We are fooling ourselves if we view the Iranian crisis as some freak accident. Better to recognize it as a painful illustration of the dilemmas we face in a word where the worn cliche has acquired a horrifying reality: As nations become increasingly interdependent economically, the cultural and political bonds that link them seem to grow weaker.
Iran and the United States aren't behaving as differently as we would like to believe. Both countries are groping after a past that is forever gone: the United States after its once-clear economic and political dominance; Iran, after a traditional, preindustrial society in which religious leaders and values reigned supreme.
That is the modern paradox. As countries become more subject to outside influence, they seek to deny the intrusion by resurrecting history. If Americans are learning the impossibility of this, so is Iran. The urbanization and population growth of the past 20 years have made Iran heavily dependent on food imports and industrial employment. Change has trapped the Ayatollah Khomeini as much as it has President Carter.
We haven't become weaker so much as other nations have become stronger. All our advantages have eroded; the overwhelming military dominance, the unquestioned economic stability, the unsurpassed technological superiority, the boundless natural resources. We confront a world in which nations still aren't equal, but are less unequal.
Consequently more and more events slip beyond our control. It is easy to say that we aligned ourselves too closely with the shah but, even in retrospect, it isn't clear whether another policy would have made much difference. Other nations were eager to sell the shah any arms that we wouldn't.
And in guns, as in almost everything else, the market is broadening. Technology and wealth are spreading. According to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 12 "developing" countries exported arms in 1977. Brazil is beginning to ship armored cars and jet trainer aircraft; Isreal sells guided missiles and transport planes.
Don't think that we can shut ourselves off from these changes. They have gone too far. Even without our critical dependence on energy imports, too many powerful constituencies have a sizable stake in internationalism. About one-third of America's grain goes abroad, and about half of our production of commerical jets. At last count, U.S. banks had $125 billion outstanding in foreign loans. In 1977, 8.3 million Americans journeyed overseas and 6.5 million foreigners came here. Vested interests protect all these flows.
Moreover, if many of our problems originate aborad, their solutions also may lie -- at least partially -- aborad. In a recent speech, Donald E. Stngel, a director of the Export-Import Bank of the United States persuasively argued that one way to lessen energy scarcity here is to import more energy-intensive products such as fertilizer and aluminum from countries with abundant natural gas or hydroelectric power. Environmental hazards -- atomospheric and oceanic pollution, control of nuclear and chemical wastes -- increasingly demand international policing.
In short, there seems to be an historic drift toward global community, even of the most turbulent sort. Nations that traditionally sought isolation and self-sufficiency have succumbed progressively to the suction of world commerce: most conspicuously China and the Soviet Union. Money increasngly flows across national borders, as do workers, even when countries (such as the United States) impose official restrictions. According to one estimate cited in a recent report by the Worldwatch Institute, such "economic refugees" now may total 20 million.
By temperament and training, Americans aren't well equipped to deal with this world. We are being thrown into contact and conflict with peoples whose histories and motivations we hardly understand at all.
On the simplest level, few of us speak anyone else's language: A presidential commission recently reported that only 8 percent of American colleges and universities have a foreign language entrance requirement against 34 percent in 1966. It is naive to see language training as the path to brotherhood, but it is essential if Americans are to shed the burden they carry overseas: dread of the unfamiliar and dependence on translators.
Our language inadequacies betray a sense of moral superiority that send U.S. foreign policy swinging between extremes of altruism and violence. We like to assume that all good things are compatible. Democracy and economic development go hand in hand; prosperity means peace and, probably, friendship. Life would be easier if these things were ture but, unfortunately, they aren't.
A central dilemma today revolves around this question: How do we deal with governments whose friendship or resources or trade we value when we disapprove of the regime's politics?
To say, for example, that American support for the shah prostituted our commitment to democracy is an easy judgement, but one that smacks of moral absolutism. The shah's torture was not pretty, but neither is the anarchy and religious tyranny of Khomeini. Repression in Chile may not be appealing, but neither was the economic and political chaos of Salvador Allende. And what about South Korea?
It is also too simplistic to aruge that our self-interest lies in supporting regimes friendly to the United States no matter what their other vices. As the case of Iran demonstrates, excessively close ties to unpopular governments ultimately may boomerang.
But where do American interests lie?
The foreign policy establishment -- too preoccupied with superpower politics -- has few answers. At home and abroad we are suffering the aftereffects of our reduced power. Others take us as a symbol of their frustrations, and we are frustrated by our apparent impotence. We dislike uncertainty and instability, but they are inevitable. The impulse to retreat from this unpleasantness is as understandable as it is inadvisable. Perhaps our refuge is to deal more with others but to expect less: to limit our risks by spreading them.