Send In The Next Batch Of Trade Honchos, Please

WANTED: Superpower seeks dignitary to mediate spats affecting 80% of the world's commerce. Celebrity preferred. Must be free-marketer, welcome on three continents (minimum). Send resume to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Preposterous? Not really. On Mar. 7, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor announced that the candidates backed by Europe and Asia for the post of director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) don't have American support. And he called for a sort of global Star Search to find a leader for the international organization established by the new General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade.

The immediate impetus for the move was the withdrawal of Washington's first choice, former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who has been tarred by Mexican scandals. But Kantor's bid to delay selection of a WTO chief also may signal a waning interest in the agency within the Administration. Growing isolationist sentiment aside, the Clintonites now believe that bilateral talks, which produced the recent trade deal with Beijing, may reap benefits faster than the unwieldy WTO. "We are starting to worry that the WTO can't act fast enough to deal with the problems we're faced with," says one senior Administration official.

DROPPING THE BALL. Washington's clumsy pullback, however, has riled European Union and Asian nations, which fear it could undermine an organization that's already off to a shaky start. "This impasse is totally unnecessary," sniffs one EU official. "It's ironic that the U.S. fought so hard for a WTO, and now it just drops the ball."

But with Salinas now being blamed for the Mexican economic crisis--and caught up in allegations that his brother was involved in a murder plot last year--Washington has no palatable candidate to back. The EU favorite, former Italian Trade Minister Renato Ruggiero, isn't enough of a free-marketer to satisfy the Clintonites. And Tokyo's top choice, Korean ex-Trade Minister Kim Chul-Su, was leader of a country whose economy is largely closed. "It's not just the people involved, but the systems they represent," explains Jeffrey E. Garten, the Commerce Dept.'s deputy secretary for international trade. "We're talking about differing concepts of how world trade should be managed."

So does the U.S. have any better ideas? Hardly. Former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers is popular with American business because of his adherence to free-trade economics, but some Asian nations balk at his country's colonial past. The Administration's favorite fantasy is that a celebrity with solid trade credentials--former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney or ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for example--might volunteer.

But that's unlikely. W. Bowman Cutter, deputy director of the National Economic Council, suggests that an acceptable candidate might emerge from Latin America. Possibilities: Argentine Trade Minister Domingo Cavallo and Enrique Iglesias, Inter-American Development Bank president.

In the meantime, the U.S. hopes to persuade GATT Director-General Peter Sutherland to stay on at least through July--and possibly longer, if the search doesn't yield results. Unless an acceptable candidate comes forward, the Clintonites say they are in no hurry to see the job filled.

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