Barack Obama’s theory is that partisanship is the source of conflict. There should be no more red states or blue states. Every political choice is a false choice, an example of old thinking. Similarly on the international stage. If the United States distanced itself from its allies and drew closer to its adversaries, conflict would be reduced. The United States could then serve as the international mediator rather than as the guarantor of global order and an agent of democratic political change. The most recent example of these ideas is the Obama administration’s renewed antipathy for Britain in its current dispute with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.
Geologic surveys indicate the possibility of up to 60 billion barrels of oil beneath the seabed 60 to 100 miles north of the Falkland Islands. This possibility led to the beginning of exploratory drilling in early February and reopened the tensions between the United Kingdom and Argentina that resulted in the Falklands war of 1982. A consortium of British and Australian firms transported a rig to the area. And Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whose attempt to tax agricultural exports and use central bank reserves to pay down the nation’s massive debt have been hugely unpopular, saw and seized an opportunity to divert the attention of the populace.
Argentina’s foreign minister, Jorge Taiana, asked for a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, called the British firms’ exploration “illegitimate,” and demanded a discussion with British officials on their claim to sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. Argentina announced that it will blockade shipping between its ports and the Falkland Islands, which the Argentines call the Malvinas.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown pointed to the 1,000-man contingent of British forces stationed in the Falklands and warned that the U.K. would again defend the islands’ 3,000 residents—none of whom wish to become Argentine citizens—as well as Britain’s right under international law to explore for oil. The Times of London reported on February 24 that a submarine had been dispatched to support the Royal Navy surface ship stationed in the Falklands.
Both the U.K. and Argentina have seen their militaries contract substantially since the 74-day conflict that Britain won decisively in 1982. Argentina has prepared the diplomatic ground better and claims the support of many of its neighbors. But the U.K. still possesses enough naval force and logistical support to carry the day if it comes to that. And the U.K. can still draw on logistical support—as it did 28 years ago—at Gibraltar and Ascension Island (several hundred miles below the Equator) in the South Atlantic.
The Obama administration responded initially by declaring its neutrality. “We are aware not only of the current situation but also of the history, but our position remains one of neutrality,” a State Department spokesman declared in late February. “The United States recognizes de facto U.K. administration of the islands but takes no position on the sovereignty claims of either party.”
In early March Secretary of State Hillary Clinton changed the U.S. position during her visit to Buenos Aires. At a joint news conference the deeply unpopular Argentine president (a poll last summer put her approval rating at 28 percent) insisted that the U.K. and Argentina enter into talks about the Falklands. She invoked the authority of the U.N.’s decolonization committee, a body whose agenda mentions among other “non-self-governing territories” American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “And we agree,” interjected Clinton, notwithstanding State’s earlier expression of neutrality and the U.K.’s repeated assertion that the Falklands’ sovereignty is not negotiable. What sort of neutrality is it that takes the side of a party seeking talks about an issue that the opposing party says is nonnegotiable?
Clinton seems, moreover, not to have considered the colonial element of this issue. Britain took possession of the uninhabited Falkland Islands a decade and a half before the United States defeated Mexico in a war we started that added the inhabited area now known as Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. The American possessions currently listed by the U.N.’s decolonization committee include Guam, which is fast becoming the United States’ most important military base in the Western Pacific. Men have lived on Guam for most of the life span of the 5,000- year-old bristlecone pines that dot the lands we took by force from Mexico in 1848. There are much better reasons for “decolonizing” Guam than decolonizing the Falklands, which were a Magellanic penguin colony before they became a British one.
The Obama administration should think this one through carefully. Returning the bust of Churchill to the British embassy and snubbing Prime Minister Brown by failing to hold the traditional post-meeting press conference shortly after Obama was inaugurated last year might be dismissed as mere awkward gestures. The same could be argued about such events as Obama’s initial unwillingness to meet with the Dalai Lama. It cannot be said of breaking agreements to base U.S. ballistic missile defense systems on the territory of such good friends as Poland and the Czech Republic—or supporting Hugo Chávez’s Honduran ruler colleague who sought illegally to continue his term in office, or scaring off friendly and important segments of Lebanese society by seeking accommodation with Syria, which remains implacably hostile to the United States.
No. With qualified exceptions such as Afghanistan and the credit the administration has begun to claim for progress in Iraq, the Obama administration’s foreign policy seeks to jettison the United States’ traditional vision of itself as an agent of democratic political change and replace it with the goal of becoming the prime international mediator. The administration’s calculation is that discarding erstwhile friends will moderate current adversaries as it prevents the rise of future ones. Such policy is absurd so long as the United States remains a democracy and the object of envy for its economic and military power. Seeking to become the global arbitrator makes even less sense if U.S. power declines, since the critical element in international mediation is the ability to enforce one’s will.
The unfolding Falklands dispute crystallizes the tension within the administration between its ambition to become the great international mediator and its practical understanding that our security depends importantly on success in Afghanistan and Iraq. Britain is our closest international partner. Britain’s leaders have demonstrated this association at their own political risk by supporting us in Iraq and continuing to support us in Afghanistan despite the British public’s misgivings about both. We need their help if the NATO coalition in Afghanistan is to succeed. They should be rewarded, not punished, for siding with us.
At the same time the Obama administration is bending over backwards—as Secretary of State Clinton’s support for the Argentine president shows—to prove our credentials for impartiality, oddly, with a South American leader who is close to Hugo Chávez. Last fall Chávez said publicly that he would be happy to supply Iran with uranium. He will if he can find any. It’s a strange position, dis-respecting the allies who are helping us destroy radical Islamists and playing up to Argentine politicians who are thick with another Latin American caudillo, one who is in cahoots with the most dangerous of the Islamists.
Mollifying China, Russia, Syria, Iran, or Latin American demagogues will earn the United States nothing but their disdain. It will not change their ambitions. Obama needs to decide whether he wants steadfast allies or an international atmosphere in which contempt for the United States unites our adversaries with our erstwhile friends. Remembering that Britain is our closest ally would be a good place to start.