On being disappointed: Britain, the United States and the Falkland Islands

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee released recently a report on ‘Government foreign policy towards the United States’. It is wide ranging report which addresses many issues and themes pertinent to the so-called special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. While one area discussed was the lack of parliamentary support in August 2013 for a US proposal to launch a military strike against the Syrian regime, another issue was the case of the Falkland Islands. On the 32th anniversary of the Falklands invasion, it makes for interesting for reading.

Titled ‘Case Study – the Falklands’, the Committee conclude that, “We are disappointed that the US Administration fails to give priority to the principle of self-determination in its position on sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. This is particularly so given the way in which the UK allows the US to use two other UK Overseas Territories, Ascension Island and Diego Garcia, for military basing. However, in the spirit of realism which we welcome in the Government, we recognise that the United States’ position in the Western hemisphere gives it particular interests there, and that the issue of the Falklands must take its place among the many other international questions on which the US and UK are engaged”.

As the report records, the Obama administration has been careful to be ‘neutral’ on the question on the disputed ownership of the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). But there have been moments when British ministers have expressed concern about US suggestions that they might play a different kind of role. In March 2010, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that, “And we agree. We would like to see Argentina and the United Kingdom sit down and resolve the issues between them across the table in a peaceful, productive way”. These comments were made at a press conference in Buenos Aires but were thought at the time to be indicative of a shift in US attitudes towards the Islands in favour of Argentina. Some journalists described it as a ‘slap in the face’ to Britain. In June 2010, the issue resurfaced at the Organisation of American States with a resolution calling for Britain and Argentina to negotiate over the future of the Islands, which appeared to enrol the United States in demands that, “REAFFIRMS the need for the Governments of the Argentine Republic and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to resume, as soon as possible, negotiations on the sovereignty dispute, in order to find a peaceful solution to this protracted controversy”. Again UK journalists expressed anxiety that the US-UK relationship in relationship to the Islands was not in rude health.

Since that low point in 2010, there has been a repeated sense of frustration that the US has not offered more unequivocal support for its European and NATO ally. After the 2013 referendum, which witnessed over 99% of eligible Islanders registering their support for the continuation of the political status quo, a State Department spokesman noted, “The residents have clearly expressed their preference for a continued relationship with the United Kingdom. That said, we obviously recognize that there are competing claims. Our formal position has not changed. We recognize the de facto UK administration of the islands, but we take no position on sovereignty claims.”

All of which might appear frustrating but not surprising given the role of the US as a hemispheric power eager to maintain good relations with key South American states such as Argentina and Chile. What perhaps does catch the eye is the Foreign Affairs Committee’s reference to two other UK overseas territories – Ascension and Diego Garcia. Both islands have been important sites of US power projection and intelligence gathering. The US-UK agreement governing Diego Garcia (British Indian Ocean Territory) is scheduled for review in 2016 (the renewal negotiations are set to start this year) and has remained controversial (for a review of David Vine’s Island of Shame) for decades after the removal of local populations in the 1960s and 1970s. On Ascension, the US and UK have an agreement allowing flights to land to and from the UK and the Falklands as well as facilitating US flights to Patrick Air Force base in Florida.

In a White Paper on the UK Overseas Territories (2012), the two territories (Ascension and British Indian Ocean Territory) were described as follows – “The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) hosts a US base at Diego Garcia which facilitates Allied operations across the Middle East and South Asia. Wideawake Airfield on Ascension played a crucial part in the Falkland Islands conflict in 1982 and continues to offer vital support as part of the air bridge to the Islands. Our Overseas Territories give Britain a global strategic reach in support of our international objectives”. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the White Paper did not dwell on whether UK support for US-based operations in these territories might provide further leverage when it came to countering Argentine pressure over a more southerly overseas territory, namely the Falkland Islands. The air bridge between the Falklands, Ascension and the UK is critical to the military protection of Britain’s South Atlantic portfolio and there is a possibility that post-Afghanistan additional UK military assets might play a large role in the South Atlantic and Antarctic theatre.

Expressions of ‘disappointment’ have been a regular feature of UK and Argentine political leaders when it comes to the disputed islands of the Falklands/Malvinas. While US military, intelligence and diplomatic support was critical to the UK during the 1982 conflict, the US has been careful not to be too supportive of either side in this long running sovereignty dispute. And there is no reason to think that this will fundamentally change.





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