HOW the Kremlin responds to famine in Ethiopia reveals a great deal about conflicting Soviet approaches to a wide range of issues in East-West and North-South relations. The Soviet system has not been monolithic since Stalin's time, if then, and competing factions have pressed for quite different approaches to what Soviet scholars call ``global problems of our time'' -- the arms race, environmental pollution, resource shortages, and population pressure. The Brezhnev regime in the 1970s pushed for arms control and trade in East-West relations while refusing appeals to associate with other ``Northern'' nations in helping the South. As a Soviet naval captain put it to me over lunch in the Castle of the Smithsonian Institution: ``You feed your allies, we'll feed ours.''
Brezhnev dissociated the Soviet Union from responsibility for third-world poverty, which he blamed on imperialism and neocolonialism. Western paeans to ``interdependence'' were portrayed as fig leafs to mask further exploitation of the developing nations. Moscow instead urged the South to look to the East, casting off Western oppression and joining the USSR and its allies in genuine cooperation -- not exploitation. In this spirit the Kremlin provided military and other aid to clients from Vietnam to Angola to Ethiopia even as Soviet diplomats negotiated SALT II.
Although they denounced global interdependence as Western propaganda, Soviet leaders conceded in the 1970s that ``there are problems so complex that no one country, no matter how powerful, can solve them alone.'' This position helped justify imports from the West, and it opened doors to East-West assaults on common problems such as pollution (Lake Baikal and Lake Tahoe).
The most radical Soviet statements on behalf of East-West cooperation came from Andrei Sakharov in the 1970s, but he was already persona non grata in Kremlin circles. Another dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, championed the opposite extreme: Mother Russia should conserve her resources and return to pristine traditions. Some Soviet economic planners echoed his call for self-reliance and less dependence on the West.
Intellectual ferment in the USSR drew support from the party's fetishistic trust that the ``scientific-technological revolution'' can generate answers to nearly every question not already resolved by Marx and Lenin. Soviet scholars responded with interest to reports issued by the Club of Rome on the ``world probl'ematique,'' but they sniped at studies such as ``The Limits of Growth,'' calling them too pessimistic and naive, because they ignored the social-economic context in which resource shortages emerge. Scholars in Novosibirsk and Moscow claimed to invest a new branch of knowledge -- globalistics (``globalistika'') -- that deals with global problems of our era and draws upon natural and social sciences as well as ethics. Some writers treated ``globalistika'' as though most of the required insights could be found in the Communist Manifesto; others looked to it as systems analysis and saved Marx for the first and last footnote.
In the 1980s, Vadim V. Zagladin, deputy head of the Central Committee's International Section, articulated a new dogma: ``Global problems belong to the pre-history of mankind, to the period before the Communist revolution. Only when capitalism disappears can we resolve the problems of arms competition, resource depletion, and production deficiencies that confront mankind.'' This inflection seemed part and parcel of Soviet policy in the Andropov era: greater economic self-sufficiency and discipline at home; more walkouts, rebuffs, and threats abroad. High-level dogmatism cast a pall over freer East-West exchanges; still, some Soviet scholars wrote positive as well as negative appraisals of several studies by the Club of Rome.
This background adds meaning to President Chernenko's calls for a radical solution to arms problems and the establishment of a ``constructive development of Soviet-American relations.'' Such a relationship, Chernenko has said, would open ``broad potential'' for Soviet-US cooperation in solving global problems such as famine and environmental pollution. While support for arms limitation is not new in Moscow, Chernenko's offers to join the United States in solving problems of concern to mankind breaks with dogmatic caution.
Some deeds accompany words. Soviet trucks, helicopters, and planes distribute Western food to starving Ethiopians. ``Life itself,'' as Kremlin ideologues might say, has dragged the USSR into this posture. Soviet advisers to ``Socialist Ethiopia'' knew about starvation there long before the news media brought the country's plight to Western TV viewers and ignited the present relief campaign. The Soviet naval officer was wrong: The USSR cannot feed its allies, but it can hardly refuse to distribute food made available by the West. Indeed, renewed signs of Soviet interest in arms control coincide again, as has often happened since 1963, with the USSR's desire to import food grains from the West.
Hunger brings us back to earth. The famine ravaging Africa and other parts of the world is among the global problems too complex to be solved by any one country, no matter how powerful. It reminds us of the profound truth in the song lyrics, ``We are all in the same boat,'' sung by a Soviet as well as other diplomats at Ambassador Arthur Hartman's Thanksgiving dinner in Moscow.
Euphoria over the latest moves in Moscow or Washington is premature. Cold winds from either capital could kill the seeds of d'etente before spring. In any case the harvest is far off. Still, more attention to global problems could take the superpowers' attentions away from potential space wars and down to earth, where the challenges of feeding, housing, and educating the globe's billions demand a synthesis of the best insights from Novosibirsk to Palo Alto to Ibadan and Hyderabad, and where none of us stand immune from the quirks of nature which, combined with those of man, can suddenly transform abundance to shortfall.
Walter C. Clemens Jr., a professor at Boston University, is a member of the American Committee on East-West Accord.