Last October, a reluctant president, preoccupied with budgets and the Middle East, broke away long enough to listen to a recital of the problems of the Third World at the Cancun Summit. Since then our attitude to the "South" may be characterized as one of a not-so-benign global neglect punctuated by intense regional political attention, as we continue heavy commitments to Egypt and Israel and make new ones in the Caribbean Basin.

While one may well harbor doubts about the effectiveness of strategically inspired aid programs only thinly disguised as development assistance, there is, of course, nothing wrong with spending money on national security. What is wrong is that we have, at the same time, been signaling our profound general disinterest in development, unless and until it can be defined in immediate Cold War II terms.

By proposing major cuts in IDA, the World Bank's soft loan window, by taking an intransigent stance at the Law of the Seas conference, and by showing much more interest in ephemeral anti-communist pledges than in domestic reform, the United States has made it clear that, while it believes in markets, trade and private capital as the mainsprings of successful growth, it is not concerned with the internal agenda of the world's poor--unless this should be required as an immediate antidote to Soviet adventurism.

Thus, "the Spirit of Cancun" has had a remarkably short half-life; it is in danger of disappearing from sight-- and from the agenda--now that the rich countries are putting their worried heads together at Versailles.

Yet, remarkably enough, the rich should do a lot more thinking about the poor, not because this is the ideal time for lofty international altruism but because it is in their own self-interest to do so. Anyone who has analyzed the performance of the international economy since the early '70s knows that the non-OPEC Third World, by increasing its borrowing and maintaining its demand, has helped cushion the worst effects of international stagflation. At a time when the pressures to resort to restrictive beggar-thy-neighbor policies among the rich are mounting, U.S. trade with the so-called NICs (newly industrializing countries) is increasing in relative importance (now amounting to more than 25 percent of the total). Continued growth among the NIC's, along with the emergence of "new NIC's," provides us with much needed insurance against additional domestic inflation and stagnation; abroad, it reduced the potentially prohibitive risks of political instability, whether measured in terms of threatened access to critical raw materials or the rising probability of future Vietnams and El Salvadors. We should remember that our most costly confrontations with Soviet expansionism have been by proxy, in the contest of frustrated Third World "wars of national liberation."

Canc,un was not ideal. There was altogether too much emphasis on the auspices for another round of "global negotiations" and not enough on the down-to-earth, country-by-country search for how to achieve progress in the years ahead. That requires sitting down with the recipients and other donors to determine just how best to get the job done, using aid, advice, foreign investment, market access etc. as appropriate. The truth is that many poor countries anxious to break into the charmed circle of the NICs need modest assistance to bring them into a position where trade and private investment can really help. It was, after all, the timely application of well-negotiated foreign assistance packages in the early '60s that helped convert the "basket cases" of Korea and Taiwan into the most frequently cited developmental "success stories." The socialist model of development has been increasingly discredited; yet we have failed to press the West's advantage.

That, we indeed, was the missing agenda item at Canc,un. Without it, it is difficult to get development back on the front burners of international discourse. Receipt of an annual aid allocation is clearly not a country's birthright, to be extended automatically, just because it is poor and we are rich; at times the effective use of aid, in fact, means the courage to be passive and banker-like vis-Ma-vis some developing countries for some years on end. But it also means that we must be able to respond when and if such countries do come forward with a package of policy changes that make sense and ask our help in cushioning the inevitable pain of getting from here to there. What is sorely needed is not more North-South discourse on where to "rumble" next on grand global strategies, but multi- lateral agreement on better mechanisms for negotiating economic reform and related capital flows within a credible, non-paternalistic framework.