Diplomatic Storytelling at the End of the World

‘Get out you English pirates!’ screams the sign at the port of Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, End of the World.

Your correspondent’s attempts to point out that the sign should read ‘British pirates’ were met with at worst hostility and at best incomprehension. Ushuaia, ‘capital-in-exile’ of The Falkland Islands or Las Malvinas is at the centre of a 180-year-old conflict between the UK and Argentina.

Image courtesy of James Penn, all rights reserved.

History is an infinitely malleable concept. This is the defining academic lesson your correspondent has imbibed from a year in South America. This is not said in a pop historical revisionist sense: “Hitler was simply a failed artist whose partiality to vegetarian food (and therefore lack of a breakfast bacon sandwich) was the cause of his megalomania”. Rather just as Cameroonian Steve Hilton types (or ‘Stuart’ for aficionados of ‘The Thick of It’) bestride the corridors of Westminster obsessing about the ‘narrative’ they are selling to the British public; then it would appear that Benedict Anderson’s description of nations as ‘imagined communities’ rings particularly true when it comes to a base human impulse: telling stories.

These stories spread through public osmosis until the actual, objective truth (if ever such a thing can exist), ceases to be relevant to the tightly woven narrative thread. Understanding how, why, and when these stories originated is key to understanding the national psyche. The role of diplomacy, therefore, is to fully comprehend these stories, unpick them, and work out a practical solution amenable to both sides.

When two competing narratives collide headfirst, as is the case with the British and Argentineans with regards to the desolate, isolated archipelago in the south Atlantic, then naturally a conflict occurs. Add to the mix a country struggling to come to terms with a right-wing military dictatorship in its recent past, feelings of inadequacy on the international stage caused in large part by colonialism, a financial meltdown a decade ago, and politicians eager to unite the fractious country with a nationalist trump card.

Stir until piping hot with a country collectively determined to forget some of the uglier sides of imperialism, yet one that pines for the time when the ‘map was red’ while also struggling to manage its decline on the international stage in a graceful way. One can only marvel at how so much national schizophrenia is even possible.

There is a joke that Salman Rushdie often told: “Who really won the Falklands War? Argentina fought and got democracy, we fought and got another 10 years of Margaret Thatcher”. The Argentine narrative is particularly pervasive as it stems right from the very forging of ‘Argentina’ itself and hence what it means to be Argentinian. Their narrative essentially runs: It doesn’t matter who discovered and settled the Islands (the most reliable first sighting is actually that of a Dutch explorer in 1600). Argentina then inherited all of Spain’s colonial conquests in the region when it became an independent nation-state in 1816. Then Britain, ever the nefarious seafaring pirate, extinguished any hope of the Argentines possessing the islands by sending ships in 1833 to reclaim the islands and implant a supplicant British population. This gave the British a base in the south Atlantic from which they could conduct their colonial mischief that they maintain to this day.

The British version of history is told like this: John Strong was a British naval captain and first to land on the Islands in 1690 and since 1765 we [the British] have had a continued presence in the region, far before Argentina was even a nation-state. Argentina cannot simply assume to inherit Spanish colonies, and the events of 1833 were simply reclaiming what was originally British. The UK has successfully administered the islands since 1833 and the island population still retains extremely strong cultural, economic, and familial links with the UK as a self- governing overseas territory (Fish & Chip shops and pubs are prevalent on the Islands). A referendum planned for early 2013 on nationality is predicted to overwhelmingly back staying British. Argentina does not recognise the premise of the referendum as they believe that a wholly British population was implanted on the Islands in 1833 and they do not dispute that the current population would like to remain British, merely that the actual lands belong to them. President Kirchner has attempted to internationalise the issue by getting other South American states on his side to condemn the British position. Most are dissuaded from breaking full diplomatic cover as they would risk unnecessarily undermining trade deals with Britain over an issue that is not strictly in their national interest and indeed not part of their particular “country narrative”.

If politics is the art of the possible, diplomacy is the impossible art of international storytelling.