As the 10th March, the date for the Falkland Islands/Malvinas referendum, looms ever closer, tensions between Britain and Argentina are an escalation increased by Argentina’s refusal to attend a meeting with representatives of the government of the islands last Friday.  Argentina’s accusations of colonialism, with Senator Rodolfo Terragno arguing that “self-determination corresponds to peoples, not populations”, were followed by an attack on their own colonialism from British former politician and journalist Matthew Parris.  In his recent article entitled ‘Argentina’s hypocrites are steeped in blood’, Parris accused Argentina of airbrushing the “genocide” of the Mapuches who, following Terragno’s distinction, are the real Argentineans.

Image courtesy of Toniher, © 2005, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Toniher, © 2005, some rights reserved.

The debate over the nationality and legitimacy of the current inhabitants of the Falklands Islands/Malvinas has touched recurring themes of territorial disputes but if we are to try and to resolve the issue it is of primary importance to remember that a ‘nation’ is a very malleable concept.  The Oxford dictionary definition of ‘nation’ as “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory” is testament to this, as it is clearly designed to accommodate the subjective and variable nature of the term.

A feeling of shared culture is one of the most emotive elements of nationalism, but since the rise of national symbolism after the French Revolution, studies on the validity of cultural similarities have been divided into two main camps. ‘Primordialists’ tend to see nations as natural phenomena, evolved through a shared history, culture, ethnicity or geography, a theory usually supported by nationalists as it advocates the existence of a shared identity.  Yet rationalists argue – and the quadrupling of countries in the last century seems to support – the alternative ‘constructivist’ viewpoint, one that emphasises the illusory or contingent nature of shared culture. Constructivists often see language and culture as superimposed and a way to achieve nationalistic aims, for example a decree in 1862 which Latinised the Romanian language in order to forge a stronger connection with the Occidental culture.  It is certainly difficult to see culture in organic or objective terms when seemingly authentic traditions such as the French croissant, the Andean cholita dress and Scottish haggis appear to have originated in Vienna, Spain and Scandinavia respectively.

Closely related to arguments of cultural heritage are historic and ethnic justifications for nations that, as mentioned in Terragno’s statement, look at the settlement of regions.  Yet this raises problems of its own as there is then the question of whether the first or the longest-term settlers have more rights, an issue which Chile is currently struggling with as modern Mapuches make claims on their ancestral lands.  Furthermore, the subjectivity of history as a discipline often means that the issue can be well-argued from both sides, as shown in the historical claims for the Falklands/Malvinas.

As for political ideology, nations can be a way to divide people into groups which best serve their interests and Swedish political scientist Erik Ringmar links the existence of nations to democracy by arguing that the phrase “rule by the people” is usually interpreted as “rule by our people”.  Many nationalist political parties play on this link between regional and democratic values, for example the name of the Irish Republican Party Sinn Féin translates roughly as “we ourselves”.  Yet arguing that everyone in a nation shares certain interests is out-dated considering the heterogeneous nature of modern society and politics.

With the rise of the global market the question of economic autonomy is taking an ever more central role, but it often leaves us with the dilemma of whether to prioritise the interests of larger or smaller areas. Britain and Argentina’s plans for oil exploitation in the Falklands/Malvinas or the recent success of separatist movements in the Basque country and the Scottish independence movement indicate how economic factors can be decisive in both sovereignty claims and separatism, but this does not necessarily mean that immediate economic advantages are a viable justification for establishing national boundaries.  While separatists usually argue that economic output does not equal input, a criticism of this stance is that it is a betrayal of national unity.  For example, the ‘what goes around comes around’ argument of supporters of national unity in Bolivia reminds separatists of the Santa Cruz department that while the province is currently the most economically prosperous, in the past both La Paz and Potosí have carried the country economically.  So while economic benefits are often a reason for nations to unify or separate, economic conditions are just as subject to change as cultural and ideological ones, making it an inconsistent and impractical way of defining what should be a nation.

Probably the most frequently used justification for Argentine ownership of the Falklands Islands/Malvinas is their geographic proximity to Latin America. While in this case Argentina is clearly much closer to the islands, the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands dispute has shown us this cannot work as a general rule: China argues that the islands are 5km closer to Taiwan than the Japanese island of Ishigaki and lie on the Chinese continental shelf, while Japan points out that the Islands are actually 330km from the Chinese mainland.  Furthermore, if geographic similarities are the defining factor then why is Argentina not divided into countries called ‘Patagonia’, ‘Rio de la Plata’, ‘Amazonia’ and ‘Andina’?

None of these arguments for national identity are failsafe and this is one of the major reasons for prolonged and devastating wars over national identity which have touched every corner of the globe, from the Chechen Wars, to the Liberation Tigers of Tami Eelam in Sri Lanka, to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Iraqi Kurdistan.  Not only are the conflicts widespread, but once they have begun they are often self-exacerbating, with cultural historian Peter Burke pointing out that in times of conflict a group identity becomes stronger, making it even more difficult to reach a compromise.

Politicians on both sides of the issue have professed their desire to avoid bloodshed in the current Falklands/Malvinas conflict, but past history and high economic stakes have aroused fears on both sides that events could turn violent.  The above examples show the impossibility and undesirability of having a ‘one-size fits all’ formula for national identity so, in the absence of a flawless solution, holding a referendum for the residents of the Falklands Islands/Malvinas is the most democratic option we have.  It will allow the people who will be affected most by the decision to decide what “rule by our people” really means, regardless of their justification for it; if one thing is for sure it is that feeling part of a nation is at least as important as being able to prove it using rational argument.  If Argentina is willing forget the bygone Mapuches who inhabited what they feel is now their nation, they should forget about whoever previously inhabited the islands and give the current population the right to call it their nation, whoever the sovereign power may be.