London: Renewed Confidence

For British policy-makers, the war over the Falklands seems to have ended twenty-five years of self-doubt

THE FALKLANDS CONFLICT has been Britain’s war of independence—not simply the independence of the islanders from the tyranny of rule by an Argentine fascist regime but the greater independence of Britain from friends and allies. In this sense the Falklands episode has reversed the judgment created by Suez, when Britain and France conspired with Israel to invade Egypt after its seizure of the Canal. This is not to suggest that victory in the South Atlantic in 1982 was necessary to obliterate the memory of humiliation in the Middle East a quarter of a century ago. Any direct comparison between the two crises is very wide of the mark. But certain attitudes were inculcated in British ruling circles and in public opinion by the Suez fiasco, and it is these that have now been reversed.

A Briton of my generation, which has reached middle age, has seen dramatic changes in the country’s international standing and self-respect during his lifetime. As a young boy at school before World War II, he was accustomed to be told that he had the privilege of being at the heart of the greatest empire on earth: so much of the map was painted red. When war came, it seemed natural that Britain should play a starring role. The part played by its allies was well known, but victory brought a sense of national achievement as well as a recognition of international collaboration. For all the sufferings of economic depression and the destruction of war, the Britain of my boyhood was a confident country.

The impression was always more glorious than the reality. The empire had begun to wither away before Hitler marched in 1939. By the end of the war, Britain no longer enjoyed the position of equal power implied by the familiar photographs of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill seated together at their summit conferences. But the assumption that we were a great power remained. Reality overtook the impression only with the failure of the Suez enterprise. It was an ill-judged venture, undertaken by a sick prime minister, and it deserved to fail. But the conclusions the British people drew from the failure mattered even more than the failure itself.

Whereas previously they had been deluded by an inflated belief in their power, now they suffered from an exaggerated sense of their weakness. They had gone into the endeavor in collaboration with France and in secret collusion with Israel, but without the prior knowledge, still less the approval, of the United States and other allies. Britain had tried to go it more or less alone, and failed. Therefore, it was concluded. Britain in the future could act effectively only in partnership. As self-confidence seeped away, keeping in step was to become a British preoccupation.

But in step with whom? The failure of Suez was attributed principally to the attempt to act without the backing, or even the acquiescence, of the United States. In that sense, the episode seemed to illustrate the importance of the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain. Yet the attitude of the American government during the crisis and afterward suggested that the relationship was not seen in Washington to be so special after all. The effect was to leave Britain feeling particularly reliant on American advice yet no longer trusting in the solidity of the American connection.

Partly in response to American pressure, but even more because there seemed nowhere else to go, Britain reluctantly turned toward the European Community. Britain could have been an original signatory of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which set up the Community, but declined in the belief that the experiment would fail. By 1961, however, Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Government had concluded that Britain could not afford either economically or politically to be excluded from the Community. The first British application for membership came to nothing when De Gaulle imposed his famous, or notorious, veto in 1963 with the explanation that if Britain were to join, the Community “would see itself faced with problems of economic relations with all kinds of states, and most of all with the United States. It could be foreseen that the cohesion of its members, who would be very numerous and diverse, would not endure for long, and that finally it would appear as a colossal Atlantic community under American domination and direction which would quickly have absorbed the European Community.”

This rejection of Britain had a pronounced effect upon British attitudes. Those British people who were most eager to join often felt the need to demonstrate that they were truly European by being anti-American. In the second volume of his memoirs, Years of Upheaval, Henry Kissinger describes this cast of mind in Edward Heath, who as prime minister was finally taking Britain into the Community: “The intimate consultation through which British and American policies had been coordinated during the postwar period was reduced to formal diplomatic exchanges. Heath disdained the occasional telephone calls I urged upon the British Ambassadors to establish the personal relationship that Nixon craved, lest he be accused by France, as his predecessor Harold Macmillan had been, of being an American ‘Trojan horse.’ ”

Dr. Kissinger believes that there was an almost, heroic streak to Mr. Heath’s policy: “He sought to alter not simply a diplomatic pattern but the attitude of his people. The heart of most Britons was with America and the Commonwealth.” Perhaps an element of personal heroism was indeed at work, because Mr. Heath believed passionately in the course he had set. But for Britain as a country it was a sign of insecurity to seek acceptance in Europe by repressing its natural instincts.

Successive British leaders have attempted either to distance themselves artificially from the United States or to ingratiate themselves with whatever administration has been in power in Washington. Both attitudes are part of the chain reaction from Suez. So too was the British decision, in 1968, to withdraw from all defense positions east of Suez by December of 1971. In each case, Britain was reacting, probably over-reacting, to a sense of its diminished power in the world. It could not operate effectively by itself, only with friends. Therefore, it must withdraw from unilateral endeavors and overextended positions, and court the best friends it could find. The attitude has been consistent, even if the policy has not.

THIS IS THE attitude that has been changed by the Falklands conflict. It could hardly have been predicted that the British would respond as they did when Argentina seized the islands. The decision to send such a task force on an operation of that nature 8,000 miles from home was a remarkable act of military daring. But much more extraordinary was the psychological response of the British people. There was throughout the crisis a strange interaction between political leaders and the public. The sense of popular outrage at the humiliation inflicted on Britain, which was reflected in the dramatic criticisms of ministers in the special House of Commons debate on the Saturday immediately after the invasion, ensured that government policy would be vigorous. The strength of that policy, and the justifications for it given by ministers, further hardened public opinion.

As military activity increased, so the readiness to seek a solution by military means grew. As casualties were suffered, so the willingness to risk further casualties rose. This was evident from the opinion polls. It could not be explained by sentimental attachment to the islands themselves. Before the crisis broke, most British people would have felt rather pleased with themselves if they could have found the Falklands on the map, even though the islanders are of British stock.

Beneath the proper determination that the islanders, as people for whom Britain was responsible, should not be deprived of their freedom was another, even deeper resolve: that Britain itself should not be pushed around anymore. Only this can explain the remarkable upsurge of overt patriotism among generations that were thought to be contemptuous of such outdated feelings. In the aftermath of victory, four out of five people in an opinion poll said that it had made them more proud to be British. Some of the euphoria inevitably evaporates as passions cool, but not all of it is the emotion of a moment.

Britain received assistance during the conflict, at different times and in varying measure, from its European partners, from the United States, and from others. But the victory is seen in Britain as having been won by British political determination through British force of arms. Had Britain succumbed to the wishes of its allies it might be waiting still for a diplomatic compromise rather than having pushed on to recapture the islands. The episode is therefore regarded as evidence that Britain can act by itself to safeguard its interests, that it does not need a seal of approval from its major allies before it can move, and that it will sometimes be better off if it does not listen to the advice of its friends.

Renewed self-reliance has not led to the outbreak of anti-American sentiment that might have been expected. A recent opinion poll found that as many as 63 percent of British people were satisfied with the support given by the United States during the dispute. That judgment may seem, even to many Americans, to err on the side of generosity. But there is no reason to doubt that it is an accurate reflection of British opinion. I was in the United States for the first fortnight of the crisis, and I encountered at least as much criticism in Washington and New York of the Reagan Administration’s attempts at mediation as I did later in London. On the whole, British opinion has been remarkably understanding about the multiple pressures on the United States. It is recognized that Washington’s concern for the Western Hemisphere is not unreasonable, and does not imply a hostility toward Britain.

Such a calm acceptance of international realities suggests, though, that the realities of the Anglo-American relationship have been acknowledged. There could never be an exclusive attachment in the modern world between a superpower and a nation of the middle rank. American interests are worldwide, and Britain has its partnership with the other members of the European Community, to say nothing of the old links with the Commonwealth. A special bond between the two countries—founded upon sentiment, habit, and shared attitudes— remains. But the Falklands dispute has revealed that the attachment is not accorded absolute priority.

The new independence has particular implications for Britain in the field of defense. Ever since the formation of NATO, British defense policy has been based on the assumption that its interests are linked indissolubly with those of the United States. The assumption did not hold up in the Falklands crisis. American practical assistance became increasingly valuable as the dispute went on, yet the outcome would have been different if Britain had had to rely upon the United States instead of upon itself. Perhaps it will be different next time. Perhaps the United States can always be depended upon to defend Britain against the Soviet Union. But it will not be surprising in the future if Britain does not take too much on trust.

The case for replacing Polaris missiles with Tridents, so that Britain can retain an independent nuclear deterrent capable of inflicting unacceptable damage upon the Soviet Union, has been strengthened immeasurably. So too has the case for a stronger British navy, and, indeed, the need for some expansion of the navy has been accepted by the Government. This is the Falklands lesson that public and parliamentary opinion seized upon—all the more eagerly because it conflicts with what has been the declared strategy of the British Government. But if the navy is to be strengthened, over and above replacing the losses of the war, and if Trident is to be purchased, the cost will be considerable. Some additional increase in British defense expenditure is now politically acceptable in the light of the Falklands. But there will still have to be compensating economies. BAOR (the British Army on the Rhine) has been regarded as sacrosanct, because the allies, especially those on the continent of Europe, would be upset if it were reduced in size. In the post-Falklands atmosphere, such reasoning wall no longer seem so persuasive. No merit will be seen in giving needless offense to allies, but there will be a greater determination to base British policies on British assessments.

In one respect, this may be pleasing to the United States. Successive American administrations have regretted Britain’s withdrawal from defense activities outside the NATO area. NOWT the diminishment of British ambitions has halted. Britain will never again play the extensive international role that it did even twenty years ago, and the military part that it can play around the world will remain severely limited by considerations of cost, but now Britain is psychologically attuned to the possibility of occasionally using its forces once again in distant places.

THE MOST IMPORTANT effect of the Falklands will not, however, be felt on policy questions that can be foreseen. It will emerge in changed attitudes that will govern the response to new issues. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Margaret Thatcher, the architect of the new approach, is the first prime minister to have begun a parliamentary career since Suez. Moreover, while many of her domestic policies upset her countrymen, and while her foreign policies have in the past often contradicted established opinion In Britain, her instincts on international affairs usually accord with those of the general public. She is essentially a British nationalist. She believes in a strong defense. She wants to keep Britain in the European Community, but she is not enthusiastic about it and is determined to fight for British interests within it. She believes in maintaining a close relationship with the United States without being deferential in her approach. Successive Presidents will attest that she is at least as eager to give advice as to receive it.

Her approach is likely to lead to further conflict of a limited nature with Europe. The last has by no means been heard of the wearisome disputes over farm prices and the Community budget. But what about Britain’s relations with the United States? If the United States can affect neutrality when British territory is invaded, then Britain is under no obligation to prove its devotion to the United States. Because of the disparity in power and wealth, there will no doubt be occasions in the future, as there have been in the past, when Britain will be vulnerable to American pressure. But it will be less inclined to go along for the sake of going along.

Britain today would likely not behave as it did in April, 1980, during the Iranian crisis. The British Government and Parliament then agreed to impose economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to secure the release of the hostages, even though hardly any minister or any member of Parliament thought that the sanctions would be effective. Disbelief was suspended for the sake of the alliancewhich proved to be a lesson in the danger of pursuing a course without conviction, since there followed a humiliating muddle with the rest of the Community over the nature of the sanctions.

It might seem strange that consequences such as I have predicted could flow from a military victory over a thirdclass power for the repossession of islands of whose very existence most people in the mother country had been only dimly aware a few months before. But apparently small events can have broad effects when they touch the nerve of a nation. Just as the British read too much into their failure at Suez, so might they conclude too much from their success in the Falklands. Their need of friends and allies is just as great as it was before the Argentine invasion. But it will be no bad thing if the British deal more confidently with those friends and allies than has been their practice for some years now. Overconfidence has not been a quality from which the British have suffered in recent times.

— Geoffrey South

Geoffrey Smith is a political columnist and editorial writer for the London Times.