The dialogue between North and South -- between the rich and poor nations of the world -- has been deadlocked for too long now. Hence it is encouraging to hear the Reagan administration sound a positive tone on a matter of such overriding importance to world stability. US Secretary of State Haig's address to the United Nations on aid for developing nations was conciliatory and constructive. It suggests that the Reagan administration, which has seemed reluctant to take up third-world development issues, is beginning to realize that these are no less relevant to global security than the East-West nuclear balance. In Mr. Haig's words:
"International development reflects the worldwide search for economic progress, social justice and human dignity. Short of war itself, no other issue before us will affect more people, for good or ill, than this search."
Some may choose to interpret the softly articulated US policy as a deft diplomatic effort to assuage West European opinion, which is highly critical of Washington's preoccupation with anti-Soviet strategy. Others may even see in it an American rebuff to the third world. Mr. Haig after all did term the poor nations' call for massive aid transfers from the industrialized countries as "unrealistic." But premature skepticism should not be allowed to obscure the forthcoming elements in the secretary's speech.
It is not unexpected that the Reagan administration should wish to stress private investment and increased trade -- rather than development aid -- as the engine of economic growth. Nor is this an untenable position when one observes the tremendous progress made in such countries as Taiwan, South Korea, Brazil, and others through the encouragement of private initiative and a free market. Making it possible to release the energies of self-reliance and enterprise is precisely what foreign aid is all about.
Yet not all developing countries are at a state where they have hopes of attracting sufficient private investment from abroad or generating enough of their own. Even the above-named countries received enormous infusions of foreign aid to start them off. Mr. Haig acknowledged the plight of the poorer nations and indicated that the United States would continue "generous" concessionary aid to them as well as support for the World Bank and other international lending institutions. It remains to be seen, of course, whether this means the US will begin to pull up its rather dismal record of aid giving in recent years -- far less than the annual target of 0.7 percent of GNP set by the major Western nations themselves -- but the statement of principle is hopeful.
The international community will now await the "initiatives and ideas" which the US promises in advance of the summit at Cancum next month, when the leaders of eight industrialized and 14 developing countries meet to discuss world economic development. Serving as the backdrop to that conference will be some rather gloomy facts: The developed industrialized countries -- the North -- all confront such adverse economic conditions as inflation, unemployment, and slow growth. Meantime in the third world -- the South -- despite some heartening sagas of progress many countries face burdensome and growing debts in order to pay for oil, food, and manufactured imports. Overall, the gap in income between the rich and the poor is growing wider.
This situation needs to be frontally addressed. Not only because of the moral imperative of giving impoverished peoples everywhere a compassionate chance to lift themselves out of destitution. But because cooperation between North and South has become necessary to both. Without it both are penalized. Just as the poor nations need the North for technical aid and markets, so the industrial countries of the North need sturdy economies in the South in order to spur their own exports and business growth. Interdependence is no longer a hazy abstraction; it is an everyday reality.
This apparently is getting through to the new US administration.