The legacy of the Falklands War remains of great interest to some citizens of both the UK and Argentina, and to historians of the Western World who see this tiny conflict as significant in its symbolism. There is certainly sufficient interest on this issue by scholars and journalists, considering there are several hundred books and articles published on the issue from every conceivable perspective. The story still draws emotional reactions among nationalists in Argentina, anti-imperialists throughout the world, nationalists as well as old-style imperialists who believe that Britain did the right thing to reclaim the islands. Those who have recollection or have read about this war know the empirical aspects of it, but they may not agree on the interpretation.
On 2 April 1982, the military dictatorship of Argentina sent forces to the Falklands and South Georgia, prompting the UK to launch an official war to retake the islands by mid-June. The entire affair was televised and it drew attention largely because the Reagan administration was not united on the issue. Those on the State Department side believed that US number one responsibility was to support NATO and its members, while some on the far right argued that the US had an obligation to support the Organization of American States and be faithful to its inter-American Treaty obligations regarding hemispheric solidarity. Ultimately, the US backed the UK, much to the alienation of Latin Americans who once again saw their northern neighbor as a supporter of imperialism.
As much in 1982 as today, Argentina claims that the islands are part of its national sovereign soil and not 'dependent territory', which is tantamount to a colony as far as Argentinians and Latin Americans are concerned. In 1989 the two countries restored normal relations, but the underlying hostility remains, as Argentina uses the Falklands to reminds its citizens of Western imperialism undermining national sovereignty, while in the the UK the conflict is not as significant largely because England prevailed in the war.
Outlining a brief synopsis will help before I point out that this war has many dimensions that include the following:
1. Foreign Politics:
British, US, Argentinian, Latin American, and EU foreign policies with an entangled UN where the US representative was at odds with the US secretary of state Alexander Haig. It was a bold move for British foreign policy to focus on a tiny island mostly of symbolic significance and to go to war against a right-wing military dictatorship that had cooperated with the US. It was even more remarkable to sell the idea to the world that somehow the Argentine government posed a threat to UK national security and to the Falklands.
That China, the USSR, and Spain voted against the UN Security Council Resolution 502 was a reflection of international alliances and interests as well as the absurdity that two Communist countries voted in essence to support a right-wing military dictatorship, and against British imperialism. The rhetoric and UN vote aside, Moscow, Beijing and Madrid did not help Argentina, for it would have meant compromising their interests with both the UK and US.
With US assistance that included military supplies, the UK managed to effectively block Argentina from securing weapons, except from Libya and some minor help from Peru by way of Israel that was only interested in making weapons sales. With the US on its side, the UK had made certain that Argentina and all of Latin America would be taught a lesson about submitting to the Great Powers.
Despite some important economic interests in Lain America, and despite the history of British economic hegemony in Latin America until the Great War, British foreign policy was not concerned with the Western Hemisphere, because it was the US sphere of influence. The 'smallness' of the Falklands War and its manufactured causes seemed absurd, given that the issue was not energy sources and Argentina was not a security threat to anyone.
Yet, three decades later, the war remains deeply ingrained as a matter of 'sovereignty' for many Brits and supporters. For many Argentinians and Latin Americans the war remains one of imperialism. Both sides used the war to stir nationalism, much more so the Argentinians who lost than the Brits who won. Although the conflict is not so significant now, it will not seem so minor if oil is discovered in the area around the Falklands. In this case, one can expect Brazil, now a very strong international player, and the rest of Latin American republics to line up behind Argentina in a way that they have not in the last thirty years.
2. Domestic Politics:
British and Argentinian domestic politics, far more significant than foreign policy. Most wars are a reflection of domestic politics, and they are intended to serve a domestic political agenda and to have people rally around the flag at a time that there is national division. Although London posed the issue as one of national security, it was in essence about securing Tory political preeminence and distracting the citizens of the UK from the economic contraction of the early 1980s and the social program cuts via privatization that Thatcher imposed.
In short, the war was an integral part of 'Thatcherism' at a time that people were stunned by the kind of neo-liberal policies the government was imposing. Strong defense and corporate sector at the expense of social welfare became part of the British bipartisan goal from Thatcher to the present, as it has in much of the Western World. That both the Conservative and Labor parties have followed domestic and foreign policies that are hardly distinguishable in the last thirty years is a tribute to Thatcher and her clever use of foreign policy that reflected a domestic political agenda.
In Argentina's case, the Falklands War erupted at a time that the regime was faced with massive popular opposition owing to repression as well as economic contraction that was sweeping across the Western World. Even the most ardent anti-dictatorship opponents had to reject British intervention, rally around the flag, and denounce Western imperialism. After all, if Communist China and Russia vote in the UN against the UK, why would leftists be generous toward Britain in a case that forces people and nations to one or the other side without any middle ground that appears non-existent. This is the trap that the right-wing set for the centrists and leftists and it worked, although only until the end of the war. Throughout history it is common for a right wing regime to use war as a means of unifying the country and silence dissent. This became true both in Britain and Argentina during the war.
Given Argentina's political history in the last thirty years, nationalism remained strong but in constructive ways as the political class proved in 2001 when the IMF was leading the country toward ruinous neo-liberalism to strengthen foreign finance capital (international capitalism). The response from Argentina was to strengthen national capitalism, no matter the short-term sacrifices that entailed an estimated 45% poverty rate. That Argentina rejected international capitalism under IMF austerity with a prescription for neo-liberal style policies is partly due to its historical experience with Britain and US during the Falklands when it found itself almost completely isolated. Naturally, Argentina has always been unique in Latin America with strong nationalist politics dating back to the 1930s. The Falklands matter only reinforced existing nationalist tendencies.
British and Argentinian military prestige, as well as NATO and OAS politics became part of a larger debate about regional military blocs and the US role in them. Clearly, the prestige of the UK rested on this operation, given that some analysts were not sure of the outcome and what the US would actually do, no matter what the State Department said at the time. That the US Defense Department was helping the UK spoke much louder than rhetoric intended to appease Latin American nationalists who felt the US was betraying its neighbors.
The British insisted that the military operation intended to protect the people in the Falklands and to guarantee self-determination. The threat emanated from the Argentinian invasion staged by the desperate generals. While that was true, there is the question of whether the British invasion itself constituted a protection or a threat to self-determination, of whether the British invasion constituted treaty violation as much as the Argentinian, whether the issue could have been resolved through diplomacy instead of force.
Non-interested parties analyzing the invasion saw a British PM interested in strengthening her position at home and abroad by going to war against a nation that could not possibly prevail in the absence of total or at least partial hemispheric solidarity in which the US would honor its treaty obligations with Latin America.
For its part, the Argentinian military dictatorship placed all hope on the operation, knowing that success meant staying in power and failure entailed a return to elected government. Beyond the prestige factor and obvious strong overtones of nationalism, there was the issue of the globalization of NATO that the US had decided was far more significant that the OAS in order to finish off the USSR and the Communist bloc. This could be one way to interpret Britain's determination to secure the Falklands as a military base, as NATO was gradually converted into an organization securing the imperial interests of its strongest or core members.
4. International Symbolism:
The Cold War was on its last leg when the Falkland War took place and Britain as the most pro-US NATO ally decided to start a war in violation of several treaties that the US had signed with its southern neighbors protecting the Western Hemisphere from extra-continental powers. However, the treaties were signed with the USSR in mind and to be used as a pretext to allow for hemispheric solidarity in case of a Communist threat from outside and within the region. In short, to prevent another Cuba from becoming a reality in the Hemisphere.
The Falklands War was a precedent-setting local war that became the first of a series military interventions directed at non-Communist country in which the UK would be involved - Gulf War, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. In retrospect, the Falkland War makes perfect sense, given that the US supporting the UK would be in the forefront of such operations with its EU junior partners falling in line. In short, the Falkland War was a new type of operation on the part of an old imperialist country to pursue intervention without using the justification of 'Communist threat', but of fighting for freedom and democracy against a Third World dictatorship.
5. Imperialism justified in the name of democracy.
British military intervention with the mission to 'bring democracy' to a country under a dictatorship had a universal appeal in the West. How does an old imperialist country like the UK secure a military base of operations and make its claim in the old 'spheres of influence' sense if the country targeted for attack has right-wing politics?
The Falklands War resulted in increased acceptance of military intervention as a political solution to diplomatic conflict between a great power and a weaker nation, as well as increased acceptance of imperialism on the part of apologists of intervention. No matter the vacuous rhetoric about freedom, democracy, and sovereignty, most people are not blind to the reality of specific interests ranging from political, economic and military. The Falkland Islands may never amount to any conflict in the future and it may never concern the international community again, unless energy hydrocarbons are discovered. At that juncture one should expect the UN to become involved, as it will be very difficult for the UK an d US to convince Russia, China and Latin America not to side with Argentina.