MEETING AN ATTACK

he outgoing head of the U.S. Council for International Business offered some pointed words of warning the other night about dangers facing international trade. The trade and transportation communities would do well to pay attention.

Abraham Katz, a long-time career diplomat before becoming president of the council in 1984, will retire early next year. He distilled his experiences into a speech he gave at the group's annual dinner.The principle underlying his remarks - and motivating the council and the business community at large - was that global trade is a positive force. It drives the economy, improves quality of life and, in so doing, enables gains to be made in labor standards and environmental protection. Anyone who doubts that economically well-off nations have better records on labor and environmental issues needs only consider the state of those sectors in developing lands that still struggle to meet basic economic needs.

But there is a problem, Mr. Katz observed: ''The opponents of business, the enemies of an open-market system, have marshalled a serious counterattack on further liberalization of trade and investment and on multinational companies.''

The opponents - labor, environmental, consumer and other groups of various sizes and credos, many with the highest of motivations - see themselves as the ''true representatives of civil society,'' he said. They see business, global business in particular, and multilateral organizations like the World Trade Organization as the enemies.

And they are determined to impose their narrow vision on the world, using trade sanctions and kangaroo-court review processes in which they would have a strong voice. Never mind that their key tool - protectionism - would harm the economic activity that provides the foundation for achieving their goals.

They have embraced the Internet with a vengeance, and their drive has attained powerful momentum, intimidating governments and politicians. They helped defeat fast-track trade negotiating authority in Congress and held back the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

Mr. Katz is on the mark. Modern communications technology, despite its benefits, has a negative effect on democratic functions. By speeding up communications - a hallmark of democracy - it has accelerated the political process to the point where consideration of an issue often resembles a rapid-fire word drill more than a rational review. Politicians respond with sound bites to reporters' questions about crises du jour. How an issue will play in the press gets far more weight than its merits.

Mr. Katz and his colleagues have done more than rail against free trade's opponents. They've taken a highly pragmatic approach best seen in their efforts on the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work adopted earlier this year by the International Labor Organization.

The declaration committed ILO members to policies that emphasize the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced labor and child labor, and the elimination of employment discrimination. But the agreement eschews the use of trade sanctions. Instead, it will concentrate the force of public information and public opinion on nations that flout its principles. It is, in short, a course comprising what Mr. Katz called ''sunshine, not sanctions.''

And it's a responsible model for business to use in the future: acknowledge legitimate problems and commit to a rational way of dealing with them - a way that allows trade, whose benefits make possible the economic foundation for modern society, to continue.

Surviving the efforts of free-trade opponents, of course, requires more than that, as Mr. Katz said. At its most basic, it requires businesses to recognize the threat, to keep themselves informed and to speak up to governments.

The alternative is no alternative: protectionism and more protectionism sinking the world's economy to Depression-era depths - and taking labor and environmental standards down with it.

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