World interdependence is no longer an ideal. It is a fact. Hence, logically, nations ought to be working out cooperative policies suitable to the new realities of the 1980s. When they fail in this effort - as they did at the recent meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Belgrade - it is cause for concern.
Gatherings of the ''have'' and ''have-not'' nations - the so-called North-South dialogue - are difficult under the best of circumstances. With the whole world grappling with economic recession, divisions grow deeper and dialogue is further complicated. In this instance the UNCTAD conference of 160 nations managed to cobble together some general resolutions on finance, trade, and commodities. But what could have been an opportunity to revitalize the organization and make headway on common understandings seemed to be missed.
Some of the blame certainly lies with the third-world nations, which tend to stick together as a bloc and exploit such conferences for political ends. But responsibility must also rest with the industrialized countries, notably the United States. The problem lies in a difference of opinion over how to help the poorer nations. The view in Washington is that, once the US economic recovery hits its full stride, this upswing will spread throughout the world and thus help lift the poorer nations.
The poorer nations, for their part, look to increased aid from the rich to ease their debt burdens and help keep their economic development programs going. In Belgrade some $90 billion in additional aid was sought, including a further issue of special drawing rights by the International Monetary Fund.
Washington's unsympathetic ear may be misplaced. It may be true that US economic recovery will help generate some growth worldwide. But few economists believe this will be enough. The point is that inadequate growth in the developing countries will cost the US economically as well. An increasingly large share of US growth comes from exports to the developing nations. In 1980, for instance, the developing countries purchased about 40 percent of all American exports - ''more than bought by Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China combined,'' Secretary Shultz testified. Put another way, 1 out of every 20 American workers in manufacturing and 1 out of every 5 acres of US farmland produce for third-world markets.
What does this say? It says that recovery in the ''North'' depends on economic growth in the ''South.'' It says that the global trade system has to be further liberalized, that protectionist barriers have to be rolled back, and that the third-world countries have to be helped to cope with their mounting debt problems. It says that, however unpopular foreign aid has become, the American people cannot abandon their international obligations. It is an embarrassment that the US has fallen behind in its appropriations of money for IDA, the World Bank's lending institution that has enabled such countries as India to break through the barrier of dependence.
This is not to minimize the very severe unemployment and other problems which the United States and other Western nations face. It is a difficult climate in which to be especially charitable abroad as well as at home. And, in fairness, the West has agreed to constructive steps to ease the third world's indebtedness. But it remains a question whether the United States is providing the leadership commensurate with its economic weight in the world.
The UNCTAD conference managed to avoid strident confrontation. But the North-South dialogue still awaits renewing.