THE United States complains that the third world too often casts votes ``against'' the US in the United Nations. It thinks them undeserved. Yet sometimes the US reaps what it sows in the UN by impatiently setting itself apart. Participating in a forum where each nation's vote counts equally is not easy for a great power. The Reagan administration this week chose not to join more than 125 of its UN colleagues at a special three-week conference, first suggested by France, on the relationship between disarmament and economic development.
The administration considers the two issues separate and wanted no part of an event it suspected Moscow might turn into an attack on the West and its defense spending. Yet the NATO nations particularly wanted the US present as support for their team; they see the US attitude as defeatist.
The US boycott sends the wrong signal. Washington may be temporarily shielded from hearing some unpleasant criticism, but its apparent indifference may net the US harsher criticism over the long run. The US is also passing up an opportunity to sway or at least temper the views of some of its colleagues - and to help steer the discussion on a topic of major importance.
While the Soviet Union would surely tout its disarmament proposals in such a forum, Moscow is now the world's top arms exporter. And the Soviets spend little, compared with the West, on development aid. If the world's poorer nations want to see more arms spending shift to development help, they will have to focus in part on their own military spending, proportionately up in recent years, and on conventional arms, which now account for 80 percent of the close to $1trillion the world spends on defense.
The industrialized nations have long viewed arms as basic to their security. But finding ways to channel more of that money into development, and the changing definition of what really makes for security in the '80s, are topics worth exploring. The US could make a constructive contribution.
Over the years the Reagan administration has been ambivalent and at times openly hostile about some aspects of UN activity.
The administration fueled the drive to withhold partial payment of US dues to the United Nations until certain reforms were made, including a larger voice for major donors in UN budget decisions. And the administration has backed out of other unpleasant UN gatherings. The US withdrew from UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, three years ago, calling it a forum for anti-West ideology.
Just last month the State Department downgraded its emissary to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, where north-south relations were discussed, to indicate its displeasure with the topic and to try to ward off more anti-West talk. Also, the administration is withholding the US contribution to the UN Fund for Population Activities, on grounds that the fund aids mainland China, a nation the administration considers coercive in its encouragement of one-child families.
Fortunately, there are fresh signs that a high-level US reassessment of the UN's worth has been going on. These include the administration's current push to restore full US funding for the UN and President Reagan's telephoned congratulations to the UN Secretary-General for the latter's diplomatic efforts to end the Iran-Iraq war.
Yet the US will never convince other nations of the value of its own particular set of moral and democratic principles and of its willingness to listen to others' views if it doesn't join in the give-and-take of international forums. The UN cannot succeed in its effort to find solutions to common problems unless every nation makes the effort.