Battle of the Barriers

TARIFF increases and trade barriers initiated during the last week warn of the need to intensify efforts to conclude the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

On Feb. 1, the Clinton administration announced that it would exclude European power-generation and telecommunications companies and some services from bidding on United States government contracts. The move, initiated under President Bush, is a response to the EC's recent adoption of "buy European" procurement rules. The US also said it would begin to study the possibility of withdrawing from the government-procurement code that GATT oversees.

This follows last week's announcement that the US was raising antidumping tariffs on steel imports from 19 nations. Canada retaliated, slapping large tariffs on steel products from the US and five other countries.

And Japan, one of the targets of the US steel tariffs, last week announced higher tariffs on steel-related imports from China.

Meanwhile, other US industries, from autos to computers, are lining up to petition for relief.

These acts come in the context of an uneasy recovery in the US and of weakened demand for many US goods abroad as other industrial nations contend with recession. Calls for protection are loudest when times are hard. Still, those calls should prod nations to push ahead with GATT.

One signal of the new administration's support for GATT would be a presidential request for and congressional approval of an extension of the May 31 "fast track" deadline. Lawmakers agreed to give a GATT treaty an up-or-down vote as a package. It appears likely that the talks will not be finished by March 2, an informal deadline set by the 108 countries involved in them.

President Clinton also should begin to set out as unambiguously as possible his trade policy, starting with his State of the Union message on Feb. 17.

Leaders of the countries involved in GATT should avoid being swayed by those who argue that it is now or never for agreement. In the post-cold-war world, economic strength and position are reasserting their place beside military might as measures of power and influence. It is no surprise that, in broad terms, the GATT talks bear a pattern similar to that of arms control talks during the 1970s and '80s. Both bear directly on a nation's sense of security. Both proceed even when countries build new weapons systems or trade barriers while they are negotiating to reduce them (and about which their negotiating partners complain loudly). And both, at times, seem interminable, stuck in the details.

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