Among the most important developments to emerge from Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo's recent visit to Washington was President Reagan's announcement that he will participate in the so-called North-South summit conference, now scheduled for October in the new Mexican resort town of Cancun.The President and his advisers face serious problems as they work their way toward this historic conference; problems that could lead to a bitter confrontation between developed and developing nations, an open split between the Western industrial nations, or the diplomatic isolation of the United States.
The idea for a conference of a score of key heads of governments from industrial and developing nations was given momentum almost two years ago when it was made a central recommendation of the Brandt commission. The commission, know formally as the Independent Commission on International Development Issues, called for "a summit meeting with leaders from both industrialized and developing nations" which "could launch ideas for a world economic recovery program" and "enable political leaders to take the first steps towards committing themselves . . . to a global agreement."
For months the Brandt proposal was bounced around international conclaves, often with a lukewarm response from some Western leaders who feared yet another harangue from the poor nations. With the active support of President Lopez Portillo and others, however, plans for a major conference began to take shape last year.
The key question since Nov. 4 has been: how would a Reagan administration approach such a summit?
America's relations with the developing nations since January have revolved around three trends, none of which is supported by most of the other industrial countries, and all of which are decried by the third world.
First, the American view of the nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America has rapidly moved toward what Secretary of State Haig describes as "the central strategic phenomenon of the post World War II era; the transformation of Soviet military power." In this view, the developing world is seen primarily as an arena of conflict between the political and military forces of the Russian bear and the American eagle. Almost any issue or problem that arises in the third world appears quite different when it is viewed from such a perspective, and when allies (such as the United States and Britain on the one hand, and most of the rest of the Western alliance on the other) don't share the same fundamental perspective toward the developing world, the possibilities for confusion are great. Thus the potential for an Anglo-American duet before a skeptical, perhaps raucous, audience is considerable.
Second, and more specific, American foreign aid efforts under the Reagan adminstration appear to run largely counter to those of most other industrial nations, and directly counter to the wishes of most developing countries. The Reagan-Haig foreign aid policy, as it has been publicly described, has four basic characteristics: (a) spending for foreign aid will shrink in real terms; (b) the shrinking pie will be devoted increasingly to bilateral aid programs, while US support for multilateral efforts will be scaled down; (c) within the bilateral US aid effort, increased priority will be given to military and security- related assistance, while bilateral economic and developmental assistance will have a secondary claim on resources; and (d) the bilateral economic and developmental aid programs will, themselves, have an increased political coloration.
What makes these characteristics a potential point of contention at Cancun is that most of the other Western nations will be prepared to increase their foreign aid spending, and to do so increasingly through multilateral channels. Similarly, most developing countries will want them to do just that.
Third, although the Cancun summit will not discuss political/military matters , these will certainly provide an undercurrent to the discussions. To the extent that they do, US political/military policies towards the third world could prove uniquely troublesome for President Reagan. Many Western and third- world leaders, including many quite sympathetic to the United States, have been puzzled and worried by a string of American policies that appear almost to deliberately ignore the sensitivities of developing nations.
The decision to make the El Salvador conflict a major issue, in diplomatic and public relations terms, between East and West; the decision to visibly improve US relations with South Africa; the US opposition to a World Health Organization resolution on infant formula marketing in developing nations; and the US decision to "reexamine" its participation in the Law of the Sea Treaty -- all these have perplexed many in the West and antagonized many more in the third world. A continuation or expansion of such policies could cause many Western and friendly third-world nations to quietly distance themselves from the United States and its proposals during Cancun.
Given these potential problems, as well as the normal complications in organizing a new administration, it is not surprising that the Reagan administration delayed as long as it did before deciding to participate in a North- South summit. Having now done so, it must find a way to reconcile American policies with those of our friends and allies or face a very bumpy road to Cancun.