A month or so ago the anxiety was genuine. A lot of people all around the world were talking about the possibility of a big war. Even now a good many articles still are appearing in the press discussing whether the world today is in a condition similar to 1914. Will we once more be hearing "the guns of August?"
There are still a number of smoldering situations that could lead to trouble. Yet somehow, for the moment at least, the sense of danger has abated. Everyone seems to be going around trying to damp down explosive situations, rather than stirring them up.
French President Giscard d'Estaing did not actually achieve a thing by suddenly slipping off to Warsaw for a surprise meeting with Leonid Brezhnev of Moscow. Yet the mere fact that Mr. Brezhnev wanted the meeting shows Moscow is trying to smooth down the fear that it raised by its own invasion of Afghanistan. Mr. Brezhnev at least wanted to be seen with olive branch in hand rather than the sword.
The olive branch is not convincing. Mr. Brezhnev had proceeded on his trip to Warsaw to meet Giscard d'Estaing with what purported to be an offer to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan. It was not an interesting offer. He would take his troops out, he said, provided everyone else would agree in effect to a permanent Soviet puppet regime in that country.
No one outside the Soviet bloc is going to buy that one. The others could not honor it even if willing to agree to it. The Afghans themselves will in due time determine the nature of the regime in Kabul. It seems unlikely that any regime satisfactory to Moscow could survive there without Soviet troops.
But Moscow's "peace offensive" does indicate that in the Kremlin they know they frightened not only a lot of people in the outside world, but also in their own camp as well. The sudden use of heavy force in Afghanistan did cause more of a shudder around the world than was probably expected. And general awareness of that deed, and of its continuing and violent sequel in the Afghan mountains, is reviving now that attention is less intensely focused on Iran and on Washington's troubles with Iran.
The American hostages are still being held, somewhere in Iran. Washington is still officially pursuing a policy of sanctions against Iran on the theory that external pressure might influence people inside Iran. The allies are backing away from that policy on the contrary theory that sanctions would only delay the release of the hostages.
But much as official Washington deplores what it sees as the nonsupportive behavior of the allies about sanctions (Secretary of State Edmund Muskie dutifully scolded them at midweek), the fact is that the nonsupport has tended to defuse the Iranian situation. The less Western pressure on Iran, the less the Iranians feel they might need to turn to Moscow for support. UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim has taken advantage of this lessening of tension to send one of his lieutenants to Tehran in the hope of reopening negotiations about the hostages.
The important gain, from the point of view of the allies, has been to somewhat defuse the Iranian crisis, which in turn had been helping Moscow by diverting attention from Moscow's Afghan adventure. That had to be done in spite of Washington, which is inevitably preoccupied with hostages.
The Washington tone has itself changed a little since Cyrus Vance shook things up by resigning the secretaryship of state over the use of American arms in a futile effort to rescue the hostages. His successor, Mr. Muskie of Maine, was allowed to chat with Moscow's Andrei Gromyko in Vienna.
Nothing Mr. Muskie said, or could say, to Mr. Gromyko is going to start Soviet troops coming out of Afghanistan soon. But it could, and probably did, drive home in Mr. Gromyko's mind the plain fact that detente is not compatible with a massive Soviet army surging into a neighboring country. Someday, if the men in the Kremlin find their Afghan venture too expensive, they might look around for a face-saving way out. Meanwhile Mr. Muskie can talk to Mr. Gromyko, but there will be no SALT II and no more detente unless or until there can be confidence that the Kremlin knows that invading Afghanistan was a mistake that is not to be repeated anywhere else.
Severe rioting and political uncertainty in South Korea always causes anxiety in major capitals. The government of South Korea was brought down on May 20 by such rioting. Korea is equally important to the United States, Japan, China, and the Soviet Union. The present division of Korea into north and south is tolerable for all. Any change in the present condition of a divided country would immediately revive the danger of another great power confrontation. The attempt of North Korea to conquer South Korea set off the first serious war after the end of World War II.
So far, North Korea has not tried to take advantage of the turmoil in South Korea. China is probably using what influence it has on the North Koreans to restrain them. The Chinese would not want any development in Korea that might open up opportunities for exploitation by Moscow. Moscow certainly does not want China improving its position in that area. About all anyone on the outside can do is hope for the earliest possible return of political stability to South Korea.
Nothing that has happened over recent days proves that the world is not slipping dangerously toward "guns of August" as in 1914. But certainly the drift in that direction seems to have been newly halted. It's almost as though the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan and the US attempt to rescue its hostages by force had somehow alerted the world to the danger of another 1914, and caused everyone to pull back just a little. At the moment at least, there is no clearly identifiable drift toward another world war.