When it comes to prying open export markets and helping U.S. companies slug it out abroad, Bill Clinton has promised to be a fierce advocate. So why does the likelihood of a Clinton Administration give many big U.S. exporters the willies?
Shades of Jimmy Carter, that's why. The U.S. export lobby is afraid that Clinton, like Carter, might use trade sanctions in a human-rights crusade. So delegations representing leading multinationals, including Boeing Co. and IBM, are offering Clintonites some unsolicited advice--on issues from U.S.-China trade to overhauling America's export-control policies. "A lot of us are very nervous about Clinton," says Howard Lewis, vice-president for international affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers. "This would be a hell of a time to start disrupting our commercial relations abroad."
Clinton has given them some cause for concern. He has pledged to link renewal of China's most-favored-nation trading status to Beijing's progress on democratic reforms and on limiting arms sales to global hot spots. And he has talked in general terms of a greater commitment to human rights as a guiding principle of U.S. policy.
OVERBLOWN FEARS? High-tech manufacturers are among Clinton's major business supporters, but even they are jumpy. House Democrats, led by Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), have savaged Bush for aiding Saddam Hussein's arms buildup and nuclear research by allowing sales of computers, software, and other high-tech items to Iraq. In reaction, Clinton might want to keep tight controls on exports to such countries as India, Iran, and Vietnam. "The big security risk of the 1990s will be weapons proliferation," insists Representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who is mentioned as a possible Secretary of State in a Clinton Administration.
But business fears may be overblown. Carter was willing to sacrifice U.S. economic interests to promote foreign policy goals--witness the grain embargo imposed on Moscow after its invasion of Afghanistan. But it was the Reagan White House that championed unilateral sanctions. Under Reagan, Caterpillar Inc. and Dresser Industries Inc. took a beating when they were barred from selling equipment for a Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe. And U.S. computer makers chafed under restrictions that kept them from selling commercial equipment to Warsaw Pact nations.
But the Clinton campaign, eager to assure Corporate America that it will take care of business, realizes it has a problem. Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman turned Clinton campaigner, has fielded dozens of calls from worried defense lobbyists. During a campaign trip to California, Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a close Clinton associate, says he spent a lot of time "raising the comfort levels" of defense lobbyists. And Clinton himself has met three times recently with Bernard L. Schwartz, chairman of Loral Corp., one of the few Democrats in the defense industry's top echelons. "I told him the country needs a viable industrial base, whatever the cost," says Schwartz.
Clinton aides insist that he will aggressively promote American business interests abroad. Says defense adviser John D. Holum, who served in the Carter State Dept.: "Clinton realizes that you can't create democratic movements where they don't exist." And Clinton realizes something else: If he wins, he'll owe his victory to his promises to spur growth and employment. That may make him reluctant to mess with one of the economy's few success stories, its export sector.