When the United States and the Soviet Union confront one another directly, they usually limit their hostilities to a war of words. But in the Third World the superpowers act through proxies, and bullets often fly.
This conflict shapes and defines both the American and the Soviet roles in the Third World. Yet, to the Third World, issues of poverty, hunger, disease and population tend to be more immediate than the struggle between the two superpowers.
If only out of self-interest, if not humanitarian concern, the United States and the Soviet Union have a stake in the problems of the Third World being solved, or at least not getting out of control. Otherwise superpower security is threatened as the planet becomes increasingly precarious. Nevertheless, each nation's policy still casts the other as an adversary to be fought, even if neither can ever "win."
It is naive to think, in today's world, that the Soviet and U.S. governments will renounce the use of swords in the Third World and devote comparable energy to making plowshares together. Yet there is another avenue that both governments could take without giving up the bilateral contest: They could isolate areas of mutual concern and work jointly on pressing problems in the Third World--problems that are, in truth, shared by all the world.
At first, such collaboration would have to be in addition to--not instead of--continued conflict in such places as Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Angola. But eventually a new constructive model for interaction in the Third World could emerge--a model of both improved superpower relations and progress toward global well-being.
In recent months we have suggested this idea to numerous Soviets and Americans with encouraging responses. In Washington, officials said that the idea seemed consistent with the spirit of President Reagan's U.S.-Soviet exchange initiative. In Moscow, we talked with a number of Soviets who said that it fit well with the "new thinking" being promoted by Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
We found a consensus in both capitals to avoid trouble spots and focus instead on projects in countries like India and Tanzania where each of the superpowers enjoys relatively good relations. Such efforts should involve Soviets and Americans in fields where both can make a significant contribution, and the host country should be included as an equal partner.
There are numerous problem areas that would suit a cooperative U.S.-Soviet approach.
A joint medical team could staff a clinic or fight an epidemic. In the past, U.S. and Soviet doctors worked together in the global effort to wipe out smallpox. Both governments are already collaborating in the World Health Organization's goal of immunizing the world's children against killer diseases.
A mixed group could help clean up toxic wastes in the host country, or prevent desertification, or develop new energy resources. Ecological awareness is a key part of Gorbachev's "new thinking," particularly since Chernobyl and the success scored last year by Soviet environmentalists in blocking government plans to reverse the flow of Siberian rivers.
Emergency and disaster relief is a natural area for Soviet and American cooperation. In fact, both superpowers could help minimize the tragedy of recurring natural disasters by using their non-military satellite surveillance systems to provide Third World nations with weather data.
Private and government groups in the United States and the Soviet Union regularly sponsor cultural exchange programs. Additional joint exhibits on such subjects as health promotion and environmental protection would help bring badly needed expertise in the Third World.
The point of all this is: Beyond the dead-locked "mega-issues" that separate the United States and the Soviet Union, the two nations could find mutual interest in working together on Third World problems. Enlightened self-interest would illuminate a realizable area of Soviet-American common ground--an area that cries out for action.