354. Paper Prepared by Thomas Thornton of the National Security Council Staff1


The United States was not ready during the past few years for a forward policy across the broad range of North-South affairs. The Carter Administration occurred during a time of tight resources. Had resources been more abundant we could have made more of an impact, but even in a time of plenty it is questionable whether the United States would be willing to devote the kinds of resources required to make a qualitative change in North-South relations. And this is a vital consideration:

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  • —Resources are key;
  • —the amounts required to make a qualitative impact are of dimensions that would, even in the best of time, result in some reduction in the growth rate of well-being for significant numbers of Americans. (Even the long range outlook is not clear. The thesis that the LDCs can provide the engine for enhanced growth in the DCs remains necessarily unproven), and
  • —unless America leads the way on this, the rest of the developed world will not, probably cannot, make the necessary inputs.

Many of us believe that this sacrifice should be made for humanitarian or other reasons but we are probably a very small minority. Americans resist this kind of thinking within their own borders and no doubt have still less sympathy for it when applied to distant parts. Nevertheless, the administration failed to test the proposition since the President was never mobilized to argue the foreign assistance case to the American public in the opening months of the Administration when he had his best chance to make a decisive impact. By the time he recognized the need himself it was too late and there were other priorities. Vance’s speech was a case of too little and too late.2

The difficulty of finding public support for positive North-South actions is reflected in the fact that even in the political area, where we were most successful, the Administration had to shed inordinate amounts of blood to get the Panama Canal Treaty ratified and to keep the US from doing something harmful in Zimbabwe. The Middle East initiative was readily accepted because it postponed indefinitely the hard part of the bargain for Americans (and Israelis) to swallow—the Palestine issue.

There is also an important psychological problem. Most Americans simply do not see the need to treat LDCs with the same kind of respect that we do our European allies, Japan and even China. We do not take them very seriously and this is painfully evident. Clearly we cannot devote equal attention to 150 countries but among the regional influentials at least, there are several countries (Brazil, India) that simply have to be given the same kind (if not always amount) of attention that we give to the Europeans. If we systematically degrade these countries on even simple protocol matters—to which they are inordinately sensitive—our protestations of concern will not be taken seriously. The President’s LDC grand tour3 was an excellent demonstration of our interest; some of the imperial attitudes of the President’s staff during the trip—and even more when visitors come here—undercut much of the benefit.

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There is little doubt that, ultimately, the United States will have to make a major readjustment to the global south, both psychologically and materially. We have already taken one step in massive resource transfer—but unwillingly and inefficiently through the mechanism of OPEC price gouging. It would obviously be in our advantage to make future readjustments voluntarily and, hence, more on our own terms. There is no prospect that this will happen in the foreseeable future.

There is certainly a strong humanitarian streak in the American people and this can frequently be tapped on an ad hoc basis. What is lacking is a willingness to make a systematic commitment to change and, even more, to accept the fact that the recipient nations (and it is nations, not poor people, with whom we must deal) will have the major voice in determining the use of our largesse. (There are obvious domestic parallels.) The clearest reflection of this attitude was the “basic human needs” policy which was seen as patronizing, if not interventionist, by most of the poorer countries with whom we deal. The BHN policy was also, ultimately, not a convincing rationale for selling a systematic program of foreign assistance to the American people and Congress. Similarly, the liberal desire to funnel funds through the IFIs came up against some hard realities as the Congressional and popular mood began to shift in the opposite direction. Most Americans want their foreign aid to have some visible foreign policy impact and, short of massive resource transfers that would change the basic image of the US in the global south, this can be done only (if at all) through targetted, bilateral, politically-motivated programs.

Our BHN strategy reflected a condescending American attitude and was therefore especially ill-suited to mesh with a key aspect of our North-South strategy—the attempt to cultivate regional influentials. There are plenty of poor people in regionally influential countries but (a) these countries are particularly determined to accept aid only on terms that they see as consistent with their sovereignty, (b) a number of them are, at the macro-economic level, not among the poorest of the poor, and (c) by definition, most of them have relatively large economies so that even very generous US aid programs make only a marginal impact on them—politically or economically. Thus foreign aid was not a significant policy tool in dealing with these countries.

Other aspects of our global policies (human rights, arms transfer, non-proliferation) were also resented by LDCs, particularly the more influential of them who inevitably came more into conflict with us over them.

In addition, of course, the Carter Administration began with the assumption that our political and strategic competition with the Soviet Union was inexorably resolving itself in our favor. The future would be determined by our immensely more attractive economic and moral [Page 1111] assets. Since a major problem in our dealing with the nations of the South had in earlier years been our need to look first to the Soviet relationship—and in the process frequently neglect Southern interests—we thought that we had pretty clear sailing. This estimate regrettably turned out to be wrong. The Soviet challenge, which had been in a quiescent building period, broke forth in full flower in the middle of the Carter years, forcing us to reassess our priorities—not infrequently to the detriment of our Southern interests as we had originally perceived them.

Overall, there is probably no greater impediment to our pursuit of a fruitful North-South policy than the persistent conflict between our global objectives (whether humanitarian or strategic) on the one hand, and the demands of our relations with individual countries or of regional problems. This has weighed on our policies since the mid-1950s. As long as the United States must (or believes it must) assume responsibility for global stability, this tension will continue. (The contrast with the relative success of the Europeans is instructive; the Soviets increasingly face the same problems that we do.)

Inability to interrelate the economic and political aspects of our North-South policy was at the core of our problems at home. In one sense, this happened because of the bureaucratic separation of these factors, not only as between agencies but also within agencies. The economic bureaucracy in State was never really under political control and S/P was never able to coordinate policy effectively. Within the NSC, the bureaucratic arrangements made it very unlikely that a coherent policy could be pursued. Brzezinski never got sufficiently involved in LDC economic affairs to follow up on his ideas. Hence there never was an effective “ground strategy” for North-South affairs.

There is, of course, a more fundamental question—whether a “North-South policy” is viable in the United States. Sweden and the Netherlands, for instance, have a happy combination of public support for significant resource transfer and a lack of responsibility for events in the Third World. They are able to take positions across the economic and political spectrum that are in line with the “Southern” approach; hence, they have a credible and coordinated policy.

The United States lacks that kind of public support and carries responsibility for events elsewhere in the world. At this stage in our history it is probably impossible to take the kinds of policy positions that would be “successful”—in the sense that the Southern countries would see these positions as an adequate response to their concerns.

And, of course, there is no reason to assume that it would be in anybody’s long-term interest for us to take such positions. We have to be the judge of our own actions.

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About a year into the administration, David Aaron mused that “North-South policy was an idea whose time had not yet come.” If he was wrong, it was only in the confidence that its time in the United States would come. To be sure, we will have to adjust to international reality in one form or another—but it is far from certain that this will be the result of conscious policy choices, as opposed to having the situation forced on us (the process that OPEC has begun).

There is a good case to be made for the proposition that the American people, because of historical and geographic peculiarities, will never come to the conclusion that a positive North-South policy, including some short-term sacrifices, makes sense to them. Personally, I do not despair of building that realization, but for the next several years at least—and probably most especially during the Reagan presidency—there will be no effective moves in that direction. We will not be able to make the key politico-economic linkage required for such a strategy. Since these years are likely to be a time of very tight resources, that may not make much difference.

These years can be used for educational purposes within the American public—a task that the government should do but probably won’t. The burden will fall on private organizations as it has in the past. One can only hope that they will be more successful than they have been in the past.

In policy terms, there is not much left beyond handling North-South issues on a case-by-case basis. This is of course how the Carter Administration—and Kissinger before then—handled them. What may be lacking, however, is an overall concept relating these individual cases. Again, neither Carter nor Kissinger was able to construct a compelling single concept; yet there were some useful ideas for the operators to keep in mind. An early task of the Reagan administration should be to enunciate some of its own ideas as a means of minimizing the likely chaos.

At a minimum, we should ensure that we do not slip backwards during this difficult time. Thus policy planning for North-South affairs over the next several years should probably concentrate on developing good defensive strategies, in contrast to the more hopeful but often irrelevant constructs of the early Carter years. Since the operators (Treasury, State/EB) have taken a defensive posture all along, this should be a welcome change to them. The key, however, will be supplying the overall rationale which the operators have lacked and will probably continue to lack.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Subject File, Box 34, (NSC Accomplishments—North/South Policy: 12/80). No classification marking. On December 5, Thornton sent Brzezinski another paper entitled “The Carter Administration and North/South Issues: The First Year (The View from the NSC).” In his cover memorandum, Thornton wrote that he had “put together a history of the first year of North-South policy in the Carter Administration. This was the formative period and the one where I was most concerned;” he also indicated his uncertainty as to whether “this is exactly what you wanted but it is the most useful thing that I could put together.” Thornton concluded his cover memorandum to Brzezinski: “Having been put into a reflective mood by all of this (and, more important, having had time for reflection for the first time in four years) I may also do a shorter, more evaluative piece. If so, I will send you a copy.” (Ibid.)
  2. See footnote 2, Document 328.
  3. Apparently a reference to Carter’s March 28–April 3, 1978, visit to Venezuela, Brazil, Nigeria, and Liberia.