Europe's Leaders Hone Role As Export Salesmen-in-Chief

THE business of a nation's head of state is business. This weekend's first-ever summit between European and Asian leaders highlighted this role as an increasingly important part of politicians' job descriptions.

Hot-button diplomatic issues, such as child labor, human rights, Chinese nuclear testing and belligerency toward Taiwan and the Spratly Islands were kept off the official agenda and relegated to a few carefully worded phrases in the closing documents.

Instead, European heads of state focused on ways to increase sales of fast trains, jet planes, subways, radar and missile systems, telephone lines and switching equipment, and cars to fast-growing Asian markets.

Referring to his country's goals, French President Jacques Chirac set the tone for the meetings in a talk in Singapore on the eve of the Bangkok summit. "My objective is simple: We must triple our share of Asian markets in 10 years," he said. "Our future will be played out in Asia."

For the leaders of the industrial democracies, it's no longer enough to manage the affairs of state and get back on top of the polls in time for the next election. Increasingly, a key measure of leadership is demonstrated success in selling the nation's business abroad.

For Europe, Asian markets could be the key to reviving sluggish growth and employment prospects. But Europeans have seen their share of Asia's import market drop from 25 percent in 1970 to 15 percent today, in large part because of strong competition from new Asian businesses and aggressive US diplomatic efforts to develop Asian markets.

There are signs that Europeans are beginning to catch up. Since 1988, Europe's trade with Asia increased 102 percent. Much of that growth is the result of aggressive German competition. Germany claims 5.5 percent of the China's imports, while France has won less than 2 percent of China's imports.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was an early convert to the model of personal diplomacy in support of business. In 1993, he signed $4 billion worth of contracts on behalf of national industries. Volkswagen now claims 65 percent of China's automobile imports, and Siemens is slated to build the subway system for Guangzhou.

Mr. Chirac wants to play the same role as No. 1 salesman for French business. As such, he is the first French president to publicly embrace the role of promoting French business abroad.

"I've often been impressed by the importance of personal intervention, on the telephone, by the president of the United States, the German chancellor, or the British prime minister to close business deals abroad," he said in a television interview during last month's visit to the United States. "This hasn't been in our tradition or culture, but I don't see why I shouldn't do the same thing."

The role of president of the Republic is to defend French business in foreign markets, he told the French daily Le Monde last month. "Each one of my visits abroad gives me the opportunity to support French business."

"The penetration of the US in Asia owes a lot to the travels of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown," writes the French business daily La Tribune, citing a recent trip to Malaysia and Indonesia in which Mr. Brown sewed up 17 deals. "His trips are virtual contract-signing machines."

"While Europeans still favor traditional diplomacy, what distinguishes American action is its practical side," the daily reports.

Very much on the mind of the French president and other European leaders is an aggressive US strategy to win foreign contracts for US firms after the 1991 Gulf War. Mr. Clinton's personal involvement in winning a $6 billion Saudi contract for aircraft for the Boeing Company and McDonnell Douglas Corp. angered European competitors.

"The US is the world's only superpower, and can affect the outcome of deals by putting political pressure on a country," says John Leahy, Airbus Industrie senior vice president in charge of commercial relations. "For the US to insist that it get 100 percent of commercial deals after the Gulf War was just not legitimate," he adds. "Normally airline presidents announce deals after the terms have been agreed upon, but President Clinton announced a $6 billion Saudi aircraft deal on the White House lawn months before it was finalized."

Industry analyst Ian Godden of the London-based Booz, Allen, & Hamilton says that the Gulf War, as well as strong political pressure from key electoral states that have been losing jobs in the aerospace industry since 1988, triggered stronger US government involvement in export lobbying.

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