The absence of US President Carter from Belgrade on the day they honored Josip Broz Tito with a great funeral was probably the weightiest single event in world affairs of the past week. It underlined what many people will perceive as Washington's insensitivity to the human feelings of other peoples.
Leonid Brezhnev from Moscow was in Belgrade on the funeral day. So was Hua Guofeng from Peking. The Kings of Norway, Sweden, and Belgium were there. So were West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and the prime ministers of Japan, France, Italy, and Spain. So were Britain's Prince Philip and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
It was an important event to the peoples of Europe, and of the communist world. Marshal Tito had for 35 years kept his people out of Moscow's clutches, had manned and stabilized an important stretch of East-West frontier. And he was the last great figure of World War II.
The President of the United States was not there on the funeral day.
Yes, he sent his vice-president. And Walter Mondale has become something of a force in domestic US politics due to his diligence in substituting on the hustings for his Rose-Garden-bound chief. But that counts for little in the outside world. Out there he is just another obscure American person. He is not the President of the United States.
Lyndon Johnson, when he was President of the United States, failed to attend the funeral they held in London for Winston Spencer Churchill. That might have been and, indeed, should have been an Anglo-American family affair. Churchill and Roosevelt had been leaders of the grand alliance that triumphed in that war. The partnership of the two dominated the history of a generation. It shaped Anglo- American foreign policy from 1945 down to that day in 1965 when the President in Washington did not understand how important his presence, or absence, on that day would be in the eyes and feelings of others.
The British Prime Minister had been scheduled to go to Washington during the following week. His trip was canceled. The British had felt that absence at the Churchill funeral. The Anglo-American relationship cooled. The towering figure of Charles de Gaulle had been there, and was noticed by all.
The official US representative was Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who was unable at the last moment to attend. The camera in St. Paul's Cathedral noticed the presence of de Gaulle, the absence of the American President and of his representative. France has since become the most important single factor in British foreign policy, the United States a diminishing factor.
Richard Nixon sensed such things better than did Lyndon Johnson or Mr. Carter. President Nixon went to Paris for the memorial service for Charles de Gaulle.
The Yugoslavs would have felt more comfortable about their future had Mr. Carter joined them in Belgrade for the Tito funeral. It would have symbolized in human terms the concern of the United States for the continued independence of their country. Moscow has wanted it back ever since Marshal Tito broke out from under Moscow's discipline and asserted, and maintained, his independence.
Is the passing of Marshal Tito from the European scene going to be another opportunity for the Kremlin? Everyone asks the question. None can be sure of the answer. But Moscow has certainly declared its interest by having Mr. Brezhnev present.
That Soviet presence was balanced, a little, by Hua Guofeng of China. He cares about Yugoslavia. He wants it to continue to be independent of Moscow, and to continue to help hold Soviet influence out of Western Europe.
The Yugoslavs could feel more comfortable about their future if only they could be sure that Mr. Carter in Washington cares at least as much about them as does the head of government in faraway Peking. Washington is closer, and could, if it chose, do more to help the Yugoslavs than can overpopulated and underdeveloped China. Mr. Carter sent a polite message. But written words do not have the visibility of a presidential presence on the occasions of state funerals. The cameras are relentless in noticing who is present -- and who is not.
All of which adds up to the immediately important fact that another week has gone by during which the world's attention was diverted from Afghanistan, where Soviet troops are still roaming the valleys and mountainsides, hunting down and killing dissident Afghans.
New during the week was made by the release of the Iranian hostages held in their embassy in London.British commandos did a brilliant raid on the building. Everything worked.
News was also made during the week by continuing tension between Arabs and Israelis in Palestine. Talks looking toward Arab autonomy in the occupied territories failed to make progress. The Arabs are restless, many feeling that hope again deferred is too much. If outside diplomacy cannot free them from life under Israeli arms, then they will have to take matters into their own hands. Increasingly they are doing so.
That means that a rising proportion of the Israeli armed forces is required to hold a lid on the Arab unrest.
This, is turn, means that Moscow retains the opportunity to pose as the friend of Arabs and Muslims throughout the Middle East. Washington is being portrayed as the enemy of Arabs and Muslims. The nonrelease of Americans held hostage in Iran continues to undermine US influence throughout the area.
The Soviets are fortunate to have so much other news diverting awareness of their own activities in Afghanistan. Mr. Carter might have countered some of that advantage by taking two days out of his campaigning concerns at home to fly to Belgrade. But like Lyndon Johnson, he did not realize how important funerals can be in history. Richard Nixon did.