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Arms and Hunger by Willy Brandt; translated by Anthea Bell (Pantheon: $14.95; 224 pp.)

July 13, 1986| Susan George | George is a senior fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies/Transnational Institute, Washington, D.C., and Amsterdam, and author of several books on world food and development problems

Willy Brandt, anti-Nazi German patriot and lifelong stalwart of the Social Democratic Party, has served his country as parliamentarian, mayor of West Berlin, foreign minister and chancellor. His Ostpolitik , which sought an opening toward Eastern Europe, won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.

A key figure in the Socialist International, his name has also become a kind of shorthand for the principled, liberal stance on global issues. People citing "Brandt" are probably not quoting Willy himself but one of the reports of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues which he chaired--"North-South: A Program for Survival" or "Common Crisis" (1980 and 1983). At 73, Brandt has transcended the conventional role of elder statesman and attained the status of a monument.

Monuments tend not to change much, and in "Arms and Hunger," he reaffirms his views on global interdependence and reiterates his appeals for action on common security. To date, he has not had much luck. His commission's recommendations have left the conduct of world affairs singularly unaffected, and no one in power has taken his advice on East-West relations. As for the North/South axis, his hopes for massive resource transfers from First World to Third have been given a polite burial.

Instead of trying to understand what he can only view as a failure, indict those responsible for it and trace a different, workable strategy for the future, Brandt has doggedly chosen to write a kind of third commission report, this time by himself.

His persistence is admirable, but his book is, perhaps understandably, mistitled. Something of a supermarket stocked to the rafters with global problems, it should have been called "Arms and Hunger, Debt, Underdevelopment, Energy, Population, Trade, the Environment, the U.N., and Much More."

There is plenty of information here to arouse indignation--the half-day's military expenditure which could finance the World Health Organization's anti-malaria program; the single tank that equals 1,000 classrooms; the 30% of the world's population which pockets more than 80% of world income. Clearly, the planet is in terrible shape and a scary place to live. But how many people does one know who have come out in favor of world hunger, environmental destruction or nuclear holocaust? Anyone who doesn't already deplore the warped priorities and several outrages outlined at length by Brandt deserves a badge marked Moral Leper.

Unfortunately, since we're rarely told plainly what nations, what interests and what social classes have a positive stake in perpetuating this catalogue of horrors and what we might sensibly do to stop them, a combination of disapproval and prescriptive "ought-to's," however worthy, is beside the point. According to Brandt, a misguided entity called "we"--alternatively "humanity" or "mankind"--is largely responsible for our plight, as in "humanity is in danger of arming itself to death." The Pogo Principle--"We have met the enemy and he is Us," echoed here less pithily by Brandt--is surely a profound moral truth but a doubtful guide to political action.

Unwilling to offend, he speaks, for example, of "that American pesticide factory in India" when he means Union Carbide. He notes that Third World economic and political elites are "strikingly opulent," yet still wants "large-scale transfers of resources to developing countries"--as if such a rechristened version of trickle-down development would help the poor this time around without sticking to elite fingers. Citing multilateral cooperation as the only hope for international survival, he still stops short of blaming the United States for practicing the most unilateral foreign policy in living memory.

For a man of such vast political experience, Brandt seems strangely puzzled that wise counsel can go unheeded; that power politics and opportunism plus short-term commercial greed--not cooperation and generosity--are norms in the real world. His stated preference for "negotiation, persuasion and efforts at adjustment" as tools for promoting his "reformist credo" too often precludes calling spades spades, much less confrontation.

Willy Brandt, democrat and socialist that he is, seems to have moved for so long in rarefied circles that his solution for every problem is to have a U.N. conference or a summit meeting about it. Where are the people, where are the popular movements in this scheme of things? Here they are either absent or victims, never actors.

Saying, as this book does, that if "we" (he's got me doing it) put into practice everything Brandt recommends, we would have a happy and harmonious world is a bit like saying, "If we had some ham we could have some ham and eggs if we had some eggs."

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