Behind White House Role As Pitchman for US Firms
INDIA, like many developing nations, can be a tough place for foreign firms to win new business. But when Jack Shaw visited the country with 20 other American chief executives recently, he scored big, landing a $700 million contract for a satellite-communications system as well as two joint ventures.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Shaw, chairman of Hughes Network, credits the organizer, guide, and cheerleader of the trip: United States Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. The presence of a high-ranking US official enabled the American business leaders to see everyone they wanted to, from top politicians to ministry purse holders.
''In my 30 years in international telecommunications, this is the first time that I've felt the US government has truly supported US business,'' says Shaw, whose firm is owned by Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles.
Shaw's experience is not an isolated one. In its two years in office, the Clinton administration has worked hard to become a humming export-promotion machine, going far beyond the actions of its Republican predecessors as it champions the cause of US firms and scours for business opportunities worldwide.
Secretary Brown, for one, has become a tireless traveler in the contract cause. He may be facing ethics questions at home, but during his trips overseas Brown has helped rack up tens of billions of dollars in deals. US corporate leaders covet invitations to accompany the commerce secretary to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
The Clinton administration has developed a sophisticated team to go to bat for business, marshaling players from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Departments of Commerce, State, Energy, and Defense, as well as financing agencies. Penetration of foreign markets is a major topic at President Clinton's National Economic Council meetings.
''It's not just a question of a few high-level trips,'' says Jeffrey Garten, Commerce Department deputy secretary for international trade. ''We have a very elaborate system designed to help sizable firms win contracts overseas.''
Not everyone applauds this pro-business approach. From the left, critics complain that the administration is putting contract courting above other interests. Some claim, for instance, that Washington's official overtures to the Chinese for a bigger stake in its vast commercial market undermine any diplomatic pressure that takes Beijing to task for human rights abuses.
From the right, critics gripe that by getting involved in contract competition the government is inevitably favoring some industries or firms over others. Others, such as Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, want to abolish the Commerce Department altogether in their zeal to shrink government.
The Clinton team replies that in today's high-competition world economy, playing Mr. Nice Guy leaves your country in the dust and the business and jobs in the hands of your competitors. ''We have found that laissez faire isn't good enough,'' says David Rothkopf, Commerce deputy undersecretary for trade policy development.
All the advocacy is making its mark, administration officials say, pointing to a jump in export-related work, which has increased at three to four times the rate of overall job growth. And though it's true that the US trade deficit continues to get larger, it would be worse if it weren't for the White House efforts, they claim.
So far the biggest push has been in China, Brazil, southern Africa, Poland, and other markets that depend on imports for industrialization. In developing Asian econo-mies alone, there is a trillion-dollar market for infrastructure development.
Yet such nations, while commercially promising, are often prickly. That's because, typically, developing countries' governments act as purveyors of projects, hiring suppliers, engineers, and technicians. Many officials have a tradition of demanding bribes for contract awards.
US firms are bound by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits the use of bribes to gain foreign business, while their fiercest competitors are not nearly so scrupulous. German firms, lament Clinton officials, have been able to count bribery as a tax-free business expense.