Beyond our positive stake in the economic health of the developing world, Americans have a large stake in what we might call the “prevention agenda” — the avoidance of humanitarian emergencies, national and regional conflicts, environmental deterioration, terrorism, illicit drugs, the spread of diseases, illegal migration, and other human and “natural” disasters.

We now see plainly that economic, environmental and political problems do not need passports to travel around the globe. Many of these threats stem from poverty, inequity, joblessness and social disintegration.

No one would attribute such problems solely to underdevelopment, but underdevelopment is surely part of the disease. And development — sustainable, people-centered development — will almost always be a part of any cure.

I can state fairly simply one of the most important lessons I took home from my years at the United Nations Development Program. None of the admirable goals that the United States has pursued around the world — not peace and stability, not human rights and democratization, not the expansion of trade and markets, not environmental protection, not population stabilization, not an end to hunger and extreme deprivation — not one of these can be accomplished except in the context of successful development — equitable, sustainable, successful development.

So the case for seeing development as a strategic priority for the United States and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is strong indeed. Unfortunately, our interdependence with the rest of the world, including the underdeveloped world, has not been matched by a willingness at a policy level to engage the world.

Take the case of development assistance. In 1956, 63 percent of all development assistance came from the United States. Last year it was down to 13 percent.

In 1960, 4 percent of the U.S. budget went for development and international affairs in general. Today, that figure stands at less than 1 percent. When you compare the percentage of gross domestic product devoted to development assistance among the other industrialized countries, the United States ranks dead last.

Declining developing assistance is part of the larger picture. Basically, the issue is our country’s flagging commitment to international leadership. The country that has benefited most from globalization, and has the greatest stake in its success, seems deeply reluctant to shoulder the responsibility that our position in the world requires for us.

In all, 191 nations have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There must be at least 192 countries today, for the United States is not among the 191.

Although we have decried China’s human rights situation, we stand with China as one of the few countries that has not ratified the International Covenant on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights. Even more countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 165 at last count, but Afghanistan and the United States have not.

We join Afghanistan again, and also Libya, in being among the few which have not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, and believe it or not we have not yet ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty. Our partners in opposing the Land Mine Convention include Cuba, the Sudan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Libya.

The list goes on and on, and the pattern is clear — a pattern of unilateralism, of not cooperating, of not leading.

Now, it cannot be said that the United States has no strategy whatsoever vis-a-vis the developing world. Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard, writing in the Economist, has described U.S. strategy in the following terms:

“America has wanted global leadership on the cheap. It was desperate for the developing world and post-communist economies to buy into its vision, in which globalization, private capital flows and Washington advice would overcome the obstacles to shared prosperity, so that pressures on the rich countries to do more for the poorer countries could be contained by the dream of universal economic growth.

“In this way, the United States would not have to shell out real money to help the peaceful reconstruction of Russia; or to ameliorate the desperate impoverishment and illness in Africa–“

As Sachs suggests, we have consoled ourselves with myths. One is that economic globalization is a cure-all for global poverty. Indeed, globalization can be an engine of growth. We know that economic integration produced remarkable economic growth in the United States and in Europe.

But we also know that powerful governmental measures are necessary at home to ensure that this growth is actually pro-poor and pro-environment, measures that we have often been unwilling to take. There is no reason to expect that economic integration at the global level should be different.

If millions of people can be marginalized at home, hundreds of millions can be marginalized globally. And that indeed is today’s reality. Also, if government action and international cooperation are needed to protect and stabilize markets, imagine how much more they are needed to protect people and stabilize societies.

A related myth holds that trade and private capital are reliable substitutes for development assistance. If only this were true. Consider that 75 percent of direct foreign investment is invested in middle-income developing countries or China. Just 6 percent goes to Africa, and 2 percent to the 47 least developed countries. There is no correlation between need and direct foreign investment.

Another myth is that development cooperation doesn’t work. Indeed, development aid has often failed. It can contribute to inefficiencies, it can lead to dependency, and it can delay needed structural reforms.

But despite these risks, in lucid moments, political leaders know that development cooperation can work and often has. That is why whenever there is a high-stakes crisis — from the Middle East to Bosnia to Indonesia — development resources are sought as an essential component to supporting peace and stability.

Development cooperation has done a lot of good in the world. It’s too bad that political support for it materializes only when crises are upon us and our interests revealed.

James Gustave Speth is dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.