Having heard Argentine diplomats discuss their rights under the Rio Treaty, I want to hear more, just as I once wanted a second bite of abalone in order to see if the first bite had been as bad as I thought. The treaty, they say, is supposed to protect Argentina's invasion force against British "aggression" and "colonialism." One good that can come from this crisis is a further discrediting of the third world's vocabulary of invective.

God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, but Argentina's rambunctious leaders, who are not lamb-like, must protect themselves from the chill blast of civilized disapproval by wrapping themselves in the threadbare cloth of "anti-colonialism." It has been said that when listing characteristics that distinguish humans from lesser animals, the list should include inconsistency. Argentina's junta is very human. Its "anti-colonial" members resemble the Belgian colonists in the Congo, as described by Joseph Conrad (in "Heart of Darkness"):

"Their talk was the talk of sordid buccaneers: It was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity. . . . there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world."

Perhaps this crisis can teach other potentially rambunctious governments that life takes a toll on governments which, like Argentina's, lack foresight. Unfortunately, Britain's government has confused the central point. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has conducted herself with pleasing vivacity, but she has wrongly insisted that the interests of the 1,800 Falklanders must be "paramount." What actually is of paramount importance is that Argentina's interests should be, and should be seen to be, defeated.

Hitler had no valid claim to the Sudetenland, but compared to Argentina's impudent claim to the Falklands, his claim seems almost arguable. The Sudetenland at least bordered Germany, and there were 3 million German-speaking persons in Czechoslovakia. Many felt culturally close to Austria and were so pleased by the Anschluss that they clamored for Hitler's intervention.

People who advocate accommodating the appetites of aggressive dictators get cranky and pedantic when Munich (where the Sudetenland--Hitler's "last territorial claim"--was ceded to Germany) is mentioned. They set about enumerating political and cultural differences. Today, the crux of the appeasement argument, made in British and other accents, is: "Everyone" knows that Britain must eventually yield sovereignty.

To which the answer is: that never was true, and is especially untrue now that yielding would reward aggression, and now that the crisis has focused attention on the proximity of the islands to important sea lanes. As Argentina's foreign minister recently said after reiterating his country's claim to the islands, ". . . there is something much more important. The meaning of the Argentine presence in the islands is that Argentina controls an area in the South Atlantic, politically and economically. . . ."

Immediately after the Second World War, a clothheaded socialite in London, contentedly surveying the swells at a society wedding, said: "After all, this is what we've been fighting for." To which a lady of wit and irony replied: "What? Are they all Poles?" The lady was drolly underscoring this fact: the immediate cause of a fight is often not what people fight for or about. The war started over Poland, but was not for or about Poland. Similarly, the rights of the Falklanders were at issue at the beginning of this crisis, but they are not the point of the crisis.

The point is international law or, if not exactly "law," at least minimal orderliness. It is arguable that the idea of international law is almost a contradiction in terms because law presupposes an enforcement agency, and there is no sovereign to enforce international law. But in any case, Sen. Pat Moynihan (D-N.Y.) defines the context of the crisis: "This is . . . the first occasion since the Second World War, and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that nationals of a NATO member have fallen under foreign military rule."

The Economist of London warns the United States against the idea of "alliance a la carte," and De Gaulle's question still echoes: can the United States be counted on to identify sufficiently with the interests of its European partners? The Falklanders episode calls to mind the crisis of the 1930s, the failure to deal with dictators. That failure made postwar Europe receptive to the idea of collective security.

The Falklands crisis underscores the problematic future of the collectivity. An inadequate U.S. response to the crisis in the South Atlantic would bring on a crisis of neutralism in the North Atlantic alliance.