Continuing Brown's Work

COMMERCE Secretary Ron Brown has been called America's chief salesman. He was tireless in promoting US goods and services abroad during some 15 trips covering countless miles over the past three years.

His tragic death while on one of those combination sales and diplomatic trips in the Balkans may slow that aspect of Clinton foreign policy, but it certainly won't stop it.

Brown's determination to build trade ties as a means of cementing both US economic prospects and diplomatic relationships was perhaps the best evidence that the president's 1992 campaign promise to "grow the economy" was still germinating. In domestic economic realms, the Clinton administration hopes for substantial public investment have been stopped by the balanced-budget imperative.

But Brown's type of salesmanship surged forward, cutting through flak about costly travel, protests from human-rights advocates in his own party, and Republican threats to cancel not only his trips but the Commerce Department itself. Politically, the secretary's activism won the administration a good deal of business favor. US firms looking overseas had found a champion - an American official who would do for them what so many other nations' officials do for their companies: pave the way politically into a new market.

There are legitimate concerns about this strategy, even within the administration. How far, really, can commercial relations go toward reforming governments that cling to absolute political control, like China's? At what point does commercial gain start to eclipse a principled stand for human rights?

A former civil-rights campaigner himself, Brown probably wrestled with those questions. Yet he clearly felt that reaching out and making contact in the realm of commerce was a risk worth taking - that it might just broaden the discussion of shared interest among nations and start to change attitudes. That's one argument for sustaining this approach.

But the best reason for persisting with Brown's economic internationalism is simply that it's in sync with today's world. Every nation's prosperity will depend on finding its niche in the international marketplace. And the niche of the world's largest economy can be a large and positive one indeed.

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