Why don't they take our word?
The allegations of the Soviet use of toxic chemicals in Afghanistan and Cambodia raise again a perennial question: Why won't the rest of the world believe what we say about the Soviets?
The toxic chemical charges are, with the revelation of additional evidence, gaining greater credibility. Nevertheless, the international community remains, by and large, skeptical and apathetic.
The frustrations are increased by the prevalent feeling in America that many outside the country seem more ready to believe Soviet information about the US than vice versa. The possibility that chemical weapons are being used by the Russians against third-world peoples does not bring the outrage from developing nations that one might expect.
The case of the chemical attacks is not an isolated one. There is also the case of the mysterious anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk, indicating a possible violation of the convention on biological warfare. We express concern; the rest of the world does not. Why?
While Europe is by no means immune from this lack of interest, our problems seem to be compounded in the third world. There are four possible explanations for this.
First, we face the strong desire in the developing nations to avoid involvement in what are seen as the quarrels of the superpowers. Politicians in those countries do not like to ''stand up and be counted.'' When the US presses a campaign on an issue such as this, support - whether justified or not - is seen in those areas as ''taking sides.''
Second, most countries fail to see genuine threats to them unless circumstances are directly related to their nation or their region. Except for countries directly on the periphery of the Soviet Union or under its domination, the Soviet threat is not seen in the same terms as the US sees it. It may be a threat to us; events are not seen automatically that way by others.
Third, there is less sensitivity to the more awesome aspects of modern war than exists in the US. The feeling is compounded by a certain cynicism that expects the superpowers to behave this way. Many are prepared to expect the worst; charges of the worst come as no surprise. Equally, they generate little taste for protest or action.
Fourth, the credibility internationally of the US is not as high as we would like to think. Our motives in bringing charges against the Soviets are suspect, particularly from an administration seen as ''hard line.'' Others also read our newspapers. Our domestic challenges to official information have been disseminated to the world and have helped create both the disbelief and the suspicion of our motives.
The Soviets have two marginal advantages.
Many of the Soviet charges against the US widely heard at the United Nations and other forums relate to issues of direct concern to the third world: colonialism, the Middle East, Central America. Such charges command attention where ours against the Soviets do not.
Soviet charges against the US are news in the US; they may even gain more attention in the US than they do in third-world countries. The impression is left that there is widespread acceptance of such charges; this may not be the case.
Despite these handicaps, we can, with skill, make Soviet behavior known.
We must know what our objectives are. Too often our purpose has seemed to others merely that of gaining a point in a cold war of words. If we have a purpose in seeking clarification of a violation or of an event, diplomatic channels are open. The public expression should be incidental to that - not an end in itself.
We must be sure of our facts. Perhaps in too many instances we have jumped at chances to demonstrate the perfidy of our adversaries before information was fully confirmed. As in the case of the toxins, the preliminary facts were not fully supported; we lost initial credibility that we never quite regained.
Wherever possible, we should let others carry the message. The world has condemned Afghanistan because the Islamic countries have taken the lead. The invasion has not been seen solely in superpower terms.
The world will not automatically accept the charges laid by one superpower against another. Peoples, particularly in the third world, see this as part of our quarrel, not theirs. We corrupt our pursuit of the truth in Soviet conduct when we rush to make it a public campaign. Our objective should be to talk directly to the Soviets and to let others carry the wider message. This they will only do when they believe their own interests are directly affected and when they feel certain they are not acting as the surrogate for either the Soviet Union or the US.