The Falkland Islands: Britain vs. Argentina Since the 1700s

Pivotal Disorder, Calm, Haphazard Conflict, and Hegemonic Rivalry — A basic overview of the conflict in the South Atlantic.

I’ve decided to submit essays from my past studies as writing samples. If you would like receive a list of resources, please reach out to me on twitter (@trevormolag) or elsewhere. This essay was from my time at the University of British Columbia. (2014)

The Falkland Islands have a long and bemusing history. For nearly 250 years, the question of whom they belong to has been contested by the nations of Great Britain and Argentina. The Falkland Islands have changed hands between the two nations several times throughout their history, and a unanimous consensus has never been (and may never be) reached in regards to who has a rightful, permanent claim over the territory. The history of the Falkland Islands is split into four distinct periods: one of “pivotal disorder”, one of “calm”, one of “haphazard conflict”, and one of “hegemonic rivalry”; each with their own unique contributions towards — and characterizations of — the entire debate over their sovereignty.

The Falkland Islands’ period of “pivotal disorder” begins with their founding and continues through the seven decades after. If the sovereignty of the Falklands had been less ambiguous throughout this period, it is less likely that question of their possession would continue to be contested today. Indeed, the issue of historical claim to the Falkland Islands is quite complicated, dates back to the eighteenth century, and has had little determining power. There are four countries closely linked to the Falklands in their infancy: Spain, France, Argentina, and the United Kingdom. It is difficult to know with any certainty who should be credited for the discovery of the Falkland Islands. Britain believes that they were the first to land, and among the first to settle; Argentina attributes their discovery to Portugal. At any rate, both Argentina and Great Britain acknowledge that Spain had the strongest presence on the Falklands around 1770, by which time both French and British settlements had been either forcefully expelled (Argentina’s view, as they assert that Britain gave up their claim to the area in the wake of a potential war with the Spanish) or voluntarily abandoned (Great Britain’s view). After 1811, when Spain left the Falkland Islands to attend to the Argentine war of Independence, the territory was largely left untouched until the twentieth century. There were, however, a few short-lived attempts by the Argentinians to appoint a governor or move a settlement to the Falkland Islands on several occasions: 1820 (abandoned after a few days), 1829 (cleared by the United States), and 1832 (cleared by Great Britain). Great Britain assumed responsibility for the administration of the islands after 1833. The minute details of who was where at what time during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are so pivotal in that these contested minutiae form the basis for Argentina’s and Britain’s respected claims to the Islands. If there had been more precise documentation or stronger moves to secure the Falkland Islands by either party in this time period, it is less likely that their sovereignty would be disputed in present day. The era of “pivotal disorder” for the Falklands also characterized the entire dispute in that it is distant, confusing, and perhaps irrelevant — similar to how the entire debate is viewed by many citizens and politicians (moreso British) in each country. While the Falklands are a policy issue, they are one of many. The detached nature, diplomatic complexity, and dubious economic value of the Falklands have certainly not pushed the issue to be closed in the two hundred and fifty years that it has been contested.

The one hundred and fifty years following the assumption of administration over the Falkland Islands by Great Britain in 1833 could be described as the period of “calm” for the Falklands. Indeed, little occurred of major significance in regards to the Falklands sovereignty question. This period, however, still shaped the Falklands debate and characterizes it in several ways. In this century and a half, Great Britain largely ignored a series of official and unofficial protests by the government and people of Argentina. During this time, protests were more of a standard practice than a meaningful exercise. As the British Empire declined in its size and strength in this period, Argentina, perhaps sensing an opportunity for resolution, intensified their appeals to Great Britain and brought the issue to international attention. As the 1960s got closer, Argentina and Britain would slowly make steps toward meeting and actually discussing the issue. Overall, the general attitude of lethargy with which both countries approached the Falklands certainly contributed to and characterize the overall debate. First of all, the long period of time that Great Britain was able to peacefully administer the islands solidifies (in their view) their claim to Falklands. This period was also the period in which the island came to be inhabited by people of British descent, which would have implications for the future of the Falkland Islands debate. Complacency, calm, and the behaviour of the two nations in this period also characterizes the entire Falklands Island dispute in that Great Britain has largely relied on its status as a major world power to draw out the debate — erecting a figurative wall which Argentina has not been able to significantly weaken. While Great Britain has been happy to rest on their world status, Argentina — for the most part — has been forced into a state of acquiescence. Indeed, Argentina has not really been able to make meaningful challenges to Great Britain’s enduring reign over the Islands, except for on one occasion — which took place in the next period of “haphazard conflict”.

By the mid-1960s, the issue of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands had begun to come into sharp focus, though a diplomatic stalemate was hardening at the same time. This marked the very beginning of the period of “haphazard conflict”. In this period, little progress would be made, and both sides were woefully unprepared for a war which neither really wanted, yet both would engage in after a period of sluggish and disingenuous negotiation. In 1964, The UN formally recognized the Falklands as a territory under dispute, and specifically urged Britain and Argentina to “terminate all forms of colonialism” while taking the interests of the Islanders into account. And talks between the two claimants were finally occurring, but at a lethargic pace. Hope for resolution was met by setbacks in the form of lobbies, small acts of military aggression in the area, and an inability to agree on the conditions for sovereignty. Motivation was clearly low to reach a deal that was in any way a compromise, and it seemed as if the preference on both sides, particularly the British, was to drag things out as long as possible. Little progress was made in the decade and a half following Harold Wilson’s election as Prime Minister in 1965, and by 1981 negotiations had reached a frustrating impasse. Britain in particular was faced with a peculiar dilemma which was certainly contributing to this impasse: the Falkland Islands were approaching irrelevancy and not really valuable to them in any way. In fact, economically and diplomatically they may have been more of a liability. Frankly, many officials felt that it made more sense to hand the Islands over to the Argentines, who wanted them badly and were in a better position to govern them. However, there was the matter of the nearly two thousand people of British descent on the Falkland Islands, who in no way wanted to be subject to an Argentine rule which was approaching fascist in nature. The British government needed to support them and their rights as British citizens, especially considering the issue was gaining attention in the United Kingdom. So both nations wanted to claim Falkland Islands, and even though discussions were failing them, there was a growing sense that now had to be the time to do something about it in light of issues at home. In 1981, the governments of Britain and Argentina were starting to face domestic problems, and a distraction may have been needed. Indeed, Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was facing low approval ratings as a result of her economic policies which were not yet improving inflation or unemployment. Besides, her personality and leadership style left little room for soft negotiation tactics. Meanwhile, the Argentine Junta was having their own difficulties with domestic unrest, and the Falklands seemed like a good target for diversionary war on their part.

The Argentine Junta gave a low estimation of Britain’s capacity and willingness to fight for the Falklands. When they eventually attacked, they would aim for a quick, bloodless conflict, sensing that Britain’s motivation to defend their South American assets was waning. Indeed, the British were not well prepared for an attack, and it was highly unlikely that they would be better prepared in the future. A Ministry of Defence official stated in 1981 that “the retaking of the Islands after an Argentine invasion is barely militarily viable and would present formidable problems”; also, a Wing Commander of The Royal Air Force stated their inability and unwillingness to assist in the “implausible task of trying to defend the Falklands”. These statements were made after a defence review which would eventually result in the decommissioning of many British military assets outside of the NATO sphere of interest. Economic difficulties in Britain were also making the prospect of defending the Islands unappealing. Taking these factors into consideration, it may certainly seem as if the Argentine government was not far off in their assessment of Britain’s defenses. Indeed, there was only a small British force on the Islands in 1982 of forty soldiers and one ship, and the initial invasion of the Island did go quite smoothly for the Argentines. The British plan carried out in this event was to merely “offer resistance” in the case of a Falkland invasion — a task described as “a fantasy of Alice in Wonderland proportions”. While at this time it may seem as if Britain was the nation who was disorganised in their preparations for a Falkland Islands conflict, Argentina would prove their own inability to defend the territories before long.

Argentina took the Falkland Islands from Britain with ease on April 2nd 1982. But after military blunders on their own part, the Islands would be retaken from them. After winning a short skirmish and taking the Islands, the Argentine military did not take meaningful defensive measures such as laying sufficient minefields, planning counterattacks, or laying bunkers before British convoys arrived to retake the Islands. This may have been due to Argentina’s miscalculations of Britain’s willingness to retake the territory. Another major blunder made by Argentina was their timing. Their decision to attack the Falklands when they did was poorly timed because of the NATO defense review already mentioned — within a year or two, it is likely that Britain would have decommissioned military resources needed to respond in a meaningful way to a Falklands crisis. Approximately seven weeks after the Argentine attack, however, Britain delivered more than twice as many troops and ships to the Falkland Islands than the Argentines had devoted to defending them. Fighting on the main island of East Falkland lasted three weeks, and the strong British contingent was ultimately able to overcome paltry Argentine defenses without sustaining major casualties. The Argentine military surrendered on June 14, 1982; effectively ending the period of haphazard conflict.

From the mid-1960s through to the end of The Falklands War, the history of the Falklands was certainly characterized by failed and disingenuous diplomacy, as well as blundered military operations by both Britain and Argentina. These missed opportunities and blunders had obvious impact on the ongoing sovereignty dispute over the Falklands, and also characterize the entirety of the dispute. The mistakes made in the war would ultimately result in Britain’s victory, shaping the future for the Islands. Beyond this, the haphazard way in which Britain and Argentina tried to wrest power in the Falklands from one another was a tragic comedy of errors; it was full of miscalculations, slow reactions, and what seems like a lack of willingness by both sides to lay down a firm commitment to sovereignty from the very start. The essence of this period — from the drawn out nature of the negotiations to the bungled military preparations — illustrate the way in which the Falkland Island sovereignty dispute has been, over its entirety, a seemingly interminable and disorganized tit-for-tat affair of international diplomacy and, at times, military force.

In the final period of “hegemonic rivalry”, which has lasted from the end of the Falklands Islands War to the present day, little progress has been made. Indeed, in such a rivalry it is no surprise that a world power such as Great Britain would appear to triumph over the lesser Argentina. After the fall of Argentina’s military government, both countries expressed their interest in restoring relations, but there was a major disconnect — Britain demanded the Falklands remain off the table, while Argentina was only interested in re-establishing relations if the Falklands were a part of the discussion. Britain has established a large military presence on the islands (perhaps learning from their previous mistakes), and, fearing escalations in the South Atlantic, both the United States and Switzerland attempted to bring the countries closer together in the 1980s. While small steps have been made between the countries as a whole since the end of The Falklands Islands War, little, if any, progress has been made on the issue of the Islands themselves. Fishing and oil exploration rights in the waters surrounding the islands have been used by both countries to create red tape for one another’s operations in the area, and have only served to agitate the situation further. Indeed, the period of “hegemonic rivalry” has consisted of many creative tactics by either nation, seeking to influence the rest of the world’s opinion on the matter. These have ranged from statements and visits from politicians, to Argentina’s geographic claim to the continental shelf beneath the islands, to a referendum in the Falklands over their sovereignty in 2013 — in which only three people on the entire Island voted to return to Argentina. It can be expected that any “evidence” of rightful ownership presented by one country will be tossed aside by the other as irrelevant. This leaves little hope for a consensus between the two nations on the matter. As such, the status quo has been maintained, and Britain retains de facto control over the Falklands. The period of “hegemonic rivalry” is still ongoing, and it will likely continue well into the future. This period has shaped the present debate through the events that have taken place over the last forty years; but it also has characterized the debate in its entirety. Not only does the period of “hegemonic rivalry” contain many reflections from other periods (for instance, Britain resting on its status and tit-for-tat diplomacy) — but this period cannot really be described as anything resembling significant progress. Indeed, it is difficult to say that the two nations are any closer to reaching a consensus in 2014 than in 1770.

As it stands, Great Britain claims the Falkland Islands on the right of discovery, as they say that they were the first to land on the Islands (and among the first to settle); in addition to the principles of prescriptive acquisition (their claim to the territory was mostly uncontested and peaceful for over century after 1833) and self-determination (in line with the wishes of the Falkland Islanders themselves). Argentina, meanwhile, primarily claims that the Falkland Islands were won from the Spanish in the Argentine War of Independence (it is uncertain that Spain controlled the Islands at the time of independence, however). In the wake of these disputes, the Falkland Islands are regarded as a British Overseas Territory by Britain, and a part of Argentine national territory by Argentina. The history of the Falkland Islands dispute is split to four distinct periods, each with implications for the future of the dispute over their sovereignty — as well as their own features that characterize the dispute in its entirety. These periods of pivotal disorder, calm, haphazard conflict, and hegemonic rivalry help us identify not only the key events in the Falklands sovereignty dispute, but also the all-encompassing themes of the ongoing affair.