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Time for the US to emulate its friends?

IS the time coming when it will be in the interest of the United States to emulate its friends rather than its foes? Since the end of World War II, preoccupation with the threat from the Soviet Union has led administrations to emphasize the same elements of national policy as the USSR has: a military buildup, intelligence and counterintelligence, support for military alliances and allies, assertive information programs, and clandestine intervention in other states. The military and covert aspects have had special prominence in the Reagan administration.

But talk of the decline of the US centers not on US military power, but on the country's decline as an economic and trading power. Our friends, while not neglecting their security requirements, have been placing emphasis on enhancing their exports, reducing their trade deficits, and preparing themselves more effectively to compete in the world market. The lowering of customs barriers within the European Community in 1992 promises to create a formidable trade power - as Japan already is.

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Thus it is worth asking whether the US should reorder its national priorities to put greater emphasis on the nation's ability to compete with its friends in the global market and somewhat less on competition with the USSR and its surrogates.

Certain ingrained attitudes and organizational patterns in the US make any such major shift in priorities difficult. Concern over the perceived threat from the USSR underlies American thinking toward almost every international issue. That concern is not likely to be assuaged until the potential military threat from Moscow is clearly reduced. Neither are US political leaders going to set aside the temptation to covert action. This temptation will continue to be driven by the national frustration over the Soviet presence in nearby states, other areas of the third world, and Eastern Europe.

Any shift in priorities would also need to address serious problems in coordinating foreign political and economic policies in government, and government and business interests outside. The following are impressions gained through three decades in the policymaking process; the belief that these observations may still be true was reinforced by my recent participation in a conference on presidential transition that included former officials of the Reagan administration.

The foreign- and security-policy establishments in Washington are not fully prepared for effective integration of economic, financial, and trade considerations in the nation's diplomacy. The Department of State still concentrates primarily on political issues, leaving the initiative in economic issues largely to the Treasury, the Office of the Special Trade Representative, and senior White House officials. Experts gravitate to these agencies. The State Department has officials knowledgeable on these issues, but not as core policymakers. There is no economic counterpart to the National Security Council staff.

National attitudes and practices also inhibit consideration of measures to enhance our trading capacity. In no major trading country is the gap as wide between government and business. Antitrust laws generally preclude arrangements among businesses to meet foreign competition. Although business leaders have individual relationships with those in government, effective formal consultation between business and government is rare. The philosophy of the free market and the general American aversion to government involvement in business affairs place obstacles in the way of the close cooperation present in the development of foreign trade strategies in other countries.

The growth of the multinational corporation, even when the headquarters are in the US, has created different sets of interests between the US government and such corporations. Corporations, as one example, are not sympathetic with US official efforts to restrict contacts with such political pariahs as Libya or South Africa. They see US competitors given free rein by their governments to go where they will.

In the election campaign, the high-profile issues were patriotism, defense, and internal social concerns. Little attention appears to have been paid to how the US will improve its competitive position in the trading world. Yet the new administration will face this as an urgent question. The fall of the dollar has helped the trade deficit, but more fundamental changes are required if the US is to find itself on a more equal footing with its major competitors - a strong Japan and a newly united European trading bloc.

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David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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