The confrontation between Argentina and Britain over the Malvinas (the Falkland Islands to those who have been living there) is the second recent North-South dispute-- after the Iranian hostage crisis--that has the potential of affecting the world's balance of power in unpredictable ways.

If the Argentine military succeeds in its audacious gamble, its political power will be consolidated; it it loses or is publicly humiliated, it is out. Furthermore a battle between Argentina and the English would have an unsettling effect on the system of alliances of the Western Hemisphere.

This system has been built around the acceptance of both a tacit anti-communist tilt and the explicit principle of non-intervention of all powers, especially extra-continental powers, in issues affecting Latin American territory and resources.

Antagonists in a North- South crisis are not motivated by East-West ideology. The Iranian mullahs, in moving against American symbols in Iran, and the Argentine military, in moving the British out of the Malvinas, have been driven by a conception of their role in what is sometimes called by Americans "nation-building."

All too frequently, the sincere nationalism of regional actors is misread because the U.S. doctrine of national security is geared to evaluate foreign intentions in terms of the global ideological confrontation with the Soviet Union.

In this context, nationalism in the South is interpreted either as a pretext to build a pro-Soviet Communist society or it is seen only as an instrument to create a bulwark against Marxist subversion.

Many influential Americans hold this latter opinion about the nationalistic orientation of the Argentine military's "process," the word the military uses for its six-year rule over the nation. Rarely do they see nationalism as an end in itself: an ideology in which the advancement of state power is given the highest priority, and whose justification is the kind of patriotism that identifies the individual with the state. The kind of patriotism that prepares hearts and minds for fascism.

Surely there are many reasons why the correct inferences were not drawn about Argentina's intentions at the proper time. In the case of the United States, one reason is the highly visible fact that the Argentine military is helping the Reagan administration scare the Nicaraguans in Central America.

Surely some American policy-makers concerned about the global reach of the Central American crisis, and grateful for the Argentine help that is in part motivated by "global" anti-communism, preferred not to bother themselves about the ramifications of a localized Malvinas dispute.

From the point of view of the Argentine military, somebody must have thought that helping the United States in Central America, aside from providing a release for Argentina's counter-terror capabilities, would minimize American pressure on human rights, secure an important source of arms, take the bite out of American opposition to certain aspects of the Argentine nuclear program and inhibit American responses to Argentine actions and designs in the South Atlantic.

It should be noted that though it tried with all the leverage that friendship is supposed to buy, the Reagan administration failed to stop the invasion. President Reagan's desperate last-minute telephone plea to Argentine President Leopoldo Galtieri fell on deaf ears.

For some reason it is difficult, in Washington and London, to conceive that the Argentine military has its own geopolitical vision, focused primarily on the enhancement of Argentine interests.

It is also difficult here to conceive that to make that vision a reality, the Argentine military is ready to take advantage of the needs of current U.S. policy in Central America. It will even commit an unprepared country to war.

These things are relatively easy to do because Argentina is not a democracy. It is a military autocracy that counts the Reagan administration as a good friend.

Had the Argentine military done exactly what it has done in the last six years: threatened its neighbors, repressed its people, ruined the nation's economy, subverted a democratic process in Boliva, tolerated anti-Semitic overtones in its brutal security witchhunts and occupied a free island people without their consent, without raising the flag of anti-communism, the Reagan people would have had the decency to keep such a regime at arms length. And today the United States would be a factor to be weighed in the Argentine military's councils of war.

But Argentina is a friend, an American asset in Central America. And, reciprocally, the United States is a friend of the Argentine military; an Argentine asset in the South Atlantic. (So, incidentally, is the Soviet Union, a large buyer of Argentine grain.) American anger has been effectively tamed.

It should be pointed out that in January the Argentine navy leaked to a respected columnist information that the United States would support Argentina's claim to the Malvinas in exchange for a U.S. Navy missile base in the South Atlantic. True or false, this was published in Buenos Aires, and it has conditioned expectations about the American attitude in the current crisis, thus contributing to the Argentine intransigence.

I think that when this exercise is over we will keep the Malvinas. England is risking too much on the sea to get back too little. The Invincible is not a helicopter to chance leaving on desert sands. The United States has been neutralized, and in the pinch, Argentina will get Latin American support against the intrusion of an extra-continental power.

But as a result of such a geopolitical success the military will be stronger than ever, and Argentina's political, moral and intellectual environment will move closer to fascism. The Reagan people in this crisis have a chance of becoming what they promised they would never be: appeasers.