RESPONDING to force, Britain has used force to recapture South Georgia, an uninhabited "dependency" of the Falklands and a place that gives the British a reasonably close-in dry lodging and, not so incidentally, a good claim to Antarctica's resources whatever they turn out to be. The recapture was one of the few prospective South Atlantic military operations that promised easy success to Britain's distant fleet. Presumably, Prime Minister Thatcher will rest on this.
Argentina, making a virtue of necessity, is now seeking to turn the South Georgia action to its advantage at the Organization of American States. It is invoking the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (the Rio Treaty) against Britain. Yet, Buenos Aires can expect no more than thin political comfort, not real aid, from its fellow Latins. Its first use of force remains the dominant political reality. The United States, which has insisted since 1947 that Rio does not cover Latin territorial disputes with Europeans, opposes the Argentine aggressor's appeal.
Both Buenos Aires and London have left themselves little room for maneuver. In theory, however, their interests remain compatible. It helps to recall that for the last 20 years, Britain, aware that the Falklands could not be defended, has pondered the question of transferring sovereignty to Argentina. The perennial problem was the responsibility felt to the local inhabitants. The Argentine invasion proved the point that the islands were hard to defend. But the invasion has also intensified the determination of the British people not to abandon the islanders to a totalitarian Argentine regime. Mrs. Thatcher regularly suggests that the islanders' wishes should be paramount.
She blurs her casewith the suggestion. To oppose Argentine aggression is necessary and right, and for that reason Argentina's troops must be removed; then the question of sovereignty can be negotiated. To say that the 1,800 islanders will be allowed to control Britain's policy in the end seems unrealistic. They are no more likely to be given such absolute power over their country's policy than were the Panama Canal Zonians, say, or the Israeli settlers in Yamit. The trick is to find a formula that, after a rollback, satisfies Argentina on sovereignty but lets Britain protect the interests of the islanders, as Britain finally weighs them. Perhaps Mrs. Thatcher, fresh from a triumph of arms, can review her diplomatic case.