Third-world window

PRESIDENT Ronald Reagan's success on domestic issues cannot be denied. His recent overture to the Soviets to reduce nuclear arsenals also merits cautious optimism. However, there has been a dangerous blind spot in the Reagan record. Recent US foreign policy, never terribly sophisticated to start with, has shown a profound naivet'e in its approach to developing nations. The Iran-contra affair, one example, is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise.

Part of the problem is the traditional isolationism of many Americans, a luxury provided by oceanic buffers and borders with friendly neighbors. A more important reason, however, is the change since World War II, with the destruction of European colonialism and the multiplication of new states.

For average Americans, the third world is uncomfortably complex, far too foreign, and largely hostile. For United States policymakers, the problem exists in slightly different terms. Unlike before the war, crises in South Africa, Southeast Asia, or India can no longer be solved by London or Paris.

While defining the problem is relatively simple, prescribing and implementing solutions is more difficult. Over the long term, a deeper understanding of the world beyond America's shores must evolve. A reevaluation of educational priorities is necessary. Also, a greater emphasis must be placed on global education.

Yet, given the sorry financial condition of many school districts, that solution is problematic. The emphasis now is on ``basic education.'' Courses on, for example, Southeast Asian cultures are often dismissed as lying beyond the pale of funding priorities. There is also a belief, myopic at best, that such courses serve mainly the academic elite. It is a notion which makes expanded curricula even less likely in the near future.

If there is hope, it exists outside government and educational circles in the changing demographic composition of the US. Particularly since 1968, when revised and liberalized US immigration laws took effect, there has been a dramatic growth in the size of immigrant communities. Many such immigrants are from third world countries critical to American interests. In 1970, for example, there were 343,060 Filipinos in the US; current estimates are 1.5 million and growing. Among Filipinos and other immigrants, there are deep and largely untapped troves of insight and knowledge of the homelands they left. These are potentially valuable to forming wise and flexible policy.

Government, the media, and academia - all major participants in foreign policy - should be far more willing to identify and use such immigrants. To be sure, there will be problems in the process, particularly in higher education, where resistance to candidates without ``proper'' credentials is enormous. Moreover, the targeting of individuals from specific ethnic groups is a form of affirmative action, controversial despite recent Supreme Court decisions affirming the principle.

Nevertheless, it must be noted that affirmative action, when applied to the area of foreign affairs, would add an ironic twist to the traditional notion of benefiting victims of discrimination. In this case, the intent is not so selfless; the intended beneficiary would be the US, a victim of incompetence rather than bias.

This is not to suggest that US foreign policy experts are hopelessly deficient. It states the obvious - that most American commentators, analysts, and professors are outsiders to the cultures in their areas of knowledge. And within such realms of expertise, there are often blind spots which would be visible to cultural insiders, such as immigrants. Tapping their knowledge could have a valuable leavening effect. One result should be a wiser foreign policy.

Peter Bacho is a lawyer and teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.