The risk of tilting toward Britain

There are a good many Americans who seem to harbor a secret guilt for their 1776 successful revolt against British colonialism. Which explains why, despite the 1814 British capture and sacking of Washington, these Americans, led by much of the media, consistently reflect a pro-British bias.

This has become increasingly apparent in the present Argentine-British confrontation over the disputed islands off the coast of South America. Originally portrayed as a comic opera, the conflict soon surprised many reporters and commentators when its ominous historic, political, military, and strategic implications began to surface.

Historically, the disputed islands were forcefully seized by Britain before the Monroe Doctrine reached its 10th anniversary. The former Argentinian occupants were never given the choice of self-determination and were instead expediently expelled and replaced by imported Britons. It is their 1,800 descendants who today occupy the islands.

Against the well-known record of past British colonialism on every continent and the above forceful expulsion of conquered inhabitants, the British demand of self-determination for the present occupants does not carry much persuasive weight among Latin Americans.

Traditionally, Britain has often used procrastination to ''muddle through'' unwelcome negotiations. The Gibraltar issue is another current illustration. Caught off guard by the sudden outburst of Argentinian impatience in this instance, British officials and ambassadors have tried by every means to pressure Washington to favor their side. From the point of view of their interests, this is understandable.

For the United States, however, the stakes of the conflict are vast, complex, and fraught with unpredictable dangers. Placed in a tearing dilemma, the NATO alliance pulls Washington toward Britain while the 1947 Rio Pact commits all American nations, including the US, to the defense of any of them attacked by an extra-hemispheric power.

The conflict also transcends the main protagonists. It is well known that there is little sympathy among other Latin American nations toward Argentina's recurrent military regimes and traditional arrogance. But the importance of the underlying issue here overcomes this latent aversion.

As colonialism and foreign intervention are still vividly present in the Latin American memory, it is not surprising today, for example, that a democratic Venezuela should side unreservedly with authoritarian Argentina. The US itself, not free from past aggressive sins in the hemisphere, is still suspiciously watched by its Southern neighbors. Particularly since time and again, Latin Americans have seen themselves postponed because of European priorities or treated paternalistically as secondary concerns of the US.

The conflict is further complicated by the undeniable Soviet influence hovering over the hemisphere. The emergence of the Soviets as a superpower has represented to many Latin Americans a welcome curb to restrain formerly uncontested powers supremacies over Latin America.

At the outset of the conflict, the US wisely adopted a noncommital mediation posture, resisting mounting pressures for a tilt toward Britain. But when such pressures succeeded and Washington gave up its diplomatic flexibility to side with Britain and risked the alienation of the strategic rearguard by applying sanctions against Argentina, the actual and potential ramifications became grave indeed. Some are already apparent. By siding with a power sustaining colonial claims with force, Washington appears to sanction a return to the gunboat diplomacy so painfully remembered by Latin Amercians.

By failing to defend an American country attacked for trying to recover territory lost to colonial aggression, the US detracts credibilty from the Rio Pact and practically decrees its future collapse. And finally, by supporting a non-American power, Washington has given a death blow to the withering remnants of the Monroe doctrine.

But more ominous, if the US contributes to Argentina's eventual humiliation, such achievement would prompt each Latin American member of a defunct Rio Pact to seek other arrangements to secure more effective temporary or permanent ''world protection'' inside or outside the hemisphere. Obviously the Soviet Union would be the main beneficiary from such diplomatic diaspora. It would be placed in the unearned position of welcoming into its iron grip every Latin American fugitive in flight from real or imaginary threats of renewed imperialism.

The strategic stakes are immense for the US. Western Europe and NATO can be considered as its front line, but the whole of Latin America is indisputably the vital rear guard of the US. If the US must make the agonizing choice between the front or rear guard as vital alternatives for its survival, it should do so upon strategic and self-centered considerations only. For if on the contrary over-zealous Anglophilia were able to dictate to Washington a potentially self-destructive tilt, it could prove tragic for the US and for the whole American hemisphere.

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