296. Memorandum From Thomas Thornton of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • North-South Matters

You will be meeting with Guy and me this Friday on North-South questions.2 In preparation, I have some observations to make, flowing in part from the paper that Guy did at your request earlier this week.3

Guy correctly emphasizes the economic side. This is just about the only real “North-South” question since it is the only heading under which we confront the “South” as a whole. Also, of course, it is how they define the issue.

Now obviously, the question of participation in the decision-making process is a highly political question. But, in fact, what they are aiming at for the most part is participation in the decision-making process on economic issues.

In general, then, the political dimensions tend to be bilateral or regional, even when (e.g., Middle East or South Africa) almost the whole Southern world is our audience. We have been doing well in this area, not just by Andy Young performing mirror tricks, but because we have been approaching these issues sensibly in terms of an ethos that is acceptable to the LDCs and to our own consciences. Andy has, in fact, had a lot to work with—even he couldn’t have mesmerized the people at the UN if he had our previous Africa policies to work with. Let’s not sell ourselves short in this regard, although there are huge problems (arms sales, human rights and non-proliferation) along the way. What we need to do there is make sure we have a policy and then stick to it for a long-term gain, even if we have short-term difficulties.

The economic scene, however, is quite different. We are very much in disarray—some of which could have been prevented and some of which probably couldn’t. Guy’s paper tells the story well and I have only a few supplementary observations to make.

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First, the problem is quite insoluble in terms of present public and Congressional attitudes on LDCs. This is, of course, a point that I have been making for the best part of a year.4 Once the President got the same idea, people started paying attention and slowly but surely we are starting to work out a public affairs strategy.

Second, we are not organized to negotiate intelligently. We approach these economic negotiations individually without any grand strategy. There are possible trade-offs between them; we don’t have to be forthcoming on every front as long as we are credible on most or some of them. State was asked by the PRC to provide a strategic overview for this year; they have just produced it but it is only a list.5

Guy states it well when he says that we are perceived as being on the defensive. What we need to do is find some areas where we need not be defensive. The only way to force Cooper and Company to do this is to make them show their entire hand on the full range of North-South negotiations. They have a very good case to make on each individual point. The poverty of their position seen as a whole, however, will be so evident that Vance or the President will tell them to do something.

From an economist’s point of view, the best strategy for everybody concerned is to build up the American economy so that we can buy more from the LDCs. This, however, is not an acceptable political strategy any more than it would be domestically to rely solely on a program of tax incentives to large companies as the way to combat unemployment. We accept domestically that it is necessary sometimes to take second-best economic solutions in order to meet a pressing political need. The same is true internationally.

Another point that we need to keep in mind is that our ideas of economic and political rationality are not universally held. Not only do other countries (and not just LDCs) have different ideas about what a common fund should look like; many countries (including sympathetic ones such as India) do not think much of our basic human needs approach to aid. We have to consider compromise on both political and economic issues if there is to be a genuine dialogue instead of sermonizing on our part.

Again, the way to force these matters out into the open is to make the bureaucracy produce (or react to) a grand strategy. If State is un [Page 924] willing or unable to produce, then perhaps we should look to an outside consultant. It is not just in Europe and Canada that the political leadership is not in tune with the economic bureaucracy!

Guy’s options are useful for organizing ourselves. The first one is obviously not attractive except as an interim stage while we continue to sort ourselves out (and get the public debate started.) It would make sense only if we know pretty well what we are going to do in 1979 and 1980 when the big international pressures will start building. (And, by the way, when we are going to have to go to Congress for big increases in aid, if we intend to meet the doubling target.) In sum, then, this is a strategy that might be a good idea for one or two years.

The second strategy must be rejected out of hand. We have gone to this well before; to try to do so again will make us look foolish. Better to say straight out that we have not sorted ourselves out yet and ask for more time. Also, absent a lot of other work on our part, we probably could not follow through on any promises that we made.

Option three has many good ideas. What we will need to elaborate, however, is the specifics of its implementation. There will be a temptation to take the rhetoric for the fact, but unless there are tangible underpinnings, it will be just as counterproductive as the second option would be.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Thornton, Subject File, Box 101, North/South: Objectives: 10/77–11/78. Confidential. Sent for information. Copies were sent to Henry Richardson, Pastor, Erb, and Owen.
  2. No memorandum of conversation of the meeting on Friday, February 17, was found.
  3. See Document 295.
  4. For example, on October 18, 1977, Thornton forwarded to Brzezinski a paper he had prepared entitled “Public Presentation of a North-South Strategy.” In his cover memorandum, Thornton noted that he had “been flogging for some time the idea that the President should lay the North-South out before the people.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Trip File, Box 7, President, Europe and Asia, 12/29/77–1/6/78: Cables and Memos, 10/14–25/77)
  5. Not found.