It would be stretching it to say European Community trade officials awaited the arrival of Mickey Kantor with bated breath. But clearly Brussels expected last week's meeting with the U.S. trade representative to shed some light on the Clinton administration's trade intentions.
They were sorely disappointed. If Mr. Kantor's goal was to keep his EC partners off balance, he could not have been more successful.Sir Leon Brittan is normally the most unflappable of men. But in the presence of Mr. Kantor, the community's trade commissioner appears distinctly ill at ease. His stiff posture and affected laughter during joint appearances belie Sir Leon's discomfort.
Europeans are often rattled in the presence of aggressive, sharp-minded Americans, and Mr. Kantor did a lot of rattling in Brussels and London. His message was blunt and uncompromising: The United States market is open, the EC market is closed. It did not play well.
Europeans bristle when lectured by Americans, and while Mr. Kantor offset his tough talk with some signs of compromise - delaying sanctions in the procurement dispute, breathing some life into the market access talks so critical to the Uruguay Round - he still left the Europeans groping for clues as to where Washington wants to go on trade.
"People who deal with him are having difficulty in sizing him up," said one senior British official last week.
In many ways this is not bad. Leaving your negotiating adversary uneasy about your next move can be fruitful. Former Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Mike Smith was a master of it. So is the current U.S. Uruguay Round coordinator, Warren Lavorel.
Moreover, like the good lawyer he is, Mr. Kantor - who had no experience in trade before he was appointed - has learned a complicated brief in an impressively short time. (Although he revealed an occasional need to brush up when he embarrassingly told a press conference in London that the U.S. Buy America Act contains no domestic content provision).
It unsettles U.S. trading partners that Mr. Kantor has no philosophical underpinning to complement his command of the immediate situation. His flat- out rejection of trade theory may give him flexibility in his decision making. But in rejecting "trade theology," as he calls it, Mr. Kantor may also deprive himself of the proper context in which to base his decisions.
He said last week it was "time to take a chance on change." But while much good can arise from change, the prospect of the world's largest nation taking trade policy chances at a time when protectionism is gaining ground on both sides of the Atlantic is alarming.
To be a truly effective negotiator, you have to know your adversary well. On that score the man from Tennessee does less well. He seems to believe that he has the measure of Sir Leon. But does he really understand the complex interplay among the EC Commission, the member states and the various political factions within national government?
Mr. Kantor is not well-traveled internationally; his trip to Brussels last week was his first. It was somewhat surprising, then, when he told reporters he learned nothing new of the commission's procedures or the politics in the member states that drive trade policy. He had been, he said, "well briefed" by his aides in Washington.
For their part, European officials were somewhat startled at Mr. Kantor's
inexperience on the nature of EC trade policy.
"He does not seem to understand the difficulties we are having with our own protectionist forces within the member states," said one senior German official.
He does understand well that recently implemented Article 29 of the EC's Utilities Directive is discriminatory and he is to be applauded for aggressively seeking to dismantle it.
Mr. Kantor is also probably right when he says the United States is "the biggest, most open market in the world." But for him to suggest, as he did repeatedly, that the Buy America Act is not an obstacle to foreign firms or to preach that the United States is without sin on the trade front is folly.
Negotiating trade agreements with the Europeans requires patience, knowledge and toughness in equal measures. In also requires insight into how EC policy is formed.
He must understand the complicated, symbiotic relationship between Bonn and Paris. He must also realize that while he may be heartened by what he hears from the Germans, the Dutch and the British, there are other countries - notably France - that will hold a very different view.
In dealing with the French, he must combine toughness with the insight to know how far he can push a new right wing government with latent anti-American tendencies before it lashes out in an irrational manner that could badly harm the Uruguay Round.
There is nothing in the trade portfolio that Mr. Kantor's agile mind cannot master. What is troublesome is that he appears to believe that what the other guy thinks doesn't matter.
It is early yet for Mr. Kantor and his team, and there will be plenty of opportunity for him to learn the ins and outs of EC trade policy. Brussels, too, will learn what makes the new administration tick.
Keeping Brussels guessing about U.S. policy has its advantages. But the new U.S. trade representative will soon learn that when it comes to trade - and particularly the Uruguay Round - very little gets done unless the United States takes the lead. But before he can lead, Mr. Kantor will need to show U.S. trade partners in which direction they are going.