The burning question: are we heading back to a military conflict with Argentina? My answer is unequivocal. No. This is a very different Argentina. A democracy for 27 years, it weathered the economic and social meltdown in 2001 and 2002 without a thought being given to a return to a military government. The shadow of military dictatorship, so long overhanging Argentine democracy, has been removed.
In the 27 years since Raúl Alfonsín was elected president, all governments have argued that the Falklands – or the Malvinas – are theirs by right, but that they will be “returned” solely by peaceful means. The proof of that is that there has been no significant upgrading of military capability in democratic Argentina. So why the strong reaction now to drilling for oil off the Falklands? After all, there was drilling in the 1990s without causing quite the brouhaha that has been stirred up in recent days.
The explanation is that different democratic governments can assign different priorities and follow different tactics in pursuit of the same policy. Since 2003, first President Nestor Kirchner, and now President Cristina Kirchner have followed a path of pressure very different from the tactics of President Menem in the 1990s. They’ve upped the diplomatic rhetoric in the UN; and that will continue. Foreign minister Jorge Taiana will raise the issue in the next few days at the meeting of the Rio Group of Latin American countries and in his meeting with the UN secretary general.
Every opportunity has been taken to put the islands on the bilateral Argentine-UK agenda. Nestor Kirchner’s first overseas visit was to London, where he unsuccessfully tried to engage Tony Blair in a discussion of sovereignty. During the Kirchner years there have been numerous diplomatic protests, with successive British ambassadors being called in to receive protests at the Argentine foreign ministry in Buenos Aires. The ministry’s line, repeated by the deputy foreign minister a few days ago, is that normal relations with the UK are difficult without reopening negotiations over the sovereignty of the islands.
That’s not all. In pursuing a policy of pressure this government has in effect ended co-operation on fishing with the Falklands and the UK. And in 2007 it unilaterally denounced an agreement with the UK over oil exploration in an area separate from that where drilling will now commence.
Set against this background the latest moves are unwelcome, but some sort of protest was not entirely unexpected. One would have to be a very great optimist to believe that the attitude of the Kirchner government will change. The president and her husband are not about to change their mind-set.
Even if there is a change of government in 2011, the policy of “Las Islas Malvinas son Argentinas” won’t change. Whether the priority assigned to the issue and the tactics employed by a new government will remain the same is very much an open question.
Meanwhile the British government and the Falklands are correct in asserting the islanders’ right to self-determination and the right to develop their own resources. It is unfortunate that oil exploration could not have been developed in a context where mutual collaboration already existed and was strengthened thereby, not further weakened. For collaboration and mutual confidence-building would surely be in both sides’ interests in the South Atlantic.
This flurry will have reminded the Argentine government of British bipartisan commitment to the Falklands. There may be further difficulties over oil exploration; but there will not be a war.
John Hughes, British Ambassador in Buenos Aires from 2004 to 2008. He is currently a Fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, School of Advanced Study, London University.