This week has seen the wonder of democracy at work with a ballot held on the Falkland Islands in regard to their continued status as a British territory. You may have heard that they voted overwhelming in favour! Notwithstanding that a vote so heavily slanted in one direction would have raised eyebrows in any number of countries, the vote was a clear and unequivocal rejection of any entities from Argentina.
In the midst of the simmering row between London and Buenos Aires, however, a third party has been widely critiqued for its efforts to remain neutral: the United States of America. The White House reaction to the vote has been tepid at best and downright insulting to British interests, to say nothing of what it says about the state of the Special Relationship. Certainly Downing Street and the FCO will be extremely disappointed by the derisory reaction that emanates from a nation that has repeatedly placed democratic promotion at the heart of its foreign policy. Judging by the wording, however, this will have been written by a bureaucrat, not a political appointee at the State Department.
It is clear that some of this criticism can be dismissed as politically motivated nonsense by those seeking any reason to attack this particular White House as long as it is occupied by Barack Obama, who has proved to be a particularly ineffectual president in terms of foreign policy. Some criticism can also be dismissed as the typical carping of European anti-American intellectualism, happy to sleep easy under the military security that America provides, whilst spending every waking hour criticising the manner in which they do so. However, it is important to consider a third rationale: Ignorance about the manner in which nations adopt stances on the international stage coupled with a flawed appreciation of history and geography.
First up is the problem of the Monroe Doctrine that commits the United States to a defence of Western hemispheric powers against European colonial interference. It may be a little outdated, but it is still worth bearing in mind that a strict adherence to this document would place the United States squarely behind Argentinean claims to the islands.
Doubtless there will be those who put American neutrality down to apparent anti-colonial sentiment as personified by Obama, eager to pivot to the Pacific and opposed to the ‘evil’ British due to our history of imperial conquest. To those who think this is impacting the current situation, I say merely “Wake Up.” This is not how decisions are made at a national, strategic level. Neither is this a ‘Democratic’ problem, a fact revealed by an appreciation of history. Lest anyone think that things would be different with a Republican in the White House, consider what happened in 1982.
When diplomatic niceties broke down between London and Buenos Aires in the 1980s the Reagan Administration singularly failed to ride to the defence of the UK, leading to similar claims in regard to the status and relative importance of the Special Relationship. The president was adamant that the United States was intent on maintaining good relations with both the UK and Argentina, whilst his Ambassador to the United Nations, neo-conservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick was adamantly pro-Argentinean to the point that the British Ambassador referred to her as “more fool that fascist.” Reagan’s Secretary of State Al Haig was perceived to be pro-British, causing a public rift in the administration that ended only when President Reagan ordered Kirkpatrick to vote against her personal wishes in favour of the UK at the United Nations.
Eventually, the Americans came though and were instrumental in ensuring British military victory in the South Atlantic, providing state of the art missile technology, satellite feeds and, as revealed recently under the thirty year rule, offering to provide an aircraft carrier.
At this point in time the Obama Administration finds itself in the initial stages of a spat between two allies, just as Reagan did in the 1980s. Like Reagan, Obama will do his best to stay out of the situation and remain neutral hoping nothing serious develops. Only when push comes to shove will he break one way or the other. That is not unexpected; it is what nations do. Right now, it serves no American purpose to do otherwise. Nations act for one purpose and one purpose only, when it is in their National Interest. Right now, it is not in America’s National Interest to choose sides because it doesn’t need to. We in the UK might not like this, and it certainly doesn’t place Obama in a favourable light, but fence sitting is standard diplomatic practice.
The saving grace in this situation is that precedent is on the side of the British. The Americans prevaricated before, and they are doing so again. Now, as then, I expect that they will come to aid the UK if, and only if, it becomes necessary to do so. As Sir Winston Churchill, an ardent admirer of the United States and himself half-American, put it so well; “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, once they have exhausted all other possibilities.”