Washington — World leaders are in for a surprise if they think President Reagan has changed his views on how best to handle relations between rich nations and poor.
The President will be all gloss, smiles, and affability when top leaders of 22 nations meet at Cancun, Mexico, this October to continue the dialogue between North and South.
Beneath the surface, however, lies a hard glint of opposition to a huge conference on North-South issues, an approach cherished by many poor lands and endorsed by Canada and some European powers.
The Cancun get-together, which Mr. Reagan will attend, is viewed by many participants as a prelude to global negotiations between rich and poor nations under United Nations auspices. Washington disagrees.
"Some Europeans," said a top administration official, "seem to have gotten the idea that the President softened his stand [on global negotiations] at the Ottawa summit. He did not."
"The Ottawa communique," said another senior US official, "does not commit the United States to such negotiations."
The concept of global negotiations was especially pushed by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at the last economic summit meeting of seven of the West's most powerful leaders, held in Ottawa in July.
US officials insist that the Reagan administration sympathizes with the plight of poor peoples, despite White House opposition to a huge conference on development problems.
"It is unfortunate," says Assistant Secretary of State Robert D. Hormats, "to equate support for global negotiations with support to held development countries.
"It could be the other way around: Global talks could turn out to be a diversion from other, more fruitful ways to help LDCs [less developed countries] ."
Over the past decade leaders of many poor nations demanded a radical restructuring of the international economic system in favor of developing lands, summed up in their call for a New International Economic Order.
A subsequent series of North-South meetings led, in the words of a veteran American participant, "to mutual frustration and a polarization between North and South."
At a Paris Conference on International Economic Cooperation in 1977, an effort was made to break the impasse by assigning specific topics -- such as trade, aid, and the transfer of technology -- to existing international forums.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), for example, would play a larger role in capital transfers and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade would become the focus of trade talks.
This approach, endorsed both by the Carter and Reagan administrations, generated "considerable progress" in helping LDCs in tangible ways, according to Mr. Hormats.
Then came renewed demand for still another global conference, to be preceded by preparatory work at the Cancun meeting, to be hosted jointly by Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo and Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky.
Former President Carter declined to attend a meeting like Cancun, "out of skepticism," said a senior Carter aide, "that anything could be accomplished and out of concern that a political backlash might develop that would undermine careful work going on in the IMF and elsewhere."
President Reagan, while sharing Mr. Carter's reservations, agreed to attend Cancun.
The Carter-Reagan similarity of outlook on global negotiations does not extend to other aspects of North-South relations:
* Mr. Carter tried to channel US aid primarily through multilateral institutions, notably the World Bank and its affiliates, on the grounds that this was the most efficient way to help the poorest people in the poorest lands.
President Reagan, by contrast, favors bilateral aid, in which the United States channels its help directly to recipient nations in ways that support US economic and security interests.
* Mr. Reagan believes that private investment in LDCs by banks, multinational firms, and giant oil companies should grow and that government-to-government help should shrink.