John Kerry Sails into a New Falklands Conflict in London

The new U.S. Secretary of State set off alarm bells in London over his comments regarding the U.K.'s disputed possession of the Falkland Islands

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Jacquelyn Martin / Reuters

Reporters ask questions during a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in central London on Feb. 25, 2013

If there’s one thing every incoming U.S. Secretary of State learns fast, it’s that Britannia is a needy and insecure partner, constantly seeking reassurance that America loves and values her, occasionally threatening distance, but only to cling more tightly than ever. John Kerry began with all the right moves on his first official trip abroad since starting his new job earlier this month, landing in London before any other national capital and lavishing praise and gratitude on his hosts. He even produced a winsome little anecdote during a Feb. 25 press conference with U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague that testified to a lengthy association with the U.K. As a young boy, he got lost in London Zoo, recounted Kerry, a touch misty-eyed. He wanted to thank the person who found him.

During that childhood adventure, the dangerous beasts were safely behind bars. In the gilded splendor of London’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Kerry found himself nose to nose with the uncaged British press. They weren’t mollified by his declarations of affection. He’s not Hillary, doesn’t have the X factor — or the XX factor — that make her a crowd puller across Europe.

And there was a key omission in his opening remarks. He name-checked topics discussed with Prime Minister David Cameron over breakfast and in several hours of close talks with Hague: all the hot spots of the Middle East, Afghanistan, U.S.-E.U. trade, the agenda for the next G-8 summit in Northern Ireland in June. But of the Falkland Islands — never call them Las Malvinas in the U.K. — and the increasingly bellicose rhetoric issuing from Argentina, Kerry made no mention.

The FCO organizes press conferences like weddings, visitors on one side, hosts on the other, and inevitably the first question that came whistling from the British side of the aisle was about the Falklands’ planned March 10 to 11 referendum. Islanders will be asked, “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom?” That they will answer with a resounding “Yes!” is not in doubt. That’s the sort of enthusiasm Brits wanted from Kerry too. Instead they got this:

Let me be very clear about our position with respect to the Falklands, which I believe is clear. First of all, I’m not going to comment, nor is the President, on a referendum that has yet to take place, hasn’t taken place. Our position on the Falklands has not changed. The United States recognizes de facto U.K. administration of the islands but takes no position on the question of parties’ sovereignty claims thereto. We support co-operation between U.K. and Argentina on practical matters.

As Kerry left the building, en route for a quick event with the U.S. ambassador and thence to the airport to the next stop of his nine-country tour, London’s Evening Standard newspaper was already printing the headline that is likely to define the London leg: “Visiting John Kerry Refuses to Back Falklands Vote.”

Bigger bear traps await over the next few days, especially in Rome where a Friends of Syria summit scheduled for Thursday may not proceed after Syria’s opposition National Coalition said it would not attend in protest at “the international silence on the crimes committed every day against our people.” Hague, due to participate as well, conveyed a degree of skepticism about whether the summit could be salvaged. Kerry struck a more bullish tone — the Syrian opposition would not be “left dangling in the wind,” he said, and the U.S. was intent on “changing the calculation of President Assad on the ground.” Pushed by the U.S. and beastly British media to flesh out that statement and comment specifically on the prospect of arming the opposition, he retreated into a thicket of double negatives and evasions. “The moment is ripe for us to be considering what more we can do,” he said, adding that “we are not coming to Rome simply to talk.” If the main parties to the discussion fail to show up, that will raise questions about what he’s doing there at all.