`Ithink the greatest problem that we face is the relationship between the advanced nations and the poverty-stricken nations.'' For Jimmy Carter, that crisply phrased point dominates the agenda for the next century. It runs like a thread through the public displays here at the newly opened Carter Presidential Center. It shapes the work of the several Carter-sponsored public policy organizations housed within the center's four circular pavilions. And it echoes throughout a half-hour interview in Mr. Carter's sunny, modern office overlooking the twin manmade ponds of the center's Japanese garden. Between countries in the industrial North and the developing South, Carter says, ``is a chasm that hasn't, so far, been bridged.''
Nor, among the leaders of what he calls the ``rich nations,'' is there ``an adequate awareness'' of the problems facing the poorer nations.
The problems he enumerates include environmental degradation, overpopulation, and international debt. They show up in the developing world as hunger, disease, poverty, and political instability. To Carter, they appear to be getting increasingly urgent.
Why this lack of awareness of developing-world problems? One reason, he says, is that the leadership of the industrial nations is split between ``environmentalists, so-called, on the one hand, and the business and financial leaders on the other.''
``This is another chasm that is rarely bridged,'' he says. The term environmentalist is, in the business community, ``almost an expletive.''
Yet ``there are many environmentalists who, [while they] are quite enlightened and quite level-headed and responsible, look on the business community as surfeited with selfishness.
``I think that an inevitable relationship is going to develop [between these two sides], either through enlightened planning or through the reaction to crises.''
Carter notes that when he was elected President, ``I was an avowed environmentalist. I was one of the organizers of the major conservation organization in Georgia. But I faced problems that I had never known about before: acid rain, Alaska lands, polar regions, world population explosion, things of that kind.''
To help get a handle on such issues, he established ``a multi-departmental commitment called Global 2000 - just to look at what is going to happen to this world by the end of this century. It was not a doom prediction. It was an analysis [of] some of the problems that we might face.''
He laments the fact that the global planning process ``has now been abandoned by our own country'' - because, he says, of ``President Reagan's philosophical aversion to planning, which seems to be an intrusion in the private affairs of business.'' Need for planning OTHER nations, however, have continued the process, he says. ``Japan and West Germany, for instance, have superb commitments, financed jointly by the business and financial and government organizations, to continue to look to the future.''
As a result, he says, those nations not only are more aware of conditions in the third world but are also more aware of what markets will be opening up in 10 years.
Such planning, he says, helps them estimate ``what products will be demanded, which people will be natural distributors, what will be the raw materials available.
``They're taking this information, which we are ignoring for the time being, and building upon it an increasing competitive advantage over the United States in addressing world markets.''
The results, in Carter's eyes, are already evident.
``When I left office less than six years ago, we were the greatest creditor nation on earth,'' he says. ``Now the United States is the greatest debtor nation on earth, which is a very rapid change. And the adverse consequences of this [change] are unpredictable. I think they are going to be much worse than anyone presently thinks.''
Another financial facet of a lack of global planning is evident in ``the third-world debt problem'' - which, he says, has ``multiple causes.''
``It's not as though the lenders and the borrowers all of a sudden lost their senses and made irresponsible loans,'' he says. Nor was it ``just because there was a massive infusion of OPEC oil money that had to be placed somewhere.''
``The present inability of those debtor nations to repay their debts,'' he says, arises from ``long-term trends in environmental quality: Forests are being decimated, scarce land areas are eroding, production of land is dropping, the population is increasing. And the countries just can't produce enough even to service their debts.
``There are probably 50 nations on the earth now that will never repay the principal on their debt and [in which] it takes a substantial proportion of their earnings just to service their debt.''
In the developed nations, ``We look upon this as an attack on the substantiality or profitability of our bank stock. But with those people it's life or death.'' Roots of revolution ONE of the results of that crunch, he says, is politcal instability. In the developing world ``there is a massive movement to the cities [coupled with] an urbanization program, which means that the urban population gains tremendous political power resulting in very greatly reduced prices for grain. And the farmers then move to the cities because they can't make a profit, and they increase the urban population, and the farms are neglected.'' The result is an increasing spiral of economic imbalance.
``These people become frustrated,'' he explains, and ``this in many cases leads to revolution or to violence.''
It also weakens what Carter, still an outspoken proponent of human rights, calls ``the competitive advantage'' of democracy over other systems. ``If a family with a starving child, or children, is faced with the question, `Do you want bread, or freedom?''' Carter says, ``it's not inevitable that they will say, `I prefer freedom.'''
He worries that in such circumstances ``sometimes a totalitarian government can offer - at least on a temporary basis - a more efficient government with [better] distribution of food [than] a democracy.''
Does he feel that the industrial nations are increasingly less insulated from the spillover of such problems?
``Yes,'' he replies, ``but so far more [Americans are asking], `How much money do they owe our banks or our government?' [rather than] `What caused the revolution in Nicaragua? Why are the Salvadorans still not endorsing the Duarte government? What are the root causes of starvation in the Sudan or in other sub-Saharan nations or in Ethiopia?' ''
Needed, he says, is ``a partnership or cooperative arrangement'' with those nations that asks, ```What can we do jointly, because this is a common problem?'''
``Perhaps the next major crisis for our country is going to be caused by Mexico,'' he says - largely because, he explains, ``we are wedded to Mexico in an unbreakable fashion. And I think there's an increasing awareness now - at least in the South and Southwestern states - that Mexico's problems are our problems.'' Beyond reaction to crises CURRENT efforts to resolve the problems are ``almost entirely a reaction to crises.'' Needed, instead, are some institutions that allow longer-term examination of the problems - such as, he says, the Carter Center of Emory University, one of the organizations housed at the Presidential Center here.
``We're working on some of these problems - trying to teach people [in the developing world] how to grow more food grain, trying to immunize children around the world against deadly diseases, or trying to have conferences here that involve leaders of third-world [nations].''
Recently, the organization hosted a conference of about 30 chief executive officers of major corporations and an equal number of environmental leaders.
Nationwide, however, he is concerned that ``there's no mechanism by which we can revive the Global 2000 process or form an alliance between the business and professional and financial community, on the one hand, and environmentalists on the other.'' Nor, he laments, is there any sort of ``cooperation of a blue-ribbon-commission character'' between the United States and Mexico.
The task of developing such mechanisms, he says, is ``what we face in the future - between now and the year 2000 and maybe later - that is of paramount importance.''
A particular aspect of the North-South ``chasm'' that greatly concerns the former president is the growth of global population, which he characterizes as ``extraordinary.''
World population, now about 5 billion, is predicted to double sometime in the 21st century. ``Of that extra 5 billion people,'' he says, ``90 percent will be in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.'' Population and protectionism THE consequences, he says, will be ``increased dissension, increased animosity, uncontrollable numbers of refugees, [and an] increased tendency toward revolution or violence.'' The population glut will also produce ``an increasing degree of competitiveness among the industrialized nations'' - a process which, he says, is already being exemplified in the US by the move to establish trade barriers.
But even this thrust toward trade protectionism, in Carter's mind, is linked to a need for better planning. Already, he says, US exports are facing increased competition arising from the successes of the ``long-range planning process'' as practiced in Europe and Japan.
``A few of our corporations are large enough to do [such planning] on their own,'' he notes, citing IBM as an example. ``But those are rare examples. There is no umbrella organization [in the US] that can say, `Let's use our tremendous computer capacity and our tremendous university capabilities and our scientific and research capabilities to look to the future and [ask] what the role of the United States [is] going to be, economically or politically or socially, in this world of tomorrow.'''
``We're not doing that at all,'' he charges, noting that instead the US is ``fumbling around from one crisis to another without paying any attention to the future.''
Does humanity's answer lie (as it does for several others interviewed for his series) in some form of world government structure?
``I don't really think so,'' Carter says. ``I think when you try to have an international governing body, you arouse political problems of such magnitude that they overshadow the economic and social problems and environmental problems about which I'm speaking.''
Injecting such political considerations, he adds, ``just exacerbates an already extremely complex and difficult subject.'' To `peel political shells' ONE of the problems of such an international forum - exemplified, he says, by the United Nations - is that ``the third-world nations and their representatives almost always numerically are in the majority. And they use this [majority power] as an irresponsible means by which to attack the developed nations of the world.''
``I think if you could peel off the political shell where people are trying to make points back home by vituperation,'' he says, ``and let the economists and scientists and business leaders who share common goals and a common geographical arena be the major participants - I think that would be the best entree I could think of into a resolution of this problem.''
``I want to emphasize in closing,'' he says, ``that I don't look upon this all as an inevitable catastrophe or a premonition of doom.
``It's a matter of saying, `What are the potential problems? What are the opportunities of a great nation to help alleviate problems and also to help our own competitive place in the world?'''
``The thing that we need to do is to say [to the developing world], `We're all in the same boat: Your problems are really my problems.'''
Next: a summing-up, Dec. 31.