When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev sit down together Saturday in well-to-do Iceland, the whole world will be watching. That includes the less-well-off third world.
At the United Nations, third-world diplomats welcome the superpowers' meeting and the positive signals coming from each side on arms control issues.
But, says Bahamian UN Ambassador Davidson Hepburn: ``It bothers me to see the Soviet Union and the US off by themselves talking about something that affects the whole universe.''
Third-world diplomats also express concern that, when the superpower leaders meet, the specific concerns of developing countries will be ignored.
Of course it would be unrealistic, Dr. Hepburn says, to expect the Americans and the Soviets to invite third-world representatives to their summits. Rather, he suggests that developing nations send delegates to the pre-summit preparatory meetings, so they can be heard on issues they fear might be ignored -- economic development, hunger, population control.
Letters to Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Reagan are useless, he says. So are most resolutions: All too often, developing nations refuse to compromise, and the wording in UN resolutions and other forums ends up vague, he says.
``Personal contact is essential,'' Hepburn says. ``We should insist on that. Even if the proposed persons are rebuffed, we have to keep on trying. [Too often] we defeat ourselves before we start.''
Why should the superpowers care what the third-world thinks? ``Because,'' says Hepburn, ``they can't survive in isolation. Where else would they get their support?''
Indeed, the Soviets have been quite solicitous of the developing world's efforts to galvanize world opinion. At a press conference here on Tuesday, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Petrovsky made a special point of the fact that a representative of the ``nonaligned'' movement had just arrived in Moscow ``for the transmission of the documents of the nonaligned movement and their recommendations'' to Soviet leader Gorbachev. Made up of mostly third-world nations, the nonaligned movement unleashed a flood of anti-Western sentiment at its tri-annual meeting some weeks ago.
Mr. Petrovsky also expressed Soviet support for the ``Five Continents Initiative'' -- an effort by India, Tanzania, Greece, Sweden, Mexico, and Argentina get the US and the Soviet Union to halt all nuclear testing. Petrovsky's remarks were seen as part of the Soviets' long-term strategy to cultivate the third-world by bringing up third-world issues at the UN.
But some third-world diplomats here don't agree that personal contact with US and Soviet leaders would boost the third world's case. ``Who's to say the superpowers will listen?'' an African ambassador asks rhetorically. ``They minimize our problems.''
Despite much success in battling Africa's famine, 14 million people remain in danger of starvation and the continent's food and nonfood needs are still great.
African observers complain that many East-bloc nations in particular have not been contributing to global efforts to aid hunger relief. These observers say that the East bloc excuses itself by saying that because its nations did not colonize Africa, they are not responsible for saving Africa from the vestiges of colonialism.
Still, says one African ruefully, ``if there's a house on fire, no one should be ignoring it.''
And Africans concede that they have learned from past experience: the money saved by the US and Soviets on any arms agreement is not likely to translate into more aid money.
In interviews, third-world diplomats were also quick to point out that their nations will watch the Reykjavik get-together for signs of movement on the regional crises on the agenda -- such as Afghanistan and Angola.
Most third-world diplomats say this weekend's chat will be a success if a firm date is set for a full summit. For Ambassador Hepburn: ``The greatest success for a summit is for the US and the Soviets to recognize their differences -- and then do something about them.''