A cruel paradox is overtaking the difficult matter of the welfare of the Third World and the West's relationship to it. This was the area that was supposed to reap some sort of economic and political peace dividend with the end of the Cold War. The standard lament was that East-West strategic competition was stealing resources and energies that might otherwise have given the world's poor a hand up. The mostly conservative supporters of a hard line were commonly assigned the lion's share of responsibility for this state of affairs.

But here we are at the end of the Cold War, and few if any of the hoped-for rewards are to be seen flowing the Third World's way. Earlier, heavy resources were being expended to fight the Communist East, but they are now being directed to feed, aid and rebuild the same countries repackaged as a politically acceptable formerly Communist East. The peace dividend, such as it is, is being snagged by an unexpected competitor. It turns out that the Cold War is not so much over as in an extra and expensive phase of being institutionally liquidated in the places where it did the most harm.

This time, moreover, the culprits include a broad band of liberals, the gang you might have thought would be saying it's the Third World's turn. They are the ones whose preoccupation with moving past nuclear and political confrontation has led them to fasten on the full democratic regeneration of the East as the guarantor of world peace. They are right, of course, but what is overlooked is that someone else is paying a price.

It is not just that private charitable contributions to Third World causes appear to have fallen off dismally, even as Westerners outdo themselves in shipping winter aid to the Soviet Union. Symbolically, the U.S. Peace Corps, trying to be with it, is cutting back on aid to former clients in the Third World and diverting those resources chiefly to Eastern Europe. Just the other day the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, surveying a panoply of misery in sub-Saharan Africa, explicitly appealed to would-be donors "not to let domestic economic constraints and concern for the problems of Eastern Europe divert their attention from the food needs of millions of Africans."

This last is serious. It is true that the Africans have messed up terribly. Not without foreign encouragement, they have prosecuted internal wars they cannot afford, conducted foolish experiments in imported socialist doctrines and stimulated "compassion fatigue" with their repeated earlier pleas for Western aid. But it remains that large numbers of individual Africans are dying through no fault of their own. They are the direct victims of others' decisions to extend relief to places where the suffering is of an altogether different, politically appealing but less urgent order.

There is a constant strand of idealism in American policy. It can emerge as enlightened generosity and also as a culturally limited and patronizing missionary urge. It is emerging now as an emotional response to the fact that a large and no doubt distressed community of European peoples is once again politically open and available to Americans. Millions of us have family roots in this rediscovered terrain, and many more millions feel drawn to the incredible drama of the making whole of the transatlantic family, which is what the end of the Cold War is finally about.

Against these deep cultural and personal currents running through the American society, competitive calls for Americans to reach out to other troubled areas and peoples are bound to have tough going. Appeals of pity, brotherhood, duty, interest: these are met more readily when they are issued in the name of the American mainstream. The power of ethnicity keeps surprising us as we see it revealed in new ways.

A certain kind of Third World nightmare threatens to become real. In it, these countries on the edge have lost even what residual benefit could be gained from being objects of contention between East and West. Now they stand to befall a fate worse in some aspects than being fought over -- being ignored. Moscow is drawn away by a policy of retrenchment and by the fact of galloping internal disintegration. Washington loses interest by virtue of having won the Cold War.

Maybe we have rushed too fast into the future. It was supposed to amount to more than a celebration of Europe, worthy as that is, and more than a deepening divide between haves and have-nots, unworthy as that is. A country with a claim to leadership needs to have a broader, yes, vision.