By Klaus Dodds (*) - The last couple of weeks have been busy ones when it comes to news about the Falkland Islands. Or Islas Malvinas as Argentine and other readers might insist upon. For others, the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) is the preferred naming option — highlighting as it does their continued contested status.
We have had the Falkland Islands referendum. I was fortunate enough to be an accredited observer and spent a very interesting few days watching the voting and counting unfold in Stanley and the wider Islands. Shortly afterwards, an Argentine bishop was appointed the next Pope, Francis I, and this encouraged speculation about what the pontiff might have to say on the question of the Islas Malvinas. President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina was quick off the mark and paid her respects at the Vatican. Whatever special powers the Pope possesses, it won’t be enough to alter the sovereignty dynamic in the case of these South Atlantic islands. As Margaret Thatcher might have said the current UK government is not for turning — sovereignty is not up for discussion. And, most recently, new archival papers released in the UK revealed that members of the Thatcher government were divided over how to respond to the Argentine invasion of April 1982. For all the talk of an ‘Iron Lady’ and dispatching a ‘task force’ to recover the Islands, there was clearly the possibility at one stage or another of a deal being done. Raising in the process the enticing question of how British politics, let alone the fate of the Falkland Islanders, might have been different if war was avoided and some kind of settlement secured.
But that was April 1982 and things have moved on since then. Indeed, in the last two years, relations between Britain and Argentina have worsened and there is no reason to think that any settlement will be forthcoming. Whatever some newspaper columnists might think, the referendum was intended to send a clear message to Argentina and the wider world that the Falklands community is not looking to its nearest neighbour when considering future options. And, at the moment, it does not need to. The UK government has reiterated its support for respecting the ‘wishes’ of the Falkland Islands community and that other neighbours such as Chile and Uruguay are a benign presence. Brazil, while offering some rhetorical support to Argentina, is not unhelpful to the UK position. So the imbroglio continues.
At this stage, attention often turns to other kinds of options, beyond the continuation of the status quo i.e. the Falklands continuing as a UK overseas territory. While laudable, I think what continues to fascinate me about these Islands is perhaps what insights they have to offer us more generally. As other geographers such as Alec Murphy note, territory continues to exercise an extraordinary ‘allure’ in our contemporary world. Noting all the claims made in the 1990s about globalization and border-free worlds, the idea of territory remains popular with political leaders and publics alike. For one thing, and perhaps other islands such as Cyprus animate this issue as well, territory helps to consolidate a view of political life being container like. Islands, with their apparently clear-cut distinctions between land and sea seem to lend themselves well to the containerization of political thought.
Second, we might think about territory as a flexible resource, which enables the socio-spatial education of citizens. In the case of the Falklands, there is a vast array of materials ranging from postage stamps, computer games and atlases to commemoration and museum displays that play their part in the geographical education of citizenry. They play their part in creating regimes of territorial legitimation and reinforce particular spatial commitments. The end result is to remind us perhaps that states rarely give up territory and usually only do so under extreme circumstances. Even when the territory in question was poorly understood and arguably neglected, as was the case of the Falklands in 1982, there was still sufficient allure in the territory itself combined with a sense of protecting the small resident community to ensure that the UK committed itself to resisting the Argentine occupation. The invading Argentine forces, on the other hand, while undoubtedly aware of the Falklands as a geographical component of Argentina, were remarkably ignorant of the English speaking community residing on the Islands. Islanders still recall of Argentine amazement when they discovered that their first language was English and not Spanish.
What was striking in the aftermath of the 1982 conflict, was the billions of pounds the UK was prepared to invest in the Falklands, and the wider commitment to bolster a presence in the South Atlantic and Antarctic. The idea of giving up the territory in question was now unthinkable, and if anything the Falklands is more embedded in UK stories about its extra-territorial scope and responsibilities (as well as histories of war and commemoration). UK governments use the term ‘overseas territories’ to acknowledge that distance need not be any kind of barrier to their continued connection with the UK.
Finally, we should not under-estimate the power of territorially based world-views and the ease in which many territorial disputes seem unable to make much progress when it comes to promoting alternative imaginations — joint sovereignty, parallel statehood, cross citizenships, and other kinds of free associations. This does not mean such things are not possible or even desirable in the case of some of the most violent and apparently intractable disputes. But one should not under-estimate how keenly many people feel around the world about lines on the maps and barriers on the ground. Perhaps they offer a modicum of reassurance in a world, where to paraphrase Marx and Engels, all that appears solid melts into air. And this would apply to both Britain and Argentina.
(*) Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and a Visiting Fellow at St Cross College, University of Oxford. He is editor of The Geographical Journal and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He is the author and editor of a number of books including the Geopolitics: a very short introduction (OUP, 2007) and The Antarctic: a very short introduction (OUP, 2012). He was a visiting fellow at Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury and has worked with national and international polar organizations including British Antarctic Survey, Antarctica New Zealand, International Polar Foundation, and the Australian Antarctic Division.