The Downside of Alliances: Being Dragged into Other People’s Conflicts

British territorial disputes with Argentina and Spain are heating up, leading to demands that Washington support its foremost ally. However, George Washington was correct when he warned the U.S. against permanent foreign entanglements.

In 1982, the Argentine military junta failed in its attempt to seize the Falkland Islands from Great Britain. Three years ago, the prospect of energy development triggered renewed claims from Buenos Aires and a campaign of commercial harassment. 

Tensions between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar, a peninsula, also have flared. Last year, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy urged talks over the island’s sovereignty. In July, the Gibraltar authorities blocked access by Spanish fishermen to surrounding waters, leading Spain to initiate lengthy border inspections and threaten other retaliatory measures.

London’s control of the two territories may not be logical or fair, but that’s international relations. History can’t be easily “fixed,” at least at reasonable cost to everyone involved.

So far Washington has avoided taking sides in either dispute. The Obama administration has ignored the Gibraltar contretemps while opining that the Falklands are “a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between Argentina and the United Kingdom,” in the words of State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

However, some analysts have criticized such “neutrality” as being the equivalent of surrender, and demanded that Washington ostentatiously back the U.K.

Why should Washington, with a full international plate, meddle in other nations’ peripheral but emotional controversies?

One argument is self-determination, since both sets of residents have voted to remain British. However, America and Britain believe in self-determination—except when they don’t, which is often. Self-determination has never been a controlling factor in international relations.

London and its backers also have pushed the line that Washington should stand by its ally. But Spain is a fellow member of NATO and, like Britain, sent troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Argentina has been designated as a Major Non-NATO Ally by Washington.

Nevertheless, when Argentina began pressing its claim three years ago, the Daily Telegraph’s Con Coughlin reported that “British officials are angry at what they regard as a cavalier disregard for Britain’s interests at a time when Britain is the only major European power committed significant numbers of combat troops to fight in Afghanistan.”

However, British involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq resulted from London’s conviction that the wars were in the U.K.’s interest, not because of the “Special Relationship” with America. During World War II it might have made sense to unreservedly back London in marginal territorial disputes. However, nothing today justifies a similar “my ally, right or wrong” approach. 

Moreover, as I warn in my latest article on National Interest online:

“the U.K. is not the only important ally who could make a claim for American support in complicated territorial disputes. Both Japan and South Korea are long-standing military allies. The U.S. rescued the latter from North Korean aggression, which provided combat troops in Vietnam as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tokyo has island disputes with China and Russia, as well as with South Korea. The Philippines, a former colony rescued by Washington from Japanese aggression, also has confronted Beijing over conflicting island claims. Should the U.S. automatically stand by these allies?”

George Washington warned in his famed Farewell Address: “a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.”

Alliances should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The Obama administration should stay out of the Falklands and Gibraltar disputes.