Remember when Barack Obama promised to restore our standing with America’s allies and exercise “smart power” in diplomacy? Good times, good times. In the latest dispute over the Falkland Islands, Obama has failed to support our closest ally on the world stage even after their military and diplomatic support for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in what the Telegraph’s Nile Gardiner called another knife in the back:
First, military weakness is provocative. Argentina ramped up its aggressive rhetoric and diplomatic efforts to reclaim the Falklands only after P.M. Cameron announced massive cuts to the Royal Navy and British ground forces. The decommissioning last December of the U.K.’s sole remaining aircraft carrier, Ark Royal, well before its service life ended, and the sale of Britain’s 50 G-9 Sea Harrier fighter jets to the U.S. Marine Corps, seems to have emboldened the Argentines. In 1982, the Royal Navy had approximately 90 warships from which it could assemble a task force. Today it has 30. Indeed, most experts believe that while it would be very difficult for the Argentine military to successfully invade the islands, it would be nearly impossible for the U.K. to retake them without an aircraft carrier in the event that Argentina was successful in overrunning Britain’s key air base at Mount Pleasant. …
Second, the Obama administration has made the United States an unreliable ally for our closest friends. Britain has been a stalwart ally of the U.S. in both Iraq and Afghanistan, notwithstanding the tremendous domestic political pressure on Labour and Conservative governments not to participate in those unpopular wars. However, in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for talks over the dispute and even appeared to side with Argentina during a press conference with President Kirchner in Buenos Aires. Last month, as the current situation developed, rather than send a clear message to Argentina that the United States supported its longtime ally, a State Department spokesman demurred: “[t]his is a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom…We recognize de facto United Kingdom administration of the islands, but take no position regarding sovereignty.” Nile Gardiner, the Telegraph’s Washington correspondent, wrote in response that the “Obama administration knife[d] Britain in the back again over the Falklands.”
The shabby treatment meted out to America’s “special relationship” partner in this instance cannot be seen as a surprise. It is in line with the administration’s treatment of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (at least prior to Bob Turner winning Anthony Weiner’s Congressional seat in New York). Poland and the Czech Republic suffered similar slights after the Administration unilaterally cancelled ABM sites in those countries as part of its naïve and, so far, unsuccessful attempt to “reset” relations with Russia. And, there has been much criticism of the Administration for failing to provide Taiwan with the latest F-16 fighters that it has long requested to defend itself against a potential attack by China. There is no doubt that American allies such as Israel, Colombia, Georgia, Taiwan, the Gulf States and the Baltics, all of which live in dangerous neighborhoods, are watching the United States’ response to the Falklands row with concern.
Third, failing to promote the rule of law, democracy and self-determination in the Falklands will damage the United States’ ability to promote those goals in other nations. The 3,200 residents of the Falklands have been there for over 175 years. They descend from people who have inhabited the Islands for far longer than many Argentines have inhabited their own country. They are, apparently without exception, in favor of maintaining their local parliamentary government and association with Britain. There are no Argentines on the islands and there are no “displaced” Las Malvinas (as Argentina has labeled the islands) refugees in Argentina seeking a “right of return.” The current diplomatic crisis follows the nationalistic playbook that President Kirchner borrowed from the former military junta and that is promoted by her mentor in Caracas. The fact that there are large oil reserves off the Falklands is also fueling Argentine territorial ambitions as its government would love to get control of such resources.
It’s not as if one can see Argentina from the Falklands, or vice versa. The islands are 250 nautical miles off the coast of Argentina, far beyond anyone’s idea of sovereign waters. Cuba is only 90 miles off of the American coast, and the Bahamas even closer. Would anyone accept an American assertion that those islands belong to the US despite the wishes of its inhabitants? Of course not. The Danish commonwealth of Greenland is closer to Canada than Europe, but a Canadian claim of sovereignty would be laughed off the stage (not that Canadians are interested in making such a claim).
How difficult is it for the US to stand up for self-determination? Falklanders do not want Argentinian sovereignty. They see themselves as British, and want to continue being British. There is no good reason for Argentina to make this claim other than the oil, which the US should prefer to remain in the hands of the British, given the direction of the Argentinian government lately.
The US used to stand for self-determination, and used to stand up for its allies. The Obama administration isn’t interested in doing either. That may be a lot of things, but “smart power” isn’t one of them.