Suspicion between the world's two major superpowers seems to be on the rise with tensions mounting over contentious arms control negotiations and a new resolve by the Gorbachev regime to join the Geneva-based General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade.
Timing of this request is ideal for the Soviet Union, striving for greater visibility and credibility in the world. Timing of the stern negative U.S. reaction could not be worse, given the conciliatory gestures of the other superpower at the arms negotiating table.Application for GATT membership by the Gorbachev regime implies acquiescence to the principles of free trade stipulated by the organization and a radical switch from the intransigeance of the "old Soviet Guard that has consistently refused to submit to any liberalization of trade measures.
Whether this effort by the Soviets to join GATT will be successful is questionable, according to one high U.S. official who did not wish to be identified. Their economic system is diametrically opposed to the free trade guidelines of the GATT and acceptance is based on two-thirds consensus by contracting parties.
Accession to this organization is a lengthy process. Each nation must agree to make specific trade concessions before an application is considered by the 92 members.
China, seeking membership for the last five years, is still gearing up for official accession procedures.
China's economic liberalization measures undertaken in the last several years help garner support for the Chinese, although communist bloc members of GATT, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, still experience resistance from other GATT members to their pricing and tariff structures.
At a time when U.S. policy-makers are obsessed with the future of this organization, which has never been able to enforce rules of trade conduct upon contracting parties, their overreaction to the Soviet Union's statement of intent is unwarranted.
The new avant-garde Gorbachev government is playing the right sort of diplomatic game, considering the economic plight and severe industrial stagnation at home. Lack of industrial competitiveness with Western countries forced the new leadership to consider new commercial alternatives that can be explored on a bilateral basis.
Entry to the GATT club of trading nations could enable the Soviet Union to wield even greater influence throughout the Western world and the newly industrialized countries.
This opportunity would allow the Soviet Union to accomplish several objectives: to acquire products and expertise for a depressed economy and to exert subtle influence upon how capitalist nations operate.
Once the United States is aware of the duplicity involved, a more pragmatic approach could be taken.
Acquiescence to the GATT club of nations forces each country to accept certain basic obligations and to engage in trade negotiations on a quid pro quo basis - barring all political differences. Therefore, if the Soviets are accepted, they must play by the rules.
It remains to be seen whether other GATT members with differing political and economic regimes will take the request seriously.