Perhaps nothing is more important to lifting the world out of the economic downturn that has hurt so many nations in recent months than ensuring a continuous - and rising - level of international trade. For that reason the Reagan administration deserves credit for seeking legislation that would allow the President to negotiate liberalized new rules for trade in investment, services, and high-technology products. It also deserves plaudits for opposing protectionist measures now before Congress that would retaliate against nations that limit the import of American goods.
US trade representative Bill Brock was hardly exaggerating when he told lawmakers this week that for the US to set up reciprocal trade barriers against other nations ''could undermine an already vulnerable multilateral trading system, trigger retaliation abroad, further deprive the Unites States of export markets and erode, if not eliminate, our role as the world leader in liberalizing international trade.'' Sad to say, over 250 bills now before Congress would establish reciprocal US trade barriers.
That is not to say that the administration is taking a kid-gloves approach to those nations that deliberately close off their markets to US goods and services. Far from it. While rejecting outright retaliation, the administration is seeking authority to close off imports of certain goods from such nations until mutually beneficial trading rules are worked out that guarantee mutual access to markets. It is also applying tough diplomatic pressures to nations with significant trade imbalances, such as Japan, which posted an $18 billion surplus in its trade with the US last year.
The whole tangled issue of trade in services and investment will be coming up at a ministerial conference at Geneva this November of members of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Current international trading rules apply essentially to manufactured goods. Yet service trade represents a growing and significant element of world commerce. That is especially true for the US, where seven out of ten jobs are in service fields and service-related income from exports and earnings of American subsidiaries abroad reached $128 billion in 1980. Many nations restrict service-related imports.
The administration must continue to press for new international rules governing service trade. Meantime, it is heartening that it is vigorously opposing reciprocity legislation that would retaliate against other nations and invite the risk of a world spree in protectionism. The goal must remain that of opening - not slamming shut - the doors to maximum possible international trade.