A major new phenomenon of the last three decades is the increasing ability of smaller nations without military strength to confront the major powers. This is contrary to the long-accepted premise of traditional warfare resting on military force.
The question is, what has created the leverage whereby a small nation without military strength can wreak havoc on the rest of the world?
Overshadowing all else, the most powerful influence upon the world over the last decade without doubt has been the rise of electronic communications. The tying together of people by a network of signals bouncing off geo-stationary satellites positioned over the globe has reoriented the conduct of warfare. Telecommunications has become a weapon giving the militarily weak equal voice with the strong. If you believed "the pen is mightier than the sword," then "the bird (satellite) is mightier than the bomb."
For one moment imagine all the press and broadcast media coverage of the Iranian crisis did not exist. Not one frame of videotape; not one sound-cut from a foreign correspondent. Were this the case, there would be no major conflict, no international crisis, and no escalating threat of world war. News media make the difference, and their powerful imprint on the Iranian crisis signals a major change in the conduct of future conflicts.
What has happened is that the battlefield has shifted from geography and the physical to psychology and ideology. The Iranian crisis is the clearest conflict of psychology and ideology to date and is the precursor to future conflicts. The new ingredient is not greater armed forces, not the number of battalions or kinds of weapons, but communications.
Electronic communications allowed for three changes. First, it gave accessibility to the masses. While the printing press opened up a new mode of communications, in comparison to radio and television it had minor impact on the mass of people and the great majority of countries. There is a relatively low print-literacy level worldwide and even lower with respect to knowledge of current events. However, with one telecast from Manila of a Muhammad Ali fight, the potential of telecommunications is clear. Accessibility to the masses is opened on an unprecedented scale.
The second factor is feedback. Not only is the accessibility to the people immediate, but it also provides feedback between the leaders of each nation and their own constituencies. President Carter's hardening position in the Iranian crisis may be seen in direct relationship to the polls and media reports reflecting the opinion of the American people. Even the President may not know for sure the extent to which his decisions are influenced by this knowledge.
Likewise, Khomeini stated repeatedly in an interview broadcast with him that he was doing "the will of the people." In doing so, he implicitly recognized the underlying basis of immediate feedback in the electronic political process.
Third, both the accessibility and feedback factors lead to a further result. The combination allows for substantive changes in positions taken through the media. Unlike the Roman messenger who travelled the Pyrenees to bring the latest ultimatums of the warring outposts, the positions of nations may be changed as quickly as the next news release or interview. In addition, the accessibility and immediate feedback to the political leadership of the opinion of the populace may directly affect the course of decisions on a daily basis. It is almost as though a plebiscite were held on each issue.
With communications playing such a major role, the governments of all nations , whether democracy or monarchy, have a common operational base of a "plebiscy," for want of a better word. Through electronic communications the mass constituencies are making a direct and ongoing impact on their day-to-day government. Every poll becomes an election, every issue a referendum, every action a plebiscite. It is only by virtue of this communications process through the masses and their leadership that Khomeini and the Iranian students can state that their avowed intention is to influence the United States's opinion of the Shah. Communications has become their only significant weapon.
If by all this we were able to avoid the devastation of war, it might be considered a step forward. However, global communication has woven a network of added complexity, sophistication, and uncertainty. It has changed the ground rules of traditional warfare and has made political leadership more sensitive to and more informed about the current will of the populace, but also more burdened and more susceptible to the immediate reaction of the masses. Over the airwaves we have been brought the close view of "marketplace rule" and satellite lynchings. But, as ugly and uncivilized as are the scenes from Iran, we are still all human beings on this Earth, and we have more in common with each other than we differ.