Assessing the impact of US trade sanctions

The last two United States Presidents - Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - get a poor report card for their efforts to use foreign trade as a means of punishing the Soviet Union.

Actions by both men, says a new report by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), failed to hurt the Soviet economy in any meaningful way, but it did disrupt the Western alliance and caused American exporters to lose important markets.

''In fact,'' the OTA says, ''although such calculations are highly uncertain, the (economic) sanctions may have done more damage to the US economy than the Soviet economy.''

The report comes at a time when the issue of foreign trade is under sharp scrutiny and debate:

* High unemployment in the United States and Western Europe is prompting a surge of demands for protection against imports.

* The West's seven leading industrial powers are about to meet at Williamsburg, Va., for an economic summit meeting shadowed by allied trade disputes. Top officials of the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan are now meeting in Paris to hammer out, if possible, common ground on economic issues before the May 28-30 meeting.

* Renewal of the Export Administration Act is before Congress. The White House would revise and renew this act, which expires in September, with greater authority to be placed in the President's hands to deny sophisticated US technology to the Soviets.

As if to illustrate the point of the OTA report, Agriculture Secretary John R. Block says that before Mr. Carter canceled contracts for 17 million tons of US grain exports to Moscow, American farmers held about 70 percent of the Soviet grain import market.

Today, although President Reagan lifted the embargo, the US share of the Soviet market has dropped to no more than 30 percent, according to Mr. Block. Other grain-exporting nations, principally Argentina, stepped into the breach and now command much of the Soviet market that the US once enjoyed.

Carter's embargo was designed to punish the Soviets for their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan, angered by the Soviet-backed repression of the Solidarity trade-union movement in Poland, took a different tack. He banned the export to the Soviets of gas-pipeline technology, either by US companies or their licensees overseas, to hamper construction of a mammoth natural gas pipeline being built to carry Soviet gas to Western Europe. One US firm, the Caterpillar Tractor Company, lost a major contract for pipelaying machines, which the Japanese promptly supplied.

More broadly, the British, French, West German, and Italian governments all accused the White House of trying to extend its export authority into their sovereign domains. A sharp quarrel within the alliance ended only when Reagan - after patient spadework by Secretary of State George P. Shultz - lifted the sanctions.

But the damage lingers, according to the OTA report, partly in the damaged reputation of the US as a reliable supplier of exports to other lands.

The OTA notes that trade with the Soviet bloc is much more important to Japan and Western Europe than it is to the US. Thousands of European jobs were created by Soviet pipe and machinery orders for the Siberian gas pipeline. ''Their future trade relations with the USSR will be shaped more by domestic imperatives and worldwide economic forces than by US concerns,'' says the report of Japan and Western Europe.

One area of major concern to the White House is the transfer of Western technology to the Soviets. ''The US and its allies,'' says Undersecretary of Commerce Lionel Olmer, ''simply must curtail the flow of strategic technology to the Soviet Union. This administration views this as a very high priority.''

The Export Administration Act, Mr. Olmer told Congress, should ''tighten strategic controls at the top of the technology spectrum and reduce controls at the lower end.''

Reagan would be required under the act to negotiate agreements with friendly nations to honor US export restrictions - a goal the OTA concludes would be very hard to achieve.

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