The crisis in the South Atlantic requires a sense of perspective on U.S. interests in the hemisphere. Some people will argue that U.S. support for Great Britain has severely damaged America's relations with Latin America. To have supported Argentina--or to have remained neutral--would have protected American eonomic and political interests. Our future is with the hemisphere, they say. In defending an outmoded, imperial assertion of colonialism, the United States has lost an important opportunity to redefine its relations with Latin America.

A more realistic view of the U.S. role in the hemisphere is that the current crisis over possession of the Falkland Islands dramatically illustrates the rapidly diminishing control Washington has in Latin American affairs. While it is a particularly dramatic and tragic event, the Argentine-British confrontation is part of a pattern that will grow more pronounced in the remaining decades of the century. The Falklands controversy is an overdue occasion to start rethinking U.S.-Latin American affairs.

The exaggerated domination of the hemisphere by the United States following World War II rested on America's economic stewardship and on an inter-American security system created to preserve the Americas from perceived subversion by the Soviet Union. As late as the mid-1960s, the Rio Treaty served to justify U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic. It had been invoked earlier in the Cuban missile crisis. A majority of Latin American states granted the United States great leeway in exercising its vigilante role in the hemisphere.

Subtle but substantial changes emerged in the 1970s. Notwithstanding the involvement of the United States in the overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile in 1973, Washington's presence was both less feared and less relevant to a majority of Latin American countries. The U.S. foreign aid program rapidly dwindled, funds for educational and cultural programs decreased, and, following the aggressive assertion of President Carter's human rights policy in 1977, military relations deterioriated and arms transfers and sales to many countries were canceled.

In turn, Latin America experienced a period of rapid economic growth and diversification. Countries such as Mexico became oil exporters. Brazil grew to be the eighth largest market economy in the world. In foreign affairs, Colombia and Venezuela led the Andean countries in asserting a distinct Latin American position on the return of the canal to Panamanian sovereignty and on ending the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.

In failing to gain Argentine and Brazilian adherence for a grain embargo against the Soviet Union in 1978, the Carter administration learned that the United States no longer could expect automatic adherence to its foreign policy initiatives when they contradicted the interests of Latin American countries.

The Reagan administration learned a similar lesson when Mexico and France jointly supported U.S. negotiations with the Salvadoran guerrillas. Mexican President Lopez Portillo's initiative earlier this year--to urge the United States to negotiate with the Cubans and Nicaraguans--again demonstrated the independence of Latin American thinking in foreign affairs.

The Falklands issue demonstrates that today not even the personal magnetism of the U.S. secretary of state is sufficient to deter armed conflict in the hemisphere. The crisis strikingly highlights the low state to which the inter-American system has fallen. The Organization of American States, long thought to be a cover for U.S. interests, has failed to act as a court of last resort in the confrontation and finds itself deeply divided between the Spanish-speaking states and the Caribbean republics of English heritage.

Unlike the situation in Central America, where the United States retains special economic and political suasion, given the lower levels of development and the immediate security concerns of regional conflict, the economic influence of the U.S. government in Argentina is marginal.

The Soviet Union, in contrast, will purchase 80 percent of Argentine grain exports this year. Soviet support for Argentine nuclear and hydroelectric projects is growing. Argentina, never a strong friend or ally of the United States, has indicated clearly that its national interest will be defined--and defended--in Buenos Aires, not in Washington. The hopes of the Reagan administration for a new alliance with Argentina against communism in the hemisphere has probably aborted over the overriding issue, for the Argentines, of sovereignty and anti-colonialism.

While the colonial issue is not one that will surface frequently in the Americas, the possibilities of regional rivalry and conflict are real. Moreover, the states of South America now act with greater autonomy in defining their national interest individually and in hemispheric terms. While ties with the United States are important, they are no longer overriding. The institutions created by the United States to protect its interests in the hemisphere no longer serve to do so, nor do they appear very relevant to Latin America.

An imperative of U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s is the need to reassess both the institutions and the dynamics of our relations with the hemisphere, particularly the states of South America. The Falklands crisis merely illustrates the complexity of state-to-state relations in the hemisphere--and between the hemisphere and other world areas. Old models and shopworn rhetoric about hemispheric unity have outlived their usefulness. A new set of relations will be defined, in large part, by the Latin Americans themselves.

The irony is that Argentina, not one of the most popular states of the region and now engaged in a fighting war that threatens the very stability of a long-stable continent, has precipitated the urgent need for new policies. The United States would be foolish to ignore the storm signals and the Latin Americans less than responsible if they fail to meet the challenge.