There are no representatives from the Soviet Union present officially at the North-South meeting in Cancun this weekend. (We presume they have plenty of unofficial ''observers'' there to tell Moscow what goes on in their absence.)
They are not there for the reason which President Reagan mentioned in his address on the subject of United States relations with the developing third world (mostly south of the equator). The Soviet Union has little to offer the developing countries in the way of trade or aid. Its record in aid is negligible , except for weapons - which it usually sells at the highest price the traffic will bear - and uses the proceeds to buy US grain.
One of the most important facts about world affairs these days is that the US has an enormous advantage over the Soviet Union in ability to offer to the countries of the third world things they want. They want development aid, both in grants and in technology. They want maximum possible trade with those countries which have things worth trading. The US has plenty. They want favorable terms of trade. The US can afford to improve those terms.
The Soviets have no surplus of consumer goods. The quality of what they have is inferior. They have little in the way of technology since their industry tends to lag behind Western industry by about 10 years in modern technology - often by more. They have neither large credits to offer nor the habit of extending credits. Their record in aiding the less developed countries is deplorable. The aid they presently grant to Cuba and Vietnam seems to exhaust their capability in this department.
The US can supply what the third world wants. The Soviets cannot supply what the third world wants. This meeting at Cancun then is a golden opportunity for the US to win friends and influence people by taking up a generous and positive attitude toward their needs.
Such an attitude could pay off handsomely. The US is worried about further Soviet advances such as those in Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen. Washington is worried about Soviet attempts to move into Pakistan, into Iran, possibly deep into the Middle East. But Soviet ability to move into such places depends heavily on local acceptance. If the local citizenry thinks it is getting less from the West than it can get from Moscow, they will logically be less resistant to Moscow's offers. But if they find their standard of living rising because they cooperate economically with the US, they will have little inclination to turn toward Moscow.
In this condition of things it would seem logical for Washington to be going around offering help of every economic kind to third world countries. At least one would expect the US to be saying to all of them - come, let us meet and talk together about what we can do to help each other.
Attitudes can often count for almost as much as actual deeds. A posture of interest in the welfare of others can make friends.
The posture of Washington toward the third world in the run up to the Cancun conference has been the opposite.
President Reagan delivered his pre-Cancun policy speech last week to the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia. The theme was not what the US could do to help the third world, but what they ought to do to help themselves. This was a lecture on the virtues of self-reliance.
The virtues of self-reliance are more easily perceived by middle and upper economic class American taxpayers than by the poor and hungry of the less developed countries. They would prefer protestations of American friendship carrying with it the prospect of help in improving their agriculture and in developing industries.
The Reagan administration has been in office nine months. It has been lavish with its offers of weapons. But there is not even a foreign aid bill with serious political push behind it pending in Congress this year. The Congress is not showing more interest in foreign aid than is the administration. If the White House will not set the mood in favor of foreign aid, no one in Congress wants to get out ahead.
The Greek elections did not go as Washington hoped. The new generation of Greeks seems to want a change. It is not likely that the posture of the Reagan administration had much to do with those elections. It is unlikely that the new socialist Greek regime will actually pull out of NATO. But if Greece remains in the alliance it will not be because the Reagan administration did anything positive to keep it in.
The Soviets are strongest in weapons, weakest in economics.
Mr. Reagan keeps on trying to thwart them with weapons, when his strength lies in economics. It seems a curious way of running foreign policy.