The Reagan administration has been taking an increasingly positive attitude toward economic cooperation with the poor nations of the world. The administration still doubts the usefulness of the negotiations developed over the years to carry on the so-called dialogue between the industrialized nations and the poor countries.
But much of its initial wariness has been replaced by a search for new options. Among other things, it wants to encourage more American private investment in the developing countries. It wants to see a new pragmatism replace the old rhetoric.
The administration's new, more positive outlook is reflected in recent statements from top-level officials and in the administration's preparations for the summit meeting of leaders from the industrialized and developing nations to be held in Cancun, Mexico, about a month from now. The summit, scheduled for Oct. 22-23, seems to have acted as a catalyst on administration planners, forcing them to focus on difficult economic development problems.
For some administration officials, this has been an educational process. They have had to learn that despite their earlier skepticism concerning such international financial institutions as the World Bank (the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), such institutions do sometimes work to the benefit of the United States. They have had to learn that despite their bias in favor of the private sector, some nations simply do not have much a private sector to work with.
The Reagan administration at first only reluctantly agreed to participate in the Cancun meeting of 22 heads of state and government. One danger, as some administration experts saw it when the idea was first proposed, was that this major North-South summit, the first of its kind, might either throw Reagan into embarrassing confrontations or raise unrealistic expectations among the developing nations. Among those attending will be leaders from nations as diverse as Algeria, India, and nigeria. But the host for the meeting, Mexico's President Jose Lopez Portillo, arranged for the conference to consist of an informal sharing of ideas, thus minimizing the chances for confrontation. Neither the Soviets nor the Cubans will attend. No communiques or agreements will be issued.
The Reagan administration now seems to regard the Cancun summit as an opportunity rather than a trap.
Cancun, some officials seem to believe, will offer the United States a chance to demonstrate that it is more interested in the economic development of the third world than most people realized. President Reagan is expected to speak on development issues, even before he goes to Cancun, at a World Bank meeting at the end of this month.
"It's very clear to me that this administration has been taking a bum rap with respect to its attitude on the developing world," said US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., in answer to a question following a speech he gave here Sept. 16.
The secretary of state said that America's West European partners, who consider themselves to be more progressive in some regards than the United States, may be "somewhat shocked" to find President Reagan moving ahead of them in the development field. As Haig, put it, the President might be showing the West Europeans "his coattails" in dealing with development problems.
Haig asserted that the US was the highest donor to the development of the new nation of zimbabwe and to a black African congress on refugees that met in Geneva this past February. He added that the US was working through a combination of public and private sector efforts to assist the island nation of Jamaica.
Haig also mentioned the administration's effort to join with Mexico, Venezuela, and Canada in a new Caribbean development program.
The Secretary of State is expected to talk more extensively on economic development when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 21 in New York City.
One theme which the Reagan administration is clearly emphasizing, meanwhile, is the need for third world nations to put their own houses in order. Administration officials think, for example, that some development programs have been unproductive because such nations have failed to provide their farmers with adequate prices for their products.
Administration officials say that the differences between the US and its Western European allies over how to deal with the developing world are often more aparent than real. The officials say, for example, that the British, French, and West Germans are more inclined in public statements to favor global negotiations, or huge international conferences on development issues than is the US.* But, these officials add, the Western European nations privately share American doubts about the effectiveness of such negotiations.