IT was a surprising appointment, coming amidst the shock and gloom engendered by the death of Ron Brown, the Commerce Secretary, in a plane crash in Bosnia last April. President Bill Clinton's mourning was so profound for the man he credited with making his election possible that the White House strictly forbade speculation about a successor.
Suddenly, a week later, the White House announced that Mickey Kantor, the US trade representative, would move over to Commerce to preserve the legacy of his long-time friend Symbolic of the move, Kantor refused to replace Brown's official framed photograph with his own, as is customary Instead, offices all over the 35,000 person department have hung photos of the two former Democratic political operatives arm in arm.
The symbolism seems appropriate; the two men were most often on the same side in cabinet debates and shared a long history in the more liberal wing of Democratic politics Both pragmatists, they moved centre with Clinton, preferring power to losing elections The ebullient Brown was head of the Democratic National Coinmittee when Kantor was chairman of Clinton's campaign. Both saw their cabinet jobs in terms of job creation - both to improve the lot of American workers and maintain Clinton's hold on office.
Brown's great interest at Commerce was trade promotion and 'commercial diplomacy. He revelled in the task of leading trade missions around the world to help US businessmen get contracts. He bragged about the impact made by the appearance of a US presidential jet parked in the local airport combined with elegant high-powered CEOs - claiming that together they exuded an invincible aura of optimism.
The small, pugnacious Kantor lacks his predecessor's charisma, but he has gamely picked up the torch on the trade promotion effort In July, he took a business delegation of 18 companies to Croatia and Bosnia, signalling US determination to support the peace process through commercial development But no further trips are planned this year while Kantor works to get the president re-elected, and there is a sense that he is simply 'holding the fort,' until the end of the presidential term.
Kantor seems most interested in one initiative which began when he was the US trade representative, the push for international rules against corruption 'Business leaders I have met around the country have told me, almost without exception, that the number one issue they are concerned with in international trade is corruption - extorted bribes, lack of transparency, the routine offering of illicit payments and the overall effect these have on businesses,' he told Detroit businessmen.'The problem of corruption is proliferating around the world.'
He has continued to expand browns advocacy center where US officials intensively monitor and press foreign governments on behalf of US companies.The centre claims it has produced impressive returns,signing contracts worth $70,000-$75-000 million since 1993,about $42,000 million of which may be attributed to US based industry. Demand for its services from US business is so strong it has had to develop guidelines for its clients.
It only advocates on behalf of firms when other governments have intervened on behalf of their companies,when US companies are judged to be competetive for the sale,and when the US content is at least 50 per cent.
It also claims to represent American affiliates of foreign owned companies with the same fervour as US-based parents,a practice which has brought some opposition from US companies.
Ray Vickery,assistant secretary for trade development,said that in the middle east alone 22 projects,worth $13,000 million, and worked on by brown,have come to fruition.The first was the $5,000 million sale of 61 Boeing and McDonnell Douglas aircraft to Saudi Arabia, which was considered an extraordinary feat of salesmanship at the time One of the last was a 150-MW' Israeli power plant, a $300 million project won by MidAtlantic Energy. The contract was signed in May with considerable prodding from Kantor.
Some initiatives undertaken by the centre have been less satisfactory. A Kuwaiti deal for a 900-MW power project agreed with the Wing Group of Colorado never came to fruition. However, the advocacy centre persisted in negotiating a settlement for the US group. Vickery says Kuwait is now moving forward with another larger deal for a 2.400-MW power project and 'is looking for American participation.' This, he said, 'is an example of how, when you conduct advocacy in a proper manner, and reach issues than can't be resolved, it can still be turned to the benefit of the US.'
According to Vickery, the new secretary has 'embraced' advocacy, now employing many of the skills he used to squeeze concessions out of reluctant trading partners In both cases, there has to be a win-win deal so that neither side wants to feel taken advantage of.. Both sides come away from the table with real value.'
Kantor spends two-three hours a week at the advocacy centre making calls on behalf of US firms. Before he died, Brown was pushing the deal under which Sealand Services of Charlotte, North Carolina will develop the Raysut port project in OInan Kantor clinched the estimated $250 million deal in May (MEED 24:5:96) He is also working hard to push along the EgyptIsrael natural gas pipeline.
Despite his efforts Kantor has been unable to maintain the excitement Brown generated at the Commerce Department Brown brought with him into office many ambitious operatives, some of whom died with him, and some of whom have since left the department. The survivors seem lost, and some Commerce bureaucrats say they no longer feel in the thick of the action - they rarely see their new boss, who has surrounded himself with a few close aides.
The mood of uncertainty is heightened by the current presidential election. The strong export promotion effort set up by Brown will live on if Mr Clinton is reelected. There will even be new initiatives plans are already in the works to expand the use of guarantees by the US' Export-Import Bank and the Small Business Administration to make more accessible loans to small and medium-sized businesses that are trying to export Also being planned is a scheme to boost trade over the Internet.
Senator Robert Dole, the Republican presidential candidate, is running well behind Clinton in the polls. but anything could happen - a foreign policy disaster, a Whitewater indictment - between now and November Dole has indicated opposition to any further trade liheralisation.
'I supported the North American Free Trade Agreement and the GATT agreements because I support opening foreign markets,' he says. At this time we need to step back and assess whether these agreements have, in fact, benefited working Americas as originally hoped He says he will continue to push for legislation which would allow the US to withdraw from the World Trade Organisation 'if the US' rights are being abridged by bureaucrats in Geneva.
Like all presidential candidates, Dole promises to get tougher on US trading partners if elected He is not likely to he a great fan of export promotion last year, when he was moving to the right politically, he joined one of the more iadical House Republican campaigns - to abolish the US Commerce Department altogether.
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