It sometimes feels like the Cameron premiership has so far been a replay of the early Thatcher one what with the cuts, the riots, bust-ups with France, and backbench discontent over the direction of the government. This sense of de jà vu is heightened by tensions over the Falkland Islands a month before the 30th anniversary of the Argentine invasion. One just hopes a bad film isn’t made about an elderly Mr. Cameron thirty years from now…
The perennial debate over the Falklands, like the one over Iran, is typically distorted by a mix of scaremongering, ulterior motives, and simple prejudices. In the last few days, retired military figures have warned that the Islands could not be retaken if they were invaded again, which led to pundits like Nile Gardiner warning that the only way to protect them is to reverse all the defence cuts. That it is virtually impossible for Argentina to retake the Falklands by force is neither here nor there.
As welcome as a rethink of the SDSR would be, there is a less costly way for the Prime Minister to deter Argentine aggression in the South Atlantic, which would also be more precise in achieving its goals than the naïve belief that overwhelming military might guarantees deterrence. The best way to avoid war is to prepare for one and Mr. Cameron should let both Buenos Aires and Washington know that we are. Dispatching HMS Dauntless to the region should be viewed as just the start of things.
If Argentina ever made another attempt at invading the Falklands, stopping it from happening a third time must be one of our key objectives. Given that dislodging them from the Islands in 1982 was not enough to deter them, Britain should expand the war to the Argentine mainland; striking both military and government targets. The point of such an escalation would be to convey to the Argentines that with each invasion attempt they make, our response will be more and more severe.
We should be prepared not only to expand any war with Argentina to the mainland but also to leak that we are prepared to do so. The leak should be that some British military planners are looking at potential targets for us to strike in the event of a conflict. In the subsequent media furore, someone known to have the ear of the Prime Minister should give an interview defending the Ministry of Defence for considering such actions. The implication would be that Mr. Cameron is also seriously considering it.
The interviewee should also use the opportunity to state what would be our main argument in a war with Argentina: that the Falkland Islands are British; that the people are British; and that taking them by force in order to exploit their mineral wealth is just naked colonialism on Buenos Aires’s part.
It is unfortunate but necessary that we will also have to blackmail other countries in the region, as well as our most important ally: the United States. But the point of such blackmail would be to put further pressure on Argentina and so avoid war.
With regard to Latin America, we must convey the message to Argentina’s neighbours “that acceptance of Argentina’s claims to the Falklands is not a risk-free strategy”, as Matt Ince of RUSI has written. If Brazil or Uruguay were anything other than cautiously neutral in any Anglo-Argentine spat then their relationships with the United Kingdom would suffer. As one of the largest investors in the region, we are “not without options and economic clout”. One hopes that this message would result in behind-the-scenes pressure on Buenos Aires to ratchet down its rhetoric over “Las Malvinas”.
The United States has always been wary about British claims to the Falkland Islands and the attitude of the Obama administration seems to be no different from that of the Reagan one thirty years ago. In 1982, U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig pushed hard for a negotiated solution to the conflict. Mr. Haig’s efforts failed because, as he told President Reagan, Margaret Thatcher “has the bit in her teeth, owing to the politics of a unified nation and an angry Parliament, as well as her own convictions about the principles at stake.”
David Cameron is in both a more difficult and a more favourable position vis-à-vis the United States than Mrs. Thatcher was in 1982. He will have to deal with a considerably more capable Secretary of State than Al Haig, but Britain has leverage over the Americans. We should make it clear to the Obama administration that any Argentine attack on the Falklands would result in a unilateral British withdrawal from Afghanistan. This should also be quietly said by a junior minister like Nick Harvey in the House of Commons in response to a planted question.
By pressuring Washington on one of its key security concerns, we will hopefully pressure them into pressuring Buenos Aires to refrain from attacking the Falklands.
I do not believe that war between Argentina and the United Kingdom is likely (I still have some faith in Democratic Peace Theory, despite my reservations), but we can make one even less likely by preparing for it. This does not require ripping up the defence budget, but rather the clever use of hard and soft power to persuade Argentina that the Falklands simply aren’t worth the bother of our crushing response.
Of course, this approach also relies on David Cameron being Otto von Bismarck, which, alas, he isn’t.