SOUTH KOREA. The Philippines. Panama. The rumblings of democratic reform, and counterreform, can be heard in several parts of the third world. The United States has strong economic and military reasons to keep freedom's momentum moving ahead. Ever since the Vietnam war, many Americans have been reluctant to get involved in third-world conflicts. The Iran-contra affair and the deaths of American sailors in the Persian Gulf have reinforced that. Yet future US security may hinge in large part on third-world developments.
For four decades, US security strategy has focused on the Soviet nuclear threat and the defense of Western Europe. The US has been successful: The Soviets have been stalemated. That offers the US certain opportunities. Because the stalemate has been effective, pouring additional military resources into the arms race offers very little gain. The US and Soviet Union seem to realize this; one need only look to the progress made toward a missile treaty. Both countries have the opportunity to maintain the status quo at a far lower level of resources.
But the stalemate does not extend to the third world. Significant gains or losses there are still possible. The stakes are potentially very large: The third world accounts for about half the earth's area and two-thirds of its population.
The Soviets appear to understand this and are paying more attention to the third world. But they are seriously handicapped by their command economy. Their rigid system does not provide an attractive pattern for third-world nations, and does not generate enough resources to permit the use of economic leverage. The Soviet leadership, aware of these problems, is energetically looking for a solution. If the command economy is eventually discarded in favor of a market mechanism - which it may be - the Kremlin will emerge as a formidable third-world competitor.
Apart from the Soviet threat, the third world is becoming more important to the US. In recent years, America's ability to compete in technology and its industrial vitality have been challenged. The US economy has been eroded by a flood of high-quality, relatively inexpensive products from US allies, especially Japan.
This decline in relative power will not necessarily jeopardize US security - if the country lives in a benign international environment. Therefore, molding a favorable third-world environment would be not only an important investment in US security, but also a means to sustain US industrial vitality. A third world free of strife helps expand markets for US goods.
To bolster US security, a gradual reallocation of resources is needed from stalemated areas to regions where power gains are possible in the third world. Other efforts such as arms control are also needed to maintain the stalemate.
At the same time, the US must continue to pursue a policy for systemic change in the third world. In recent years the US has begun throwing its influence on the side of democracy, private enterprise, and free markets in developing nations.
Simultaneously, US military strategy in the third world needs a thorough review. Since the American public opposes combat in third-world countries, the emphasis should be on the prevention of wars, rather than on their conduct. This will require a shift of military activity toward functions not primarily military - promotion of democratic institutions; construction of schools, bridges, hospitals, and roads; medical assistance; and psychological operations. This is preventive activity, aimed at stabilizing a country. Military components normally viewed as auxiliary would become, in effect, front-line troops. When combat is needed, it must end as soon as possible, yielding to peaceful stabilization.
A further point: Because military forces in the third world play a critical role in their countries - as per the Philippines today - the US military must develop ways to help these armed forces make changes of their own. The focus should be on professionalism in such armies, respect for human rights, loyalty to democracy, and economic growth.
Such an overall policy would help America reconcile the major role it needs to play in the third world with the US public's reluctance to get involved in conflicts there.
Victor Basiuk, a former adviser to the US chief of naval operations and the author of ``Technology, World Politics, and American Policy,'' is a consultant in science, technology, and national security policy in Washington, D.C. Robert M. Herrick contributed to this article. The views presented are their own.