WE are seeing the confluence of political, economic, and technological change that has no precedent in history. As a result, America's foreign and domestic policy priorities are also changing. To maintain severe restrictions on telecommunications exports now would be to ignore the message of change. It would put our country at risk of missing an opportunity to foster democracy abroad while expanding jobs and exports at home.
Founded in 1949, the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) is a creation of the cold war. Its restrictions on telecommunications exports - strategically necessary as they were at one time - were based on the idea that limiting the communications capability of people in China and what was then the Soviet Union was in the best interest of world security. But today, the exact opposite is true.
Nothing supports a nascent democratic movement more powerfully than the free flow of information. That was demonstrated by the Committees of Correspondence during the American Revolution. Two centuries later it was reaffirmed by Boris Yeltsin's fax messages from the Russian parliament during the coup attempt of August 1991.
It is not coincidental that the world's politically stable, economically secure democracies are also the nations with the most advanced communications infrastructure. Russia and Ukraine, despite many demands on their limited funds, have made telecommunications a priority. They understand it is a prerequisite for attracting foreign investment and supporting economic growth.
You can see the same lesson reflected in the rooftop satellite dishes sprouting in China's most progressive southern provinces, and you can see it in the government's ambitious plans to expand and modernize the Chinese telecommunications system.
CLEARLY, it is in the economic and political interest of the United States to do everything possible to expand the communications infrastructure of our former adversaries. Yet COCOM restrictions lock us into a cold-war policy that limits the ability of people to communicate ideas and information. Our country wants to foster economic reform and Western investment in Russia and China, yet current COCOM policies deny those countries the information technology most crucial to economic growth.
Here at home, economic growth is closely tied to high-technology exports. The growth in exports of telecommunications switching and transmission equipment has been one of the great American success stories in international trade. But America's exporters and our domestic economy pay dearly for maintaining impediments to expanded trade and exports to countries like Russia and China, which promise to be among the largest telecommunications markets in the world by the end of this decade.
Despite the competitiveness of the US market for long distance services, AT&T still carries regulatory restrictions that the government does not apply to most of our competition. Foreign telephone companies are permitted to offer services here while retaining monopolies in their home markets, which lock out American companies.
The COCOM restrictions on telecommunications are still another layer of regulatory policy that has not caught up with changing realities. The cold war is over, and it is time to close the gap between COCOM policy and new realities. We do not have time for the reluctant, incremental adjustments in export controls that the US has traditionally used in response to advances in technology. We must move decisively to eliminate export controls on telecommunications for civilian uses in the former Soviet Union and China. In doing so, we will open new opportunities for America and the rest of the world. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.