After the Versailles Peace Conference, economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a despairing book called "The Economic Consequences of the Peace" in which he glumly forecast that the treaty -- forcing Germany to pay staggering reparations -- would prove a vindictive act that served no one's interests. It would, he prophesied, entrench Europe in stagnation and might propel the Continent towards some dangerous, unknown catastrophe.

The latest OPEC meeting in Caracas evokes the same sense of foreboding. It seems to have left world oil markets in an inherently unstable state: The more oil producers earn in revenues, the less they will want to produce; but the less they produce, the more oil will rise and the more revenues they will earn. This vicious circle risks global economic stagnation and, from that, who knows what else?

As oil supplies tighten, producers are certain to be tempted to use fuel as a political weapon, if only because piling up more overseas investments seems increasingly meaningless. At the same time, any internal political disruption in a major producing nation would threaten acute shortage. And merely listing the largest five OPEC producers emphasizes that possibility: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria and Kuwait.

Countries go to war when essential resources -- food, fuel -- are threatened. In view of the chaos in Iran and the Soviets' raw exercise of force in Afghanistan, the possiblity that all this will spin tragically into military conflict seems far less absurd now than even a year ago. What was so conspicuously missing in Caracas -- as it was at Versailles -- was a sense of community among nations: an appreciation that narrow advantage pursued too ruthlessly often leads to mutual ruin.

Although the ultimate issues are larger, the immediate problems are financial and economic. Recall that the price of oil, driven by the scarcity resulting from Iran's cutbacks, has more than doubled in a year. At the end of 1978, the average OPEC price (before transportation) was nearly $13 a barrel. Now, it is approaching $27 or $28. These prices threaten to corrode the system of international trade

On the one hand, the producers are likely to be swamped with more revenues than they can possibly spend. Rimmer de Vries, chief international economist for Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., has done some sobering arithmetic on this point. Starting with an average price of oil of $30 in 1980 (which is only 7 to 10 per cent above current levels), he estimated OPEC surplus export earnings on a variety of assumptions about future price increases, production levels and OPEC imports.

Actually, the specific assumptions don't make much difference, because in all cases, OPEC nations accumulate massive overseas surplus funds -- between $750 billion and $770 billion by 1985. By Contrast, at the end of 1978 such investments totaled $160 billion, and in 1973 they were only $8 billion. De Vries' assumptions, incidentally, are relatively hopeful against the backdrop of recent history. Oil prices increase from 8 to 21 per cent annually. Production holds level. OPEC's imports increase rapidly, between 16 and 26 per cent annually.

High oil prices also increasingly mock the optimistic assumptions that allowed private bankers to "recycle" such surplus oil funds in the past. No one really expected the huge loans made to developing countries to be paid back. These nations were viewed much as giant corporations are. Many big firms don't reduce their debts, but simply refinance maturing loans and pay interest. Their creditworthiness depends on a cash flow that gives confidence that they can meet their obligations. So, too, It was assumed that rising loans to developing countries were justified by those countries' rising export earnings.

Look at Brazil and the frailty of this logic becomes clear. In 1979, its exports are expected to total about $15 billion, but oil imports along are estimated between $6.5 to $7 billion and the overall trade deficit at about $1.5 billion. Brazil's foreign debt now approaches $50 billion, with annual interest and principal repayments exceeding $10 billion. So far, Brazil has accommodated this debt burden and its trade deficit by simply borrowing more.

How much longer can that continue? Next year, Brazil's oil payments will rise even further. Meanwhile, economic slowdown in the industrialized countries -- Brazil's major markets -- will threaten rapid export growth. The most recent forecast of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was for only one percent economic growth next year for the large, developed nation.

Any system of international commerce requires a minimum sense of mutual interest and trust. This is evaporating. The oil producers are likely to see themselves exchanging their oil for pieces of foreign paper of dubious value and security. No one is likely to believe the American disclaimer that the recent blocking of Iranian financial assets is a unique event. Instead, it seems precisely the sort of economic warfare that could characterize the future.

Nor can private bankers avoid feeling that they are middlemen in an increasingly surrealistic game of paper-shuffling. The analogy between lending to countries and lending to companies was probably never justified, but it now stands challenged not only by the strains of higher oil prices but also by political instability -- in Iran, Korea and Turkey. Countries, unlike companies, have revolutions.

No one knows what will happen. High prices and economic slowdown will depress oil demand, but the decline may be offset by cuts in OPEC output. What is now needed is some sort of political accommodation among oil producers and consumers: minimum agreements on production, prices and investment guarantees. Because the stakes are so high, it could occur. But the terms of such agreements are difficult to imagine and, even if they weren't, producers and consumers seem hopelessly divided among themselves.

At the end of his book, Keynes was of two minds. He felt instinctively that his analysis was "too bad to be true" -- that somehow, things would work out. But he also reminded himself that "catastrophes can still happen, and that modern society is not immune from the very greatest evils." Sixty years later, we have come to the same juncture.