Rarely, if ever, in modern history has a rocky outcrop as barren, remotely isolated, and sparsely populated as the Falkland Islands been the center of an international crisis with such potentially global consequences.
In terms of great-power geopolitics, the most embarrassingly threatened actor in the drama is the United States.
This explains both the near-superhuman efforts by the Reagan administration to bring the conflict between Britain and Argentina to a speedy, peaceful end, and the pessimism and gloom of some of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s statements when these efforts have been set back.
Admittedly, the immediate political future of President Reagan is not at stake in the Falklands imbroglio -- as is the political life of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and of Argentine junta leader Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri. But the crisis, particularly if it gets further out of hand, could have long-term consequences for the global role of the US.
At risk, even if sometimes only by implication, are:
* In the North Atlantic and European theater, the credibility of US commitment to its principal allies, of whom Britain is one of the most important.
* In the South Atlantic, the advantageous position of the US, which could be threatened if deterioration of the Falklands crisis offers an opening for Soviet exploitation.
* In the American hemisphere, the survival of both the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (the Rio pact of 1947) and the Organization of American States (OAS), founded the following year. (Both these are outgrowths of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.)
* Also in this hemisphere, the relationship -- sometimes strained -- between Latins and the English-speaking US.
* In the world, the modus vivendi between the two main religious cultures of European origin. These are the till-now globally dominant English-speaking Protestant camp and the Hispanic Roman Catholic camp, which has had to play second fiddle since the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the subsequent European settlement of pacesetting North America by English-speakers.
This religious issue is such a sensitive one that there is an understandable tendency to avoid meeting it head-on, particularly in those societies where religious pluralism and tolerance are seen as virtues.
But religion -- above all, fundamentalism within the world's three great monotheistic faiths -- is in fact playing an increasing role in global politics in this last quarter of the 20th century.
Daedalus, the quarterly journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, devoted its entire winter 1982 issue to this. In it, George Armstrong Kelly of Johns Hopkins University writes: ''When I speak of the United States, I am referring to what in my judgment is a Protestant . . . culture. . . . Although Roman Catholics are, by far, our largest single church and have an average per capita income slightly higher than that of the Protestants, few who have lived their lives in the United States would doubt that dissenting Protestantism is the wellspring of our ethos. Despite distinctive Catholic and Jewish contributions to our political, professional, and intellectual life, America is most plausibly to be examined as a land of the avatars and pathology of Protestantism. Both Catholicism and Judaism, by multiplying and prospering in America, have become partly Protestantized. . . .''
In this context, it is not surprising that most Americans are instinctively drawn to support Protestant Britain over the Falklands, while Argentina draws instinctive support (although of varying degree) from virtually all lands of Catholic Latin America and from such governments as those of Catholic Spain and Ireland.
This traps the government of the US in a cross fire, since foreign-policy planners in Washington are aware of the dangers for long-term US interests in the hemisphere if Latin America as a whole is driven into active anti-Yankee hostility by US acquiescence or participation in humiliation of the Argentine junta.
The British case is based on the perception that the Royal Navy has been committed in the South Atlantic to the defense of a principle: that seizure of territory by force cannot be condoned. Before sovereignty over the Falklands can be discussed, t(e British argue, the Argentine military must be pressured into disgorging the islands. All things point to the British readying themselves for an all-out assault on the Falklands if the current search for a diplomatic solution within a UN framework fails within the coming week.
Time is not on Britain's side because of weather and geography - which is why the Argentine junta may be stalling. The longer Argentine soldiers remain in occupation of the Falklands, the harder it will be to dislodge them.
The US accepts that Britain is defending a principle. But the Reagan administration is cautious about going too openly beyond that, lest US interests in Latin America be put in too great jeopardy.
Argentina has maintained that its sovereignty over the Falklands must be recognized as any part of a cease-fire agreement intended to produce a peaceful resolution of the crisis. This is unacceptable to Britain.
Against this background, it would seem that an escalation of hostilities, with further loss of lives, can be avoided only by one side or the other, or both, being willing with grace to accept some loss of face.