Few issues are more important than resisting the type of protectionist fervor that swept the globe in the early 1930s as nation after nation - seeking to shore up internal industries during the depression - restricted imports. The result was to help intensify the economic downturn. Today, more nations are dependent on international trade for their well-being than was true in those days. In the case of the United States, for example, 40 percent of its farm sales and one-sixth of its manufacturing jobs come from exports. Any measures that closed off such commerce could have a disastrous impact on both the American and world economies.
For this reason, the trade talks to be held in Geneva in late November under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade must be considered crucial. The US, eager to expand the world trading system, is pushing for a series of new agreements. Their aim would be to extend existing trade rules to the service, high-technology, and investment industries and to set up a new worldwide monitoring system that could identify protectionist moves made by nations. But what is disturbing is that at this point - only a month before the talks - the major industrial nations not only are indifferent or hostile to such proposals but have not even been able to agree on which issues to discuss.
The Reagan administration must push for the broadest possible agenda at the GATT discussions.
The dangers for a new round of protectionism cannot be lightly dismissed. They are underscored, for example, by the new US-European steel pact last week. Under that three-year agreement, Common Market steel producers will limit their annual exports to the US to 5.12 percent of the American market. That is down from the current level of 6 per-cent. The accord itself is not a particularly bad agreement, in that it avoids the need for the US to impose ''countervailing duties'' on European steel (in accordance with the US International Trade Commission ruling that the subsidized European imports were ''injuring'' US firms).
But the potential side effects of the steel accord are a cause of concern. The Common Market nations plan to reduce steel imports from Asia to make up for lost sales to the US. Meanwhile, US producers, heartened by the accord, will also attempt to limit Asian imports. In short, protectionism will spur more protectionism. Where will such efforts at trade restriction end?
The US steel industry, now operating at about 40 percent of capacity, will obviously not be salvaged just by slamming the doors on imports. The industry needs an infusion of modern management methods, as well as newer plants and technology. And that is true not just for the steel industry, but many other manufacturing industries.
It is in the best interest of industrial nations that the GATT talks produce the strongest possible accords on expanding - not curtailing - world trade.