What are we to make of the confrontation in the South Atlantic? Far from being the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera that some would have it, the Falkland Islands crisis is a deadly serious object lesson in international relations.
Trying to figure out whom to root for has put the left in a quandary: to cheer the British on would be to sanction colonialism and the horrible Margaret Thatcher. Yet to back the right-wing Argentine military government, a regime notorious for torture and the "disappearance" of thousands, would be monstrous. A plague on both houses, then?
Definitely not, for the key lies not in the character of the actors but in the character of their actions. The basic issue involves the legitimacy of force to settle territorial disputes and the principle of self-determination of peoples. In sending its troops (mostly conscripts) to invade the islands on April 2, the Argentine government seized territory where it had no legal jurisdiction. The British government has responded not only with diplomatic and economic pressure but also, justifiably, with force of arms—measured, careful force of arms, to be sure, offering the Argentines ample time to reconsider at every step—but clearcut retaliatory force.
The Economist summed up the rationale—and the necessity—for such action in defense of the rule of law as follows:
No rich or poor country can expect help in resisting armed seizure of disputed territory unless seizure of even such a little piece of real estate as the Falklands is met by determined resistance.…If a democracy is not armed enough or self-confident enough to resist even such small-scale thuggery then democrats must expect thugs to rule.
The Argentines claim, of course, that the Falklands actually belong to them and that the British are merely usurpers. A review of the facts, however, leaves the issue in doubt. The islands were first claimed in 1690 by British seaman John Strong, who named them after Viscount Falkland. The French built a settlement on East Falkland in 1764, the British on West Falkland in 1765, each unaware of the other. The Spanish government bought out the French in 1767, after claiming that the Pope's 1492 division of the New World between Spain and Portugal gave them the Falklands. Until 1774, both Spain and Britain claimed the islands, but in that year the British abandoned their settlements as uneconomical (though without giving up their claim). Spain ruled until 1806, when its governor fled during yet another war. For 10 years the islands were ungoverned, until Argentina declared independence from Spain. The Argentines claimed they had inherited Spanish rights to the islands (which they called the Malvinas) and proceeded to send a governor who remained for 14 years. But the British recaptured the Falklands in 1833, founded a permanent colony of settlers, and have been there ever since. For their part, the Argentines have continued to protest their expulsion by the British.
This tangled history of conquest and reconquest hardly establishes a definitive claim of sovereignty. The British clearly have the stronger case, however, based in part on the longevity of their uninterrupted possession, but primarily on the strong pro-British preference of the islands' approximately 1,800 inhabitants.
The hollowness of Argentina's moral position is underscored by its seizure, along with the Falklands, of South Georgia, 800 miles to the east. Discovered by Captain Cook in 1775, South Georgia has always been in British hands.
No, despite General Galtieri's posturing, it appears that the Falklands and South Georgia were seized primarily for political—not moral—reasons, although the consequences do not seem to have been fully anticipated. Politically, a jingoistic venture is the perfect distraction for a populace fed up with out-of-control inflation, economic stagnation, and the absence of basic political and civil liberties.
As for the charge of British colonialism, the ironic fact is that for the past 10 years the British foreign office has been trying to unload the Falklands, as both an economic drain and an untenable defense burden. The problem has been the unwillingness of the Falkland Islanders (known as "kelpers" for the seaweed that grows offshore) to accept proposed alternatives—which is understandable so long as the British can be looked to for the cost of upholding the islanders' plea to "Keep the Falklands British."
An intriguing aspect of the dispute involves Falkland Islands Co. (FIC), which owns nearly half of all the land in the Falklands and half its 650,000 sheep. FIC was formed in 1852 under a charter from Queen Victoria. Since 1977, FIC has been a tiny subsidiary of Coalite Group, Ltd., a publicly held company with sales over $630 million. Of interest is the offer by an Argentine government-sponsored investment group to buy FIC from its prior owners in 1975 for some $7 million. According to the Wall Street Journal, this nonviolent Argentine takeover attempt was blocked, with aid from the British and Falklands governments, despite indications that the Argentine group would pay almost any price.
Ultimately, any solution of the Falkland crisis must respect the most important sovereignty of all—that of the islanders themselves. Their right to self-determination is fundamental. Yet they have no claim on British taxpayers to continue paying for the islands' defense.
Having shown that Argentine aggression will not be condoned, the British must now use their diplomatic skills to work out some sort of self-government that protects the rights of the islanders, while not bleeding British taxpayers dry. A Hong Kong model, although previously rejected by the islanders, may be the most sensible solution—for example, formal Argentine sovereignty, like China has over Hong Kong, but with long-term British (or islander) lease of the islands' actual territory, to provide for British or islander administration.
The eventual details are not important at this juncture. What is important is that aggression has been countered and the principle of self-determination defended.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Free the Falklands".