WITH the communist threat no longer the dominant factor in United States policy toward the third world, some of the underlying problems can be seen more clearly as problems not just for the US but for the US and its European partners.
The end of the cold war facilitated the settlement, after a fashion, of regional conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and even Cambodia. But those in Afghanistan and Angola continue, and there have been vicious outbreaks of ethnic passions in the former Yugoslavia and in some of the non-Russian parts of what used to be the Soviet Union. Nobody has a policy to deal with these.
The rise of such regional bullies as Libya and North Korea makes evident the failure of nuclear nonproliferation. Libya and North Korea are only the most irresponsible nuclear powers; there are six or eight others (maybe more) in the third world. Nonproliferation policy has not only been ineffective; it has been resented, even by some nonnuclear countries. It sounds to them like, ``It's OK for the US to have the bomb, but not for you.''
While preaching nonproliferation, the US has continued to spread conventional weapons among friendly third-world countries. While all arms sales to the third world have been dropping, those by the US have been holding almost steady, and the American share of the total has been rising. It was 57 percent in 1991. France and Britain were far behind in second and third place.
The impetus behind these sales has come mainly from arms manufacturers, which has increased with cutbacks in defense spending. Arms exports have become more important to companies whose defense contracts have been canceled. Limiting such exports would be good foreign policy, but it would deal another blow to places like California, already buffeted by depression and natural disaster. Tremors went through the US defense industry recently when Saudi Arabia, beset by falling oil prices, had to ask for an extended payment schedule for purchases of advanced aircraft and missiles. It is unseemly for the US to have to rely on a country like Saudi Arabia to prop up its arms merchants.
The most acute dilemma in third-world policy is population growth, which is mankind's overriding problem. The US was slow in recognizing this. Not until the 1960s did Congress push a population program on a reluctant foreign-aid agency. The program grew but was severely curtailed during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Now it has been expanded again under President Clinton.
Limiting population growth is clearly in the interests of countries suffering from too many people. But the US and Europe have a strong self-interest, one which is resented in the third world. ``Birth control,'' said the graffiti in one country, ``white plan to kill blacks.'' Or as it is sometimes put more delicately in Latin America, US interest in population comes from fear that too many Latinos would threaten US hemispheric hegemony.
It is closer to the truth to say that the US interest comes from fear of immigration. Uncontrolled third-world population growth reduces standards of living and creates economic refugees. The country of choice for most of them, especially those from Latin America, is the US. It is a paradox of American politics that although this country was settled and built by immigrants, Americans go through recurring periods of seeking to curb immigration. Limits on immigration are more attractive as the number of potential immigrants increases and the country's absorptive capacity decreases.
Third-world immigration is also a problem in Europe, where there is another paradox. Low European birthrates mean that immigrants are needed to do the menial jobs Europeans don't want. But the influx of Africans, Middle Easterners, and Eastern Europeans is contributing to a wave of xenophobia. The ugliest manifestations come from the skinheads in Germany, but there are counterparts in France and Great Britain - and in Russia, where Muscovites resent the intrusion of dark-skinned migrants from the Caucasus.
An analogous phenomenon is seen in ethnic and racial tensions in the US. These will not be cured by limits on immigration, but they may be aggravated by increases in immigration. The hardest fact of all remains: Our borders are so porous we could not stop immigration even if we decided we wanted to.
In a time of great stress after World War II, the US and Western Europe agreed on and jointly implemented a policy toward the Soviet Union. Could they now do such a thing toward the third world? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.