DURING a recent conversation about the press in India, an Indian student made the point that even conservative newspapers in India tended to be more favorable toward the Soviet Union than toward the United States. One of the Americans in the group expressed surprise. The Indian's reponse was simple and straightforward: Although his country admired the US in many ways, it saw the Soviet Union as a greater friend than the US. The Soviet Union had sided with India in those international issues that were important to his country. He mentioned India's border conflict with China and what Indians considered the threatening movements of the US fleet in the Indian Ocean at the time of the war over Bangladesh. He added tha t Soviet aid to India had been steady and consistent: It had not been openly debated or cut off aid.
The Indian was asked if his country did not fear the Russians because of their actions in Afghanistan. He answered that India would like a peaceful resolution of this problem, but that other issues on which the Soviets had taken a stand favorable to India were more important.
Arguments that India was a democracy and that its natural orientation should be to another democracy were met by comments that Indians admire many things American and would certainly prefer to visit the US, but that, in political matters, attitudes toward matters of concern to India were more important. India saw the US as a threat to its interests; it did not see the Soviet Union in the same light.
The student is, undoubtedly, giving a true picture of Indian attitudes. Americans talk of a contest of systems, while many in the third world pay more attention to policies.
To the US, the contest is between freedom and totalitarianism, between communism and democracy. While people in a third-world country may see the choices within their borders in that light, they may well tend to see the international scene differently. The attitude of a major country toward a local dispute is likely to weigh more heavily in the public comment and the United Nations voting of a third-world country than any espousal of a political or social system.
This presents the US with dilemmas. The question of our attitude toward a given country or region is a matter of expectation as well as perception. Many Indians expect the US to support them on regional questions because they are a democracy -- just as the US is puzzled and disappointed when they do not support us on major global issues. Their perception of US intentions in the area means that we encounter sometimes indelible suspicions of our motives; each step that we make that is not to their liking seems to confirm those suspicions.
The US looks at the world in geopolitical terms no less than the Soviets. Our geopolitical moves are accompanied by open debate that makes our choices and our motives public, and provides grist for our adversaries in third-world countries. The Soviets can mask their deeper designs in rhetoric. Few seem to challenge the flaws in that rhetoric as many will do to ours.
US foreign policies are based on our interests as we perceive them to be in the global competition with the Soviet Union. The US clearly cannot shape those policies to fit the particular national sensitivities of other countries. Nevertheless, as we approach the problems of the third world, we should not let our continuing rhetoric about the competition between systems obscure the fact that others may frequently look at US policies more than they look at the US system.
The orientation of many people in southern Africa will be guided by their perception of US attitudes toward South Africa.
The peoples of the Middle East determine their view of the US by how they see US policy toward the Arab-Israel issue.
The US should not be surprised, therefore, if there are those in India who see us in terms of how we respond to that country's primary concerns.
We can protest that such perceptions and judgments are ill advised considering how we see the relative threats of the superpowers toward third world nations. But we cannot assume, as we approach these regional issues, that others will see the threat the same way; they will judge the US by how US policies directly affect them.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.