A hundred years of world development could be bought with one year of the arms race. The most cruelly ironic part of this equation is the diversion of funds from human needs to armaments by the developing countries themselves. Is there any hope for reversing the situation? Yes, if more specific initiatives are taken like the one that has just come out of the American heartland to spur the attention now wanly paid in international forums. Rep. Tony Hall of Ohio is offering a legislative rallying point to check this reckless trade - and reverse his own country's new commitment to increasing it.
The dimensions of the problem are suggested by the latest annual report on world military and social expenditures by the World Priorities research organization. It says the arms race of the 1980s can be measured by, for one thing, financial costs reaching $600 billion a year. Last year's disbursements by the World Bank and its International Development Association were $6.9 billion - hence the rough estimate of a century of development for a year of arms race.
Another measure is the international trade in conventional arms of more than military purposes than for education and health care combined.
A recent US State Department report notes that over the past decade the dollar value of US military transfers has exceeded the Soviet Union's by roughly 2 to 1. But it points out that many of the US transfers involve construction services rather than weapons. Measuring by major weapons systems, it estimates that Moscow has sent 74,000 to the third world over 10 years compared to some 44 ,000 by the United States.
Congressman Hall cites figures for the past four years. These place France, Britain, and other free-world nations, excluding the US, at the top of the list, with arms transfer agreements adding up to $46.9 billion. The Soviet Union comes next with $33.2 billion, followed by the US with $30.7 billion.
It was the policy of the Carter administration to restrict US arms exports, though it did not always succeed. The Reagan administration is pledged to sell more arms for diplomatic, economic, and security reasons.
All such reasons ought to be considered. But the burden of persuasion should be on those who seek to transfer more arms as it was in the past. Mr. Hall is understandably concerned by an administration shift toward placing the burden on those who question transferring more arms.
What his legislation proposes is at least a start toward getting a grasp on a traffic that can be not only dangerously destabilizing in various parts of the world but a perpetual drag on productive enterprise and development. He calls for a congressional resolution that the US should:
* Reaffirm its self-restraint on arms sales, thus setting an appropriate example.
* Engage the Soviet Union in negotiations to resume the CAT (Conventional Arms Transfer) talks that broke down a few years ago after some progress had been made.
* Begin discussions with free-world arms suppliers to limit arms transfers and establish guidelines on what arms to transfer.
* Start discussions in the United Nations Committee on Disarmament, for example, to bring developing and arms-producing nations together on limiting arms transfers.
Some kind of code might be developed from such meetings. Perhaps at least weapons useful for terrorists could be eliminated. Then certain highly sophisticated arms. Then . . . who knows?
Nothing will happen if nobody tries. Kudos to Mr. Hall of Ohio for trying.