Twenty Years On
The nature of friendship: Britain, America and Argentina during the Falklands War
When, twenty years ago, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands – subjecting their British inhabitants to the severest tyranny imaginable (they made them drive on the right hand side of the road) – many Reagan administration officials found themselves in the rare position of agreeing with Mario Vargas Llosa, in that they too felt surely this war was akin to ‘two bald men arguing over a comb’? And these were the ones favourable to Britain. On the evening of the invasion, Jeane Kirkpatrick, then US ambassador to the UN, cheerfully went off to dinner at the Argentine embassy in Washington. As Sir John Nott, Britain’s defence secretary during the war, has just concluded in his autobiography:
The United States [...] did not wish to choose between Britain and their interests in Latin America. Indeed, apart from [Casper] Weinberger and the Pentagon, the Americans were very, very far from being on our side.
And why should they have been, what was it to them? By examining the ‘dance of diplomacy’ that went on in April 1982, where the US continuously sought to bring Britain to accept a solution short of the pre-war status quo, there is one, unambiguous thing to be seen – from the British point of view, no such thing as a special relationship with America exists, inasmuch as that phrase is meant to connote something beneficial for us. An independent British foreign policy is only going to come into being when this is appreciated for the perfectly reasonable truth it is.
Jeane Kirkpatrick had, long before President Reagan made her a cabinet member, well established form on Latin America; her university thesis on Peronism was subsequently published as a book under the appealing title, Leader and Vanguard in Mass Society. More pertinent to her appointment to the UN was a Commentary essay from November 1979 – ‘Dictatorship and Double Standards’ – which dilated on her belief in the difference between ‘authoritarian’ regimes (e.g. the military Junta in Argentina) and ‘totalitarian’ ones (to wit, the Eastern bloc). The latter were bad, but the former had some plus points for Jeane, notably that they were susceptible to ‘liberalising pressures’ [I suspect this means that they were susceptible to something else, much more traditional in form, but we’ll move on], and that they lacked territorial ambitions . . .
Truth to tell, the Falklands War, what with illustrating the intellectual flimsiness of Kirkpatrickism, and in her politically suicidal battle with Secretary of State Al Haig, did the UN ambassador no good at all. It should, however, be noted that she was making a sound enough point when she pushed for neutrality between Britain and Argentina. The Reagan administration had expended a great deal of effort cultivating the new Argentine dictator, general Galtieri, because here at last was a South American leader who would, up to and including with men and arms, fall in behind US policy in the region, with El Salvador being the key issue for people like Kirkpatrick, Vernon Walters and National Security Advisor William Clark. Some readers of antiwar.com may well feel that that that last country doesn’t represent one of the high points of post-war US foreign policy, but the point remains, the duly elected American government had conceived itself as having certain objectives there, and tilting towards Britain during the Falklands was rightly held by the likes of Kirkpatrick as being inimical to them.
Before we turn to what our foremost ally concluded was the right thing to do, it’s worth reflecting on the Falklands War in isolation, as if it had taken place in a world where, to quote Enoch Powell, America’s rulers did not believe that ‘they are authorised, possibly by the deity, to intervene, openly or covertly, in the internal affairs of other countries anywhere in the world’. Or even, for that matter, in the inter-state relations of two foreign states. For, as we’ll see, this near-uniquely is what happened, and though it did so more by chance than anything else, it gives us a glimpse of a world where Washington DC feels able to sleep, and let the world turn without her.
Until Peron Anglo-Argentine relations had been so good that she was regarded, by herself, and by others, as being a kind of ‘6th Dominion’ (alongside Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Newfoundland). A popular saying had it that ‘Argentinians are Italians who speak bad Spanish and aspire to be English’. Carter-era sanctions on the sale of arms had resulted in a happy British filling of the void. The late Guido Di Tello, an admittedly Anglophile Foreign Minister of the old school, tellingly saw, after the war, what the diplomatic significance of the old state of affairs had been: ‘British influence was so great that Argentina was considered part of the British informal empire. [This] enhanced her resistance to the attempts of the US to establish continental hegemony’.
One of the greatest tragedies of the war was that the lingering remnants of this relationship – Buenos Aries was a city made especially congenial to the old Argentine ruling elite, her displaced plantocracy, by cultural institutions such as Harrods, the Hurlingham club and British nannies – were ripped asunder. Yet why had an atavistic nationalist impulse (the desire to ‘recover’ the Falklands) turned into war only some 150 years after it was first contemplated? Obviously the decline of British power is fundamental to the origin of the crisis, but what were the more direct causes?
An unhappy combination between the limp wristed spin the Foreign Office managed to put on top of the reality of British decline, and, the advent in Argentina of an especially untalented military dictatorship, keen to obtain popular legitimacy through external action. In one of those tiny ironies, the Junta was as unpopular as it was in 1981/82 because of the impact of the half-understood monetarist policies they attempted to impose on the Argentine economy. What needs to be put before that, though, is that every Argentine dictatorship since the 60s had made noises at the UN about the Falklands, and that, rather than firmly rebuff these, the British had entered into futile talks about them. British conspiracy theorists, such as the Labour MP Tam Dayell, like to allude darkly to the role Vernon Walters played in one of his frequent ‘non-trips’ to Argentina, in terms of the Junta getting a ‘green light’ to invade, but this rests on a peculiar socialist delusion. Namely that anyone in Washington could have thought that (non-existent) American designs on the Falklands could have been better served through the agency of her Argentine rather than her British client. Far more of a ‘the tart was asking for it’ come-on for successive Argentine regimes was the absence of resistance to their fatuously unreasonable demands (a ‘colonial liberation movement’ where the inhabitants of the colony weren’t allowed to express their viewpoint) by the British themselves.
To jump slightly ahead of our narrative, a key trigger factor in the launching of the war was the Junta’s reading of history. Although flawed in their understanding of international relations, and profoundly ignorant of the outside world, the more acute analysts available to the regime had a subtle enough take on the post-war behaviour of the US. They looked to her actions over both Suez and the Yom Kippur war, and concluded that, were Buenos Aries to instigate a war, America would intervene diplomatically, but, as both those precedents showed, the end result would be to the benefit of the newly created status quo. In this, they were not wrong, as it is precisely what the Reagan administration attempted to do, but they were mistaken, for they had concluded from Suez an immutable law, which, as Thatcher was to show, didn’t actually exist.
Was Britain mute, in her twenty years of talks with Argentina before the war, because she was conscious of an inability to defend the islands? No, every detail published thus far points to British diplomats always thinking it preposterous that Argentina would contemplate military action, not least because, as the war was to show, eventually any successful assault on the Islands would be reversed, and hence there could be no long term gain to a rational Argentine administration. But the very fact of Britain’s military inattention to the islands, screamingly evident to Argentina’s military rulers, served only to encourage them in their work. And why were we naked before the storm? NATO.
Also, our twentieth century economic decline and fall – however, here isn’t the place to consider how fortunate the United States is that there Trades Unions were only legalised in the 30s – but chiefly, our continental commitment being the cornerstone of Britain’s military posture, and that that posture being the end expression of our foreign policy entailed by the primacy of the Atlantic Alliance. In the words of the 1981 Defence Review (hereafter, the Nott Review), the ‘forward defence of the German Federal Republic’ was ‘the forward defence of Britain itself’. Britain’s military capabilities had, quite rightly, dovetailed with her foreign policy objectives from the late 50s onwards. Less happily, her declining economic standing meant that foreign policy goals were readjusted in light of what military resources it was felt the country could afford. The NATO role assigned to the Royal Navy was the ‘Eastlant’ responsibility, which, as you’ll remember from the 1980s, was to keep the sealanes round Europe open, so that troops from America could steam to the continent’s aid in the aftermath of a Soviet invasion.
Now, the thing was, the Russians didn’t really look much as if they were going to do that, but we all accepted that they might, so military resources had to be provided towards meeting that overriding need. In terms of the Navy and British foreign policy, the main implication of this was, what sort of Navy do you have? Do you have one capable of ‘Out of [NATO] Area’ operations but nominally purchased so as to discharge a NATO obligation (in other words, you get twice the bang for your buck by having a ‘dual use’ fleet), or do you just go for the ‘let’s keep the Communists at bay option’? and thereby progressively give up on the military means to back up a foreign policy outside Europe? In the devastating Nott Review, the answer was, the dictates of the Atlantic Alliance – as opposed to the possibility of Britain providing herself with the ability to pursue an independent foreign policy, came first. Hence in 1981 the British government announced that it was divesting itself of: its amphibious capability (e.g. HM ships Fearless and Intrepid, central to the recovery of the Falklands the next year); and large, surface escort vessels – due, laughably, to ‘advances’ in naval doctrine, which held that convoys were an obsolete means of transporting material across the Atlantic – from carriers down to frigates; and investing instead in more nuclear hunter-killer submarines. This, had it been achieved, would have been the end of Britain’s independent ability to project military power.
Now I want to stay clear of the sillier conspiracy theories, but this Thatcherite reassertion of the primacy of the Atlantic Alliance was welcomed by Washington. This, from the perspective of DC, was Britain’s job. If John Nott, the most economically minded defence secretary we have ever had, balanced the books in this fashion, well, at least it was with a view to being able to do the Cold War task America had assigned Britain. Into this stepped general Galtieri: the true saviour of the Royal Navy. The war he started was extremely unwelcome in Washington for all the reasons alluded to above, but there was still a clear choice (the stark invasion of a democratic ally’s territory by a military dictatorship being one of those easier issues)to be made by the US: back Britain or not. Not, it turned out.
April 1982 witnessed the ‘dance of diplomacy’, where Haig self-consciously sought to emulate the shuttle-diplomacy of Kissinger, and flew tens of thousands of miles to prevent the war. Al Haig, a combat veteran, sincerely wanted to, during the window afforded by the progress down the Atlantic of the British taskforce, prevent any war from taking place. However, rather more than simple humanitarian sentiment motivated him: he, and the government he acted for, desired the preservations of the American alliance with both countries, and not see their bilateral bad blood wreck the global interests of the United States. We could jump up and down and say that she, then as now, had grossly misconceived interests, but those were the entirely rational assumptions under which he acted. Did he do so ably? Was he Kissinger redux?
That fighting started suggests at a surface level, patently not, but this obscures the more important failure: was the pose of neutrality, maintained until 30th April, in American interests? Was this (attempting to foist a ‘compromise’ on the imminent combatants) an enterprise sensibly undertaken by the Secretary of State? The American public said no, with every opinion poll showing partiality for Britain running at at least 60%. However, the real reason why Haig was unwise to do what he did lies in what would have happened were he successful, and we see this clearly in what others did at the time.
To cut a long story short, Haig, in the words again of John Nott, ‘gave every assistance to the United Nations and every other mediator – Brazilian, Mexican and the rest to bring about a negotiated settlement, on terms which would have been seen as a surrender in the United Kingdom’. To repeat, Haig was not a bigoted Anglophobe in the fashion of a Kirkpatrick, but an Atlanticist friend of the UK, yet the tilt of his diplomacy that April was to, time after time, present London with schemes whereby, sovereignty of the islands would be shared, the islanders would be offered safe passage to Britain, the taskforce would stop at Ascension, the British would administer the islands under the Argentine flag (or vice versa), an irrevocable timetable would be set for ‘decolonization’ if the Argentines did withdraw, and on and on it went, with the sole discernible fact about the nature of American intervention in two other countries’ war being, ‘you’re all as silly as each other, so you’ll all have to compromise a little bit’.
Whilst they have something of the quality of a sales pitch, the very words of Haig to the Argentinians, when he made his last great effort to convince the Junta to accept his tripartite solution to the islands’ fate (i.e. a commission comprised of Britain, Argentina and America would determine it) should be known to every Conservative British proponent of the ‘special relationship’:
In London I insisted that decisions should be taken by majority during the whole procedure, in order that the United States may be able to bring changes to the islands. Sincerely, I do not believe that either party can obtain all they desire, but we want to be sure of a successful solution. [Falklands – the Secret Plot, Oscar Raul Cardoso & others, 1983]
There, as plain as you like, is the dominant experience of postwar American foreign policy for the poor old American voter: the public, in every measure of their opinion taken, wanted Britain backed, the men who conducted US foreign policy, quite rightly, given the Cold War paradigm they subscribed to, believed America had to do otherwise.
Yet why is this also emblematic of the characteristic foolishness with which so much recent US foreign policy has been imbued? Simply enough: imagine if Haig’s shuttling had been rewarded by the Junta accepting one of his many ‘compromise’ solutions. Then he would have had to take this back to London, and what would have been the consequence of that? only surrender or defiance. Which is were I think history would have taken a very different turn if only the Argentine dictatorship had only been marginally smarter, for if there’s one thing Margaret Thatcher’s not, she’s not an Anthony Eden. This time would have been, Suez: the worm turns.
After the invasion the US declined to impose sanctions on Argentina, and diplomatically entered the fray to the disadvantage of Britain. The Europeans on the other hand, imposed, through the EEC, immediate sanctions (although individual countries like the Irish and the Spanish consistently voted against the UK at the UN), and as for the French! The great revelation in Nott’s biography is that:
In many ways, Mitterrand and the French were our greatest allies. They had supplied the Argentines with Mirage and Super Etendard aircraft in the earlier years; but, as soon as the conflict began, Mitterrand's defence minister got in touch with me to make some of these available so that our Harrier pilots could train against them before setting off for the South Atlantic. The French also supplied us with detailed technical information on the Exocet, showing us how to tamper with the missiles.
A remarkable worldwide operation then ensued to prevent Argentina from buying further Exocets. I authorised agents to pose as bona fide purchasers of equipment on the international market, ensuring that we outbid the Argentines; meanwhile, other agents identified Exocet missiles in various markets and covertly rendered them inoperable.
It was a remarkably successful operation. In spite of strenuous efforts by several countries – particularly Israel and South Africa – to help Argentina, we succeeded in intercepting and preventing the supply of further equipment to the Argentines, who were desperately seeking resupply.
This is not a refrain you will hear from many Eurosceptics, despite it being, as it were, the proof of the pudding: when the two relationships were put to the supreme test, which country came through for us?
I don't doubt for a second that the wily Mitterand, banking on Haig obtaining something from the Junta he could inflict upon the British, was playing his hand long, knowing that the near-inevitable breach that this (the British reaction to any compromise proposals, whether to give in and accept them, or break with the Americans and reject them) would have caused could only but benefit French purposes. There is nothing to gainsay such an approach, however unattractive the pursuit thus of national independence can appear, for who, having seen what Britain gets from alliance with the United States, would opt for that?
PS if you want to see the reward for devotion, I suggest you hop off to National Review Online, where in response to the news that a convicted IRA bomber, who illegally entered the United States, was picked to be Grand Marshall of a St. Patrick’s Day parade (causing some police and firemen to drop out in protest), this econium to the fellow’s upright qualities was run. National Review, in bombed New York, has a good line of abuse for the merest hint of terroristphiliac behaviour anywhere else, brings to mind that line, ‘you’re either with us or you’re against us’. I do wish that more people here would realise that all too many Americans aren’t with us.
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