Falklands: so much for the superpowers

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A British fleet heading purposefully into the South Atlantic with intent to reclaim lost British islands tells us a number of things about the world around us.

So, too, does another interesting event of the past week: President Reagan of the USA says he would like to have a chat with Leonid Brezhnev of the USSR during the month of June.

The first event tells of the decline of the East-West issue from dominant influence in world affairs. It had nothing to do with the fact that the Argentines landed an expeditionary force on the British Falkland Islands and that the British fared forth on the high seas as in times of yore to try to get them back. However, the Soviets were quick to back the Argentines against the British at the UN, at least to the extent of joining the few abstainers on a resolution demanding withdrawal of the Argentine forces.

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It tells us also of the decline in the ability of the superpowers to police and control their respective allies, friends, and clients. The US should have been able to head off this threatened war between its oldest and closest European ally, Britain, and one of its sometimes useful South American associates, Argentina.

During the evening before the Argentine invasion force reached the Falkland Islands, President Reagan telephoned President Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina and urged him to refrain from taking military action. Mr. Reagan spent 50 minutes of his time in the effort. It failed. Argentine troops landed on the main Falkland Island the next day, April 2.

It is simply a cold fact that no one in Washington was able to dissuade the Argentines from doing what they had decided to do. The military junta that rules that important South American country wanted to take those islands by military force. The deed was useful to them in diverting their own public opinion from domestic economic troubles. It was popular, at least in the beginning.

Disapproval in Washington meant nothing to the Argentine leaders. Washington has been talking to them about the possibility of sending an Argentine expedition to Central America to try to destabilize the Sandinista revolutionary regime in Nicaragua.

Their reward was Soviet backing at the UN.

Washington wants things from them. They do not need help from Washington. They recently showed their lack of concern about Washington when they sold grain to the Soviets to make up for President Carter's embargo on US grain.

A hundred years ago Argentina was an economic satellite of Britain, and Britain itself was the premier world power. This could not have happened in those older times. It could not have happened 20 years ago either. Argentina could not have ignored Washington's wishes in such a matter.

But today Britannia no longer rules the seven seas, and a country like Argentina can take care of its own relations with the great powers. It has good trading relations with the USSR even though it is a right-wing military dictatorship. It needs no military protection from Washington against Soviet influence. Being independent, it can act independently. It has.

And that left the British with no effective option. Their territory had been invaded, some 1,800 British citizens held captive by the invaders. London was left with no choice but to send most of what is left of the once-mighty Royal Navy off to the South Atlantic, thereby subtracting a significant naval force from NATO's order of battle in European waters. That was, of course, of some advantage to Moscow which Moscow could and did encourage by backing Argentina at the UN.

However, Moscow was hardly in a position to capitalize in other ways on the British-Argentine situation as it did with the British, French, and Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956. In that case the Soviets used the Suez crisis as a cover for their own violent, and successful, recapture of Hungary.

This time Moscow is restrained from fresh adventures by uncertainty in its own leadership. The signs have multiplied that Leonid Brezhnev is not at present able to exercise control over the Soviet power system. Maneuvering over the political succession has begun. It is taken for granted in Western diplomatic quarters that Mr. Brezhnev's 18-year reign in Moscow is drawing to its close.

In Washington President Reagan expressed the hope that Mr. Brezhnev would be coming to New York for the United Nations debate on arms control scheduled for late June and early July. Mr. Reagan said he would speak at that meeting for the US. He said he hoped Mr. Brezhnev would speak for the USSR and that the two might have an informal talk together.

From current reports about Mr. Brezhnev's physical condition, it seems unlikely that the Soviet leader will be able to travel to New York in June. It seems more likely that a meeting of the Central Committee now rescheduled in May will witness the resignation of Mr. Brezhnev and the announcement of his successor.

At times like this, when the Soviet leadership is going through an internal struggle over the succession, Moscow is unlikely to take any new steps on the world stage. But there is just a possibility that during the final weeks of the Brezhnev reign he might, if he is still capable of doing it, like to move his government's policy a step or two further toward an arms limitation agreement with the US.

The Reagan remark recognizes the possibility and clears the way, should Mr. Brezhnev be willing and able to do something in that matter.

The American President's own attitude toward dealings with the Soviet Union has obviously been pushed into a sea change by the explosion of antinuclear sentiment through the American political scene. The American public mood has shifted radically from a readiness for more guns and military power to a yearning for reassurance that Washington is not heading toward nuclear war.

Mr. Reagan has recognized the change both by speeding up American proposals for a new nuclear arms limitation agreement and now by saying he would like to meet Mr. Brezhnev. This is a far cry from the early Reagan days when the new President was calling the Soviets liars and suggesting by his various posture statements that he would have no dealings with them.

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