NATCHITOCHES, La., April 16, 2012 — President Obama today affirmed American neutrality in the dispute between Argentina and England over the Falkland Islands. In the process, he made clear that the “special relationship” between the UK and the United States is not very special.
Obama’s comments were made during a speech in Cartagena, Colombia, at the Summit of the Americas. It was delivered in English, but Obama chose to refer to the disputed islands by their Spanish name – the Malvinas. Argentina has insisted that the islands should always be referred to as “the Malvinas,” while the British have been adamant about calling them “the Falklands.” Obama’s choice of “Malvinas” was a slap at the UK. Instead of feeling slapped, though, the British might be amused: He called them “the Maldives.”
The Maldives are a group of Islands off the coast of India, half a world away from the Falklands. The story for people who enjoy presidential gaffes is that Obama got the wrong islands in the wrong ocean, but because Obama is so clearly brilliant, we’ll just file this away as an anomaly, along with the extra states. The real story is that he wanted to call them “the Malvinas” in the first place. It puts the British on notice that if push comes to shove, they might expect us to be as neutral as France.
During the 1982 war between the UK and Argentina over the Falklands, America supported the UK. Our support was not initially strong or enthusiastic, but the relationship between the two countries, and between President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, made it a forgone conclusion that we would not remain neutral. The Argentines were furious, but their government was politically weak. The invasion of the Falklands was probably meant to divert public attention from that fact, and the British victory helped accelerate the collapse of military rule.
Most of Latin America openly backed Argentina in the war, as did Libya. France officially backed the UK, but French technical crews remained in Argentina. According to the French government, they stayed only to gather intelligence, but they took time off from intelligence gathering to help find and fix problems with Argentina’s French-made Exocet missiles, one of which was used to sink the destroyer HMS Sheffield.
President Obama might make the British better appreciate friends like the French. The British attitude toward Obama might well be described as “neutral.” The Administration has affirmed the nature of the special relationship, and it has declined to support Argentina’s claim on the Falklands, but Obama is much less interested in treating the UK as special than Reagan was.
In the grand scheme of things, calling the Falklands “the Malvinas” is small. It recognizes a cold reality, that the US needs the UK much less than it did during the Cold War, and there are gains to be had from warming up to Latin America. Venezuela’s President Chavez is sick with cancer, new leadership in Brazil has responded to American overtures to heal rifts that grew under former President da Silva (“Lula”), and hemispheric trade surpasses trade with Europe. If calling a few insignificant islands the Maldives (umm, Malvinas) will help cement relationships, why not?
Perhaps “why not” comes down to a matter of principle. The Falklands are small, they’re thousands of miles from London, and they’re in the middle of the south Atlantic. They are sparsely populated, but they’re populated with over 3,000 British subjects who wish to remain so.
They have a fair claim to stay. The first permanent settlements on the islands were French (1764) and British (1766), and while the history of British and Spanish claims and counter-claims goes back more than 200 years, the British presence has been uninterrupted since 1834. It would be more cost effective to pay every islander a generous life-time pension and move them all back to England, Scotland, or the Outer Hebrides if that would feel more like home, than to fight another war.
If anyone wanted to take St. Lawrence Island from the US, it would be a cause for war. It would say something negative about us if we simply gave it up and paid its citizens to move to Nome, even if that were supremely rational. Principles aren’t always rational, and what’s at stake in the Falklands is only principle, nothing else. President Obama is an uncommonly rational man, and he calculates political costs and benefits like a machine. “Malvinas” is part of a calculation. America’s friends, special friends, and enemies should all take note.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He has French friends, but unlike England’s French friends, they’ve never helped anyone shoot at him. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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