Over the years Humphrey has become somewhat cynical of the news cycle about Defence. Most weeks of the year see the same cyclical series of stories about how the UK is no longer relevant, how the RN couldn’t defend Falmouth from a horde of French marines in Pedalos and how the Argentines clearly pose a major threat to the Falkland Islands. The latest iteration in this is the now traditional outburst that the UK is somehow causing a rise in tension in the South Atlantic by conducting routine exercises in the Falklands.
While it is easy to get either easily riled at the ridiculousness of the situation, or get worked up at the sheer outrage of it all, the pronouncements on the story perhaps show how weak the current Argentine case is, and hint at desperation measures to get the news story away from internal problems. Breaking the story down, it is essentially the latest in a long series of claims by Argentina that the UK is attempting to militarise the Falklands – this seems to be linked to the deployment of Typhoon aircraft, the updating and replacement of in service equipment and the routine deployment of UK nuclear submarines into the region. Currently the news articles are reaching new levels of hyperbole, claiming that the Falklands are now a NATO base for nuclear submarines (something that may come as a mild surprise to NATO).
The story is one that owes more to the near total lack of updating of the Argentine military relative to the continued investment and planned replacement in UK equipment than it does in any suggestion that the UK is militarising the islands. A cursory glance shows how much smaller the garrison has become over the years.
Why then given the ridiculousness of the claims and the fact that they make Argentina look foolish does the Argentine Government persist in putting them out? Humphreys personal view is that there are several reasons why this increasingly odd propaganda campaign continues, despite seemingly having no real basis in truth.
Firstly, the narrative of the Falklands debate is one which is of relatively little interest to most other nations, beyond perhaps a few die hard anti-colonial powers. Routine pronouncements on the unfairness of the situation by Argentina will get little if any wider interest, and generate no real support now. Instead, in order to keep feeding the publicity monster that is the Falklands debate, Argentina has to keep drumming up ever more outrageous claims to get attention. The sort of claims about militarisation and nuclear submarine bases are patently ridiculous, but they are getting attention and as such means that the UK has to spend time patiently trying to explain the reality of the situation.
The danger with such a tactic is that each time you raise the bar in the debate, you make it ever harder to come up with a new story or credible reason to be covered. The more Argentine politicians make these statements, the harder it is for them to de-escalate the situation. How do you back away from these sort of patently false statements when the UK can easily demonstrate that it has not been militarising the islands? The challenge is going to be working out a way to step down from extreme rhetoric and moving to a position where the Argentines are seen as being reasonable rational actors.
The problem they face is that with a referendum highlighting the enormous support for the islands to remain British, and with a quiet diplomacy campaign going on with islanders travelling across central and south America to put their side of the story across, the Argentine view is looking increasingly isolated. The problem on the international stage is that grandiose pronouncements of outrage need to be backed up by provable facts in order to gain international support. Argentina is treading a path where it is increasingly crying wolf, and the more it does this, and the more outlandish and bizarre its claims, the less international support or attention it will enjoy on the matter. As a rule most nations dislike being drawn into others territorial disputes – the more that Argentina links the Falklands to its external policy, the harder it will find it to gain international support on other matters. This is a shame as it weakens Argentina externally, and reduces her ability to act as a wider force for good in the world. No nation should be seen as a single issue foreign policy actor, but right now it is hard to see Argentina as anything other than this.
At home the policy seems linked more to try to deflect attention from continued political weakness and a very poor economy than any real sense of trying to bring about change. Nothing unites like a manufactured foreign policy crisis, but again the problem for the politicians is that the more they cry wolf, the harder it is to continue generating the same level of popular support. The reality is that as the economy tanks, inflation hits and people lose jobs, their interest in a frankly hypothetical territorial dispute hundreds of miles from their borders, when their real lives are a struggle will diminish. For Argentine politicians, faced with the challenge of trying to secure domestic support and keep their hold on power, it will always be easy to try and drum up a bogeyman – but to keep on doing so past the point when there is a critical mass of popular support seems futile. One only has to look at the way the claims have got ever more outlandish and dramatic to realise that the Argentine population itself seems to have a much higher tolerance threshold on these matters than in the past – indeed, beyond a hard core of supporters, are the Falklands really an issue for most now, and will this soon be a foreign policy trump card that has been played too often to be of any real value to placate the masses from their domestic worries?
What then is the impact for the UK from all this? On a practical basis very little, but it does highlight the challenges faced in trying to put forward a balanced and rational debate on the Falkland Islands, when one party is keen to put forward all manner of outlandish propaganda. When the issue is discussed, rather than focusing on the positives, the UK finds itself having to rebuff ever more bizarre allegations. It also means that when routine deployments go ahead, or when equipment is updated, the UK has to be fairly defensive in its approach – an Argentine campaign highlighting the supposed militarisation of the region is fairly simplistic, but easy to do when you compare the capabilities of a Type 45 or Typhoon to the Argentine Armed Forces. This in turn makes it more difficult to just do the routine sort of deployments that used to be taken for granted – one impact of the internet and social media is that its very easy to push a cause, no matter how unusual or extreme, and whereas in previous years, Argentine protests would have had little coverage, today they can be pushed globally through various websites.
For the UK then although the whole situation may seem somewhat odd, it does warrant attention. The more that Argentina tries to frame the debate on the Falklands around ever more ridiculous pretexts, the harder it is to bring it back to what it is really all about – the right of self-determination for a group of Islanders who have repeatedly made clear that they wish to remain British.