: A Two-Level Analysis.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig began a “shuttle diplomacy” after April 2 invasion of the Islands, flying between London and Buenos Aires to meet with the government of the parties involved in an attempt to arrive at a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Meanwhile, British forces were deployed to the region to begin operations to restore British control over the islands. By the end of the month, Haig’s negotiations had failed; on May 2, a British submarine sank the Argentinean vessel General Belgrano, indicating the beginning of open warfare30. This final section examines the reasons why diplomacy failed to resolve the Falklands/Malvinas crisis, inspecting the motives of Argentina, Britain, and the US.
Argentina was unwilling to withdraw from the Islands without achieving its initial objective i.e. reclaiming sovereignty over the territory31. This intransigence can be explained in terms of realists and two-level concerns. From the realist perspective, it was unclear whether Britain would be willing to “go through a military confrontation”32. It was also uncertain what the result of such a confrontation would be; “the true strength of the parties was only going to become apparent in the fighting”33. Thus, because Argentina remained unconvinced that Britain would be willing to fight and win a war over the Falklands/Malvinas, it had no reason to fold and lose any chance for a favourable outcome. The successful invasion of the islands, had “produced a deep popular mobilization” amongst Argentineans, marked by intense feeling of nationalism. As a result, because of popular opinion justified the seizing of the Islands in terms of timeless, immutable notions of justice and national identity, any concessions on the central issue – sovereignty – would have been revolting to the Argentinean people, and would likely have resulted in the ouster of the current regime34. Indeed, “the people pushed the war effort on”35.
Thatcher government in Britain faced a similar situation. First, the specter of appeasement loomed over British consciousness, manifesting itself during parliamentary debates. The all consuming determination of the British not to repeat the mistakes of Munich 1938 helps explain why the Falkland Islands were suddenly held to be of such great strategic importance; As M. Thatcher once said: “Rewarding Argentina’s aggression would send a signal around the world with devastating consequences.” Like the Junta, Whitehall worried that concessions would be unacceptable to the British public, to whom the war had been justified on moral grounds of combating totalitarianism. Thus, British public opinion “demanded military violence in the recovery of the islands”36.
Finally the failure of US neutrality also contributed to the escalation of the conflict. Initially, consideration of alliance commitments (NATO and that of the American Continent) had compelled the US into a position of neutrality37. Nevertheless, despite initial stance of neutrality, realist and two-level considerations ultimately tipped the scales in favour of Britain. The realist debate focused on the damage that siding with a given party would do for American relations with the other. “Latinos” – U.S. officials sympathetic to Argentina – argued that “Argentina… was a valuable supporter in critical areas, most notably in the attempt to undermine Marxist strength in Central America.” 38 “Europeanists” argued that US interest in aiding Britain were stronger for two reasons: firstly, in a strategically zone like the Falklands/Malvinas from which one can control the Detroit of Drake, this is to say the itinerary of Soviet submarines between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, Britain presents itself as a more reliable technological military force; secondly, failure to side Britain would give the credence to the notion that the US was “no longer as reliable partner and allies” as it once was. Recent history suggested that the potential impact of Anglo-American relations could have been disastrous for the US interests39. First, in light of the Suez Crisis – where the US refused to back Britain in the Middle East – and in light of “Western passivity” in the face of Soviet hegemony in the developing world in the past decade – “the alliance itself could have fragmented”40. Further, maintaining the “special relationship” between the US and Britain was all the more important because of the controversy at the time concerning the deployment of American missiles across Europe41. Moreover, London had successfully turned the tide of the US public opinion in its favour portraying the war as a conflict opposing victim and aggressor, or between democracy and dictatorship42.
In contrast with the Beagle Conflict negotiations, the unwillingness (based on realist considerations) and inability (based on domestic constraints) of both Argentina and Britain to make concessions on the critical issue of sovereignty caused the failure of efforts to resolve the issue diplomatically. Moreover, the confluence of international and domestic pressure caused the US to abandon its position of neutrality and openly support Britain. While there are plausible realist explanations for the actions of each party to the negotiations, the pressures of the public opinion at home were decisive in preventing a diplomatic solution to the conflict and escalating the crisis to open warfare43.
This paper tries to distinguish between the causes of the detonator and the causes of escalation of the Falkland/Malvinas conflict, arguing that the detonator – Argentina’s April 2 invasion of the British garrison – was motivated by realist factors, and that the escalation of the conflict to open warfare occurred primarily because of domestic pressures, ideology and states internal goals. In doing so, this essay exposes some difficulties in the “diversionary war” explanation of the Falkland/Malvinas conflict, refuting Dassel’s assertion that realist factors played no preponderant role in the crisis. Instead of directly challenging the “divisionary war” explanation for the Falkland/Malvinas conflict through conceptual and empirical argumentation, this essay merely provides a plausible alternative explanation of the conflict. Because these explanations are not mutually exclusive, it may be that the Falkland/Malvinas War was driven by a confluence of all these factors. Therefore, it is important to note the limitations of this essay’s argument.
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