The American position on the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic should be obvious.
The Falklands, discovered by Britons in the late 17th century and named for the First Lord of the Admiralty of the day, have been under British sovereignty since 1765. Settlers, descendants of whom still live and work on the islands, began arriving in the 1830s, and there has been a resident British administration ever since. The Falkland Islands are not a colony of the United Kingdom but an “overseas territory,” roughly comparable to the status of Guam or the Virgin Islands as U.S. territories.
In the meantime, Great Britain may be accurately described as America’s closest ally, certainly in the past century. We two are the world’s oldest free-market democracies, bound by ties of language, culture, blood, and common law, and have stood side by side in two world wars, in Korea, in the Cold War, and in the war against terror. The second-largest military contingent in Afghanistan, after our own, is British.
Last week, on their own initiative, residents of the Falkland Islands conducted a free, open referendum and voted overwhelmingly (99.8 percent) to retain their status as a British overseas territory. In the meantime, the United States remains the world’s foremost advocate for democracy, taking up rhetorical and military arms in support of the right of people—in Asia, in the Middle East, in the old Soviet empire, in Africa and Latin America—to “self-determination,” to choose freely for themselves how they wish to be governed.
All of which suggests that the American position on the Falklands should be obvious. Except that it isn’t. When asked last week if the State Department had any comment on the referendum, or took into account the stated wishes of the people who live on the Falkland Islands, spokesman Victoria Nuland repeated the department’s position that there are “competing claims” to the Falklands, about which the United States of America has no opinion.
This refers, of course, to the fact that Argentina lays claim to the Falkland Islands as well—although as a legal and historical matter, the Argentine claim is essentially nonexistent. It is true that the Falklands are 315 miles off the Argentine coast—that is to say, more than three times the distance of Cuba from the United States—but that puts the Falklands well within the realm of international waters, and gives Argentina no more “right” to the islands than, say, nearby Chile or Uruguay.
The Argentine claim to the Falklands is largely an invention of the Perón dictatorship, which, in its dying phases in the mid-1950s, was always searching for nationalist causes to promote. The pattern has reliably repeated itself in subsequent years. When the military junta that ruled Argentina during its “dirty war” in the 1970s was close to collapse, the generals not only seized on the Falklands as a self-preserving device but invaded the islands in 1982, subjecting the residents to terror and privation until a British expeditionary force reclaimed the Falklands two months later. The current Argentine president, Cristina Kirchner, is beset by corruption and political scandals, as well as a collapsing economy, and has used the Falklands to rally her fellow Perónists.
Which raises an interesting question: What is the United States trying to accomplish? By pointedly ignoring the wishes of the Falkland Islanders, the Obama administration and the State Department insult our British allies, serve the interests of a historically unstable Latin American regime, and violate our principles.
A member of the Falklands Legislative Assembly, visiting Washington last week, said after the referendum that “it is time that other nations around the world who respect human rights and democracy, and who are not afraid to stand up for justice and freedom, lend us their support.” Indeed, it is past time.