The same type of backwater political tripwires that drew the major powers into World War I in 1914 may hold the key to preventing World War III in the 1980s and 1990s.
So say a group of Harvard University researchers who are examining how the United States might avoid a major nuclear war.
The researchers note that American and Soviet efforts to prevent nuclear war have focused primarily on the weapons themselves - arms control efforts such as SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks), and the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force) talks in Europe. They contend that equal attention should be given to the potential causes of wars - more specifically to the events and underlying factors that might lead to a major nuclear conflict.
The basic point, although somewhat simplified, is that nuclear weapons don't start wars - people do.
Emphasizing this human factor in maintaining world peace, the Harvard group is focusing on ''crisis management'' and ''crisis prevention'' in addition to traditional arms control efforts.
''Even if you reduced the number of nuclear weapons by half, you would still have the same problem,'' says Harvard researcher William Ury. ''The most likely way that a nuclear war will happen is through a crisis that gets out of control - like the situation that led to World War I.''
Mr. Ury is one of approximately 50 experts working on the ''Avoiding Nuclear War Project'' at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The project - coordinated by three specialists in the field, Graham T. Allison, Albert Carnesale, and Joseph S. Nye - is designed to take a broad look at a range of issues and scenarios from the perspective of whether an action, decision, or strategy increases or decreases the risk of nuclear war.
The multiyear project, funded by a $1.5 million Carnegie Corporation grant, draws together experts from a variety of academic disciplines - historians, physicists, anthropologists, economists, and political scientists. In addition to developing a framework to assess the risks of nuclear war, the project seeks to draw up an agenda of specific actions for reducing those risks. The results are expected to be assembled into a book later this year.
''It is another window on a problem which scholars and governments have been wrestling with for the last 38 years,'' says Dr. Allison, dean of the Kennedy School and author of the ''Essence of Decision,'' a 1971 book examining the Cuban missile crisis.
Indicative of the perspective of the Harvard research is a recent study cowritten by Ury and Richard Smoke for the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. It recommended the establishment of jointly manned crisis-control centers to be established in both Moscow and Washington. The two centers would be linked by teleconferencing facilities. This would represent a significant upgrading over the existing Washington-Moscow hot line, which is a teletype system.
The study itself analyzes past US-Soviet crises such as the Berlin blockade, the Cuban missile crisis, and the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. It looks at not only how crises develop and escalate, but also where specific actions might have defused a crisis or at least given decisionmakers more time in which to increase their options. The intent was partly to identify potential ''firebreaks ,'' or opportunities to halt a seemingly out-of-control crisis.
Forest fire analogies are common in strategic scenerios. If left untended for too long, a political crisis, like a brush fire, may eventually rage out of control.
Along these lines, the Harvard researchers view the outset of World War I like this: The assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and rapid military mobilization were precipitating causes of the war (the sparks); the Austro-Russian rivalry in the Balkans and Serbian adventurism were intermediate causes (the brush); and the rigidity of European alliances was a deep cause (the trees).
Savvy diplomats in 1914 might have exploited several potential ''firebreaks'' and thus prevented all-out war. They didn't.
''Ironically, the enormous horror of nuclear weapons' effects means that modern leaders have the equivalent of a crystal ball showing them the devastation at the end of a major war,'' wrote the authors of the Harvard Nuclear Study Group's 1983 book, ''Living with Nuclear Weapons.'' Three of the book's six authors are participants in the current ''Avoiding Nuclear War Project.''
Within the context of the Harvard research project, says Allison, avoiding nuclear war becomes ''a prism through which one looks at the whole agenda of international relations.''
It is a framework intended not so much to reach definitive answers to policy dilemmas as to highlight the necessary trade-offs inherent in those dilemmas. It is seen as a means of pointing up the political complexities of the nuclear age.
Thirty years worth of scenerios have prophesied a possible outbreak of World War III as a result of a Soviet-NATO military confrontation in Western Europe.
Fen Hampson, a Harvard researcher studying various options for European security, suggests that it is more likely that a US-Soviet conflict would occur somewhere in the third world - probably the Middle East.
''In Europe the political possibilities are not nil, but they are low,'' Mr. Hampson says, noting that Soviet and Western interests are relatively well defined in East Europe and West Europe. He says the potential for direct superpower involvement in battle is greater in the ''gray areas of the third world.''
But he notes that after such a US-Soviet conflict started in the Third World it might shift to Europe, where greater troop and weapons concentrations are located.
Ury says one way to avoid such confrontations is to work toward getting to know potential adversaries and to increase lines of communication with them. He advocates pre-scheduled annual summits between the leaders of the Soviet Union and of the United States. ''I think personal contact is vital,'' he says.
Not only should the president have a personal ''feel'' for the Soviet leader, but the secretaries of state and defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff should all get to know personally their counterparts in the Soviet Union, says Ury. One frequent expression of decision-makers during crises has been that ''they wish they had known the people on the other side,'' he points out.