It is not a new experience to find one’s friends in America or Europe expressing sympathy for the fact that the British government has gone out of its mind; but it is a new experience to have to tell them that the majority of the country think the government was right to send a task force to the Falklands. Intellectuals are often at their’ worst in interpreting international relations because in politics they tend to reason from stereotypes, and the intricacies of diplomacy and the complexity of negotiation do not comply with their belief that there are rational and logical solutions to all international problems which, if they are not adopted, must have been sabotaged by the folly, wickedness, or impenetrable stupidity of politicians. But even among intellectuals, whose normal role is to show why another more logical and rational policy would have been far superior to much of what their government does, there are many who, however much they deplore the events that led to the crisis and think it was mishandled, are not prepared to condemn Mrs. Thatcher for dispatching a task force and using it when negotiations broke down.
There are, of course, a number who are disgusted by the conduct of the British government. To them the issue of the Falklands is simple. Britain has for long been divesting itself of its empire; in nearly all its possessions independence has been made the easier by the colonial peoples throwing up leaders of political parties whose platform has been independence. Even Belize, which wanted to retain British protection, was compelled to become independent and has had to be content with the British leaving behind a token battalion to deter Guatemala.
This policy of disposing of the imperial remnants has been pursued by the Foreign Office through successive Conservative and Labour governments—and for an excellent reason. It is irresponsible and only asking for trouble for Britain to retain defense commitments which it cannot honor. That is why Britain abandoned its commitments east of Suez. That is why its whole defense policy and procurement of armaments is geared toward NATO. That is why Mrs. Thatcher, who came to power on a promise to increase expenditure on arms, nevertheless got rid of Francis Pym as secretary for defense for fighting cuts in defense expenditure too vigorously, and replaced him with John Nott. Nott’s policy was to prune the armed forces to the point where they would operate in really only two theaters: Europe and Northern Ireland.
To some intellectuals the Falklands fit into this pattern. What could be more absurd than to regard them as a British vital interest, like the Channel ports of old or the freedom of the seas? Did their economy not depend on Argentina and were they not “indefensible”? For years Britain has been exploring ways of settling the dispute with Argentina. Michael Stewart tried to do so as Labour’s foreign secretary in 1968 and Nicholas Ridley as the Conservative minister of state in 1980…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.