Is the Soviet Union faring better than the United States in winning the hearts and minds of the third world? Many recent votes in the United Nations suggest strongly that the answer is yes. But an all-star cast of speakers (from former ambassadors to KGB defectors) at a day-long conference on US-Soviet relations at the University of Chicago concluded that Soviet gains so far in many regions are mixed. They suggested that the US might fare better in the future through some careful shifts in strategy.
Certainly there has been no lack of effort on the part of the Soviets in courting less-developed nations. Pointing to the tremendous buildup of the Soviet Union's military capabilities since World War II, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth W. Dam, keynote speaker of the conference sponsored by International House, noted that the Soviet Union has deployed more than 20,000 Soviet and East Bloc military personnel in more than 30 third-world countries. These include Soviet crews and advisers for missile operations in Syria.
Yet several speakers, from Mr. Dam to former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, insisted that the one-dimensional nature of the Soviets' prime tool - military force and assistance - is also a ''weakness'' which has limited Soviet gains.
''The Soviet Union is behind us in every other dimension - it is not a global rival across-the-board,'' argued Mr. Brzezinski.
''I don't think we're at a disadvantage in competing with the Soviet Union,'' agreed Stephen Bosworth, chairman of the US State Department's Policy Planning Council. But he argued that the US must use, with ''greater effectiveness,'' its full range of diplomatic and economic tools in working with third-world countries. Rather than ''throwing'' more economic assistance at them, however, he suggested that the US work hard to keep its markets open for products which third-world nations make and must sell to repay Western loans.
In Central America, a region he described as long neglected by the US and one with a limited history of democratic political institutions, Mr. Bosworth said the US response should be particularly broad. It should include help for specific groups, such as the middle classes which emerged in the 1960s and '70s in several countries, to develop viable political institutions. And the US must be on record, he says, as supporting social policies which encourage fairer distribution of income.
Bosworth argued that, in general, third-world countries which have relied more on free market forces than a centralized Soviet economic model have fared better both in economic growth and fairer distribution of income.
The Soviet Union has increased its military strength in East Asia during the last 15 years but has been losing political influence there since the Vietnam war, said former ambassador to Japan Robert S. Ingersoll. ''Their economic influence has been small because of limited trade in the region and the lure of their brand of Marxist ideology has been declining,'' he explained. Of particular concern to the Soviets, according to the former ambassador, are China's apparently firmer ties to Western industrialized nations. Peking's new economic plan, for instance, relies heavily on Western technology, trade, and credit, he said.
Still, Mr. Ingersoll did not rule out the possibility of a Soviet ''comeback'' in East Asia in the 1980s. Noting how swiftly the Japanese dropped their animosity toward the US after their defeat in World War II, Ingersoll hinted that continued US ''bullying'' of Japan on trade issues and a shift in Soviet tactics could combine one day to push Japan and the Soviet Union closer together.
By far the most dangerous third-world trouble spot embroiled in US-Soviet competition, speakers agreed, is the Mideast. Brzezinski was sharply critical of the US for shifting its role in the region from ''mediator to protagonist.''
Vladimir Sakharov, a former Soviet KGB officer who served in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt before defecting to the US, insisted that the US must broaden its tactics in the Middle East. He pointed to Soviet offers of free scholarships to foreign students (some 120,000 Arabs over the years have picked up on them); the intensive study of language, politics, and culture required of Soviet officers assigned there; and Soviet willingness to deal with people below leadership levels. Sakharov suggested the US should pick up cues for its own training programs.
''America has much more to offer in the Middle East conflict, but it doesn't fight for the hearts of the people,'' he said.