When the Soviet Union or any other country does something which the United States strongly disapproves of -- such as marching into Afghanistan, imposing martial law in Poland, or restricting human rights -- should trade sanctions be an almost automatic first answer?
''I have no reservations about the need for some type of response,'' admits Charles Leber, vice-president of worldwide marketing for Caterpillar Tractor Company based in Peoria, Ill., a firm which relies on exports for 57 percent of its sales.
But Mr. Leber also says that such short-term trade interruptions caused by White House policy over the last four years have taken a heavy toll on his company. The sanctions have had an effect both in the loss of immediate export sales and in added uncertainties for long-range planning.
Although agreeing that the US president should have final responsibility for weighing foreign policy, economy, and security factors in trade decisions, Leber says the history of US unilateral sanction efforts has been ''dismal.''
''The net effect,'' he says, ''is to transfer orders and employment from the US to a supplier in another country.''
As he explained it to hundreds of businessmen gathered for the 45th annual Chicago World Trade Conference, the ratio of pipelayer and tractor sales to the Soviet Union from his firm and from Komatsu, his company's chief competitor, have been almost exactly reversed over the last four years. Leber says this is a result of US trade sanctions. The Japanese firm now sells the Soviets about five times as many machines as Caterpillar. Much of the equipment is to be used to build the planned Soviet natural gas pipeline to Western Europe.
While most exporters agree that national security stands as a traditionally strong reason for trade sanctions, many of them argue it should stand alone as a reason. Too often, these exporters say, the United States is trying to export ''morality'' instead.
Many of those at the Chicago conference clearly agreed with the conclusion of John Boidock of the Commerce Department's office of export administration: ''The Soviets have achieved significant technological advances at our expense.'' He pointed out that the Soviets ''stole the recipe'' for and, in part, illegally acquired the equipment and key material to manufacture some of this country's strongest advances in semiconductor technology. Moreover, the Soviets have been able to put these to work in the military sector.
However, the rationale offered by Mr. Boidock for the recent US decision to expand controls over exports to the USSR to a broader range of equipment used in truck manufacturing seemed to be in a different category to many listeners.
''This will make yet clearer to the USSR US displeasure with Soviet actions in Poland and Afghanistan,'' said Mr. Boidock, explaining the action.
But some in the business community argue that one problem with using trade sanctions for reasons other than strict national security is that the sanctions are often ineffective in forcing a policy change or in keeping the country from getting the same supplies elsewhere.
Stanley Marcuss, former deputy assistant secretary of commerce and now a partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm, argues that US sanctions against China, North Korea, Vietnam, South Africa, and the Soviet Union have done little except isolate the some countries further from the US and, in some cases, drive them more firmly into the Soviet camp. He argues that the 1973 oil embargo by OPEC nations similarly did not force any change of policy on this country, other than a determination to be more energy independent. Seldom, says Mr. Marcuss, is the offending country deprived of the actual goods, and the effect can be long-term damage on the trade relationship.
In the view of Marcuss, unilateral trade sanctions have contributed to making US export policy too inconsistent, unpredictable, and insensitive. He suggests that it is less than logical, for instance, for the US to criticize France and West Germany for participating in the Soviet pipeline plan while the US continues to make grain sales to the Soviets. Such lack of consistency, he says, undermines US ability to deal effectively with its adversaries. And it is puzzling to US businessmen trying to plan ahead.
Marcuss says all nations need to have a stake in stable world order. Reliable trade, he says, gives any country a natural interest in keeping a stable relationship.