What's good for US business abroad is not always good for the US

One of those anonymous State Department spokesmen said the other day that the department ''has a statutory responsibility for assisting American interests abroad.'' That seems, on its face, unexceptional, but it raises a host of questions.

When the State Department was asked to specify the statute which assigned it this responsibility, it came up with a provision of the Foreign Affairs Manual and two sections of the Foreign Assistance Act. The Foreign Affairs Manual is not a statute at all but merely the department's internal operating procedures.

One of the cited sections of the Foreign Assistance Act is a verbose exhortation to administer the foreign aid program in a way that encourages private enterprise, among other things. The other requires that aid be suspended to countries which do not pay their debts to Americans or which confiscate American property without compensation. Neither of these is a directive to assist American interests abroad, or even to assist American business in general.

It was in the context of assisting American business that the spokesman made his misstatement, thereby indicating that the department equates American business with American interests. This is one of the things that is, and has been, wrong with US foreign policy, but it is not a simple matter of either/or.

To begin with, it is stating the obvious to say that an objective of US foreign policy is the promotion of American interests abroad. American business is among those interests, but it is not coterminous with them. Under presidents of both parties, the State Department has reacted almost reflexively to support American business abroad, so much so that is has frequently given the appearance of being an instrument of the business community. Generally speaking, Congress has encouraged the department to do this, though it has stopped short of writing it into the law.

Many businessmen do not see it this way. They think they do not get as much support from their government as their European and Japanese competitors get from theirs. They may be right, especially with respect to certain kinds of export financing or other promotion.

But there are not too many countries where the European or Japanese presence is as overwhelming as the American. A major corporation has revenues exceeding the gross national product of many of the countries where it does business.

Many businessmen would point out, too, that the US government from time to time has tried to use business abroad to achieve unrelated political objectives. The Reagan administration is doing that with respect to the Siberian pipeline. It has carried this so far that it is trying to control the trading policies of foreign companies using American technology under license. This is getting close to extraterritoriality, something which went out with the 19th century. (The Johnson administration tried the same thing with respect to trade with Cuba, and eventually had to back down.)

Other questions arise with respect to export policy and export controls. What is the obligation, if any, of the government to control the foreign marketing of a product which is banned in the US? If the American government determines that an insecticide is so damaging to the environment, or that a drug has such adverse side effects, that it forbids their sale in the US, should it allow the makers of the products to export them throughout the world thereby endangering the health and safety of other people? On the other hand, if other governments view the problem differently and permit use of the products, who is the US to say what is good for them?

But maybe other governments, particularly in the third world, do not have the technical expertise to determine what is good or bad for their people. Or maybe their administrative structure is inadequate to enforce a ban. Or maybe their officials are too weak (or too venal) to resist sales pressure from a big company.

The argument can be made that, in such cases, the US ought to step in and do for a third-world government something which that government cannot, or will not , do for itself. But this is getting Uncle Sam uncomfortably close to being Big Brother.

Considerations which lead to the banning of a product in the US may not apply with equal force in much of the rest of the world. The control of malaria, which is not a consideration at all in the US, may do more good for public health than DDT does harm to the environment. An unresolved argument is the extent to which American environmental policy should be incorporated in US foreign aid programs.

In these and a multitude of other cases, the appropriate response of the US government is a legitimate subject of argument and discussion. But the problems are far too complicated for the automatic reaction implied by the State Department's spokesman and confirmed by the record.

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