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Fighting Fire with Water: The Story of a Non-Story in the Falklands/Malvinas Islands

I’m wrapping up what I think is my 25th anniversary AAG meeting today (although I missed 3 or 4 of them over the years, since Miami in 1991) and its been a slightly strange one. I’m not sure if it’s because the conference has been spread across four hotels, or because I’m coming off the intense high of a week-long field trip to Jerusalem with my Territory & Geopolitics class, or because I still haven’t gotten over the 11-time-zone jet lag from the aforementioned field trip, or because San Francisco is an increasingly dystopian city, or just because I’m jaded by the AAG scene. But, for whatever reason, its been an oddly unintense conference. I’m not saying the conference has been disappointing; it’s just that, for me at least, its lacked some of the usual intensity. And this is so despite my having seen some excellent papers and my having had  some wonderful conversations with past, present, and future students, mentors, co-authors, and new friends.

But perhaps the main reason why I’ve sort of floated above this year’s conference is because I’ve been waking up at strange hours (facilitated by the aforementioned jet lag) to stop World War III. Well, maybe not stopping World War III, but I have been doing my little part for world peace, which I guess counts for something.

It all started my first morning in San Francisco, when I woke up at 4am to find an email from The Conversation inviting me to write a comment piece on the new Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf decision on the Falklands/Malvinas. Having just spent something like 36 hours in transit (Tel Aviv – Luton – Heathrow – Toronto – San Francisco) I had no idea what decision they were talking about. However the WiFi in my hotel room was pretty good, so I started doing some very early morning internet research.

Things got strange, though, when all I could find on the internet regarding recent happenings in the South Atlantic was that the UN had issued a news release a few days earlier that in passing noted that several weeks before that a subcommission of the CLCS had endorsed the science behind Argentina’s outer continental shelf submission. This was a decision with no direct political significance. However, Argentina lost no time scripting the decision as a ‘win’ in the Falklands/Malvinas sovereignty dispute. The implied story was something like: 1) Argentina claims the Malvinas; 2) the UN says that Argentina’s science asserting geological contiguity between Argentina and the islands (and beyond) is valid; 3) Therefore, the UN has recognised the Malvinas as a part of Argentina.

The British press, in turn, reacted predictably: If this was a ‘win’ for Argentina (which it really wasn’t, except perhaps to the extent that it affirmed that Argentina has good geoscientists) then it must be a ‘loss’ for the UK (which it also wasn’t, since often the verification one state’s OCS claim will also support their rival’s claim). In that case, the narrative went on, the UK must teach Argentina and the UN a lesson and, if necessary, prepare to up the military ante. Pro-EU Conservative politicians meanwhile saw an opportunity to reassert their nationalism: Even if they were not standing up to Brussels they would stand up to Buenos Aires. And, as a bonus, they could show their constituents that they were following in the footsteps of the revered Mrs Thatcher.

As I thought more about this (and how to spin a Conversation article), I came to see that although there really wasn’t a story here, there was a story in the fact that there wasn’t a story (and in the fact that everyone else sought to make a story out of this non-story). I can only hope that the article that I published later that day made a small contribution toward calming down the debate. In a radio interview that I did the next morning with the British Forces Broadcasting Services, where the other guest was a representative of the Falklands Legislative Assembly, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Falklands residents were as nonplussed by the CLCS recommendation as I was. Indeed, the Falklands representative seemed almost as upset with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office for not providing clear legal guidance on the Argentine claim and for not providing a clear rebuttal as he was angry at the Argentines.

There are some interesting parallels between the (willful?) misunderstanding of technical issues that so often has led to fears of a ‘scramble for the Arctic’ and the current, self-fulfilling reports of a brewing ‘scramble for the South Atlantic’. In both cases, simplistic understandings of the way in which power is exerted through and over ocean space – as exercised through maps, lines, territories, and legal pronouncements – is filtered through an ontology derived from notions of solid, surficial, static land. In the talk which I’ll be giving in a few hours in San Francisco, Berit Kristoffersen and I will be exploring these questions with reference to the Canadian and Norwegian cartographies of the ice edge. However, the issue speaks to broader questions as well about how territory is achieved in spaces that exceed the limits of land.

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