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Rational Causes of War in the South Atlantic

1982 Argentine magazine, via Wikimedia.

“We’re Winning.” 1982 Argentine magazine, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is once again making noise over the Falklands dispute. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the unresolved dispute over the islands is once again causing diplomatic trouble — recent petroleum exploration around the islands has raised the stakes of the conflict — but the real takeaway is that the status of las Islas Malvinas continues to draw popular ire among Argentines.

Jorge Luis Borges famously described the Falklands War as “a fight between two bald men over a comb.” Borges’ comment pithily summarizes the perceived futility of the war, but frivolously dismisses the conflict’s real impetus — states may fight over worthless territories, but they rarely do so for irrational reasons. The 1976 Argentine military junta initiated the war not in an irrational grab for the harsh islands themselves, but instead in a reasonably-sophisticated bid to legitimize their unpopular government through a popular military victory the war’s architects judged readily attainable. That fact that the junta’s initial assumptions about the UK’s commitment to defend the islands were wildly inaccurate does not mean, in and of itself, that the war decision was irrational.This explanation for the 1982 war suggests that renewed conflict over the islands is unlikely.

Las Islas Malvinas command a unique place in popular Argentine thought. Among Argentines, the sentiment that the Falklands rightly belong to them and that the status quo is an unjust colonial holdover is widespread. In this framework — that identifies the British claim to the Falklands as nothing more than open colonialism — the islanders’ desire to remain part of the UK is irrelevant; the very fact British people live there at all is an injustice. I’ve spent only a brief time in Argentina, but vividly remember noticing a cartoon map of the country, part of a corporate logo, that included the islands. Even in this trivial context, las Islas Malvinas are Argentine.

The Argentine junta’s 1976 overthrow of the Isabel Perón civilian government was intended to facilitate the remaking of Argentine society and force an end to the country’s historic liberal-conservative conflict. But the junta’s frustrated inability to usher in stability and clearly unsustainable brutality of the Dirty War made their rule increasingly untenable, and the invasion was a last-ditch effort to bolster the junta’s popularity. Allusions to combs and bald men aside, the Falklands conflict was never about territory itself; instead, it was fought over the symbolic value of the islands’ sovereignty. The junta saw themselves as the defenders of Argentine society. Facing the prospect of the overthrow of their regime, the potential legitimizing payoff of a successful invasion of the islands made war a reasonable choice.

Importantly, the Falklands was not the junta’s only prospective legitimizing victory. Argentina’s military government had long-standing territorial disputes with Chile, where Pinochet actually encouraged settlement of the country’s harsh south out of the fear that Argentina would sieze the sparsly populated territory. But despite almost going war with Chile over disputed and geopolitically important Beagle Channel islands in 1978, the Argentine junta only escalated a territorial conflict to war in 1982, when they faced a severe domestic legitimacy crisis. In Argentina’s zero-sum political climate of the early 1980s, a face-saving military victory would salvage the critically unpopular military government’s rule. Of course, the conflict had the opposite outcome, but at the time the invasion was a reasonable bet.

Today fears of renewed conflict are mostly based on this populist logic: as long as an Argentine government perceives itself as domestically unpopular, so the thinking goes, stoking nationalist sentiments over the islands will be a tempting policy. But the belief that the Argentine government’s behavior is governed by a rational cost-benefit logic suggests that actual war over the islands is unlikely. Yes, Argentina’s continued economic downturn and erratic growth both reward populistic nationalism and increase the appeal of offshore energy exploration. But the current government faces nowhere near the legitimacy crisis that prompted the junta’s decision to invade in 1982. The Falklands War was a desperate act launched by a domestically embattled government that associated its own legitimacy with national survival. That is not true today. Rather than the culmination of a century of left-right conflict, today’s Argentine government is comparably unexceptional. The modern Argentine government is also aware that the expected costs of conflict would be greater than it judged in the days before the 1982 invasion. Despite the British armed forces’ shrinkage since the 1980s, the 1982 war is evidence that the UK is willing to fight over the islands, while the junta’s war plans were benchmarked around the assumption that Britain would not contest the invasion. Given the lower domestic incentive and higher expected costs of conflict today, a rational choice for war is unlikely.

Making diplomatic noise over the Falklands question is a low-risk strategy for bolstering the Argentine government’s domestic popularity, and it is unsurprising that President Kirchner continue to press the issue. But this does not mean that renewed war is likely.

Note: This post has been edited for clarity. 

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