WASHINGTON -- Fearful of the political and economic tension in the Soviet Union and arms proliferation in the Third World, the Bush administration has begun taking a harder line on how to restrict exports of technology with military applications.
The more cautious approach led to the postponement last week of a long-scheduled meeting in Paris where the United States TC and 16 allies were to consider a drastic reduction in the number of technologies subject to export restrictions.
The meeting of the group, known as the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls, or COCOM, was put off for 30 to 45 days, a significant sign that the Bush administration is quietly slowing, and in some cases reversing, a relaxation process announced with fanfare last spring, as the Cold War was abating.
That puts it at odds with many European allies who want the benefits of greater trade.
At the same time, the administration is expected to publish soon in the Federal Register stiffer regulations against the spread of chemical and biological weapons.
This is a "difficult period in U.S.-Soviet relations," said Robert Zoellick, a State Department counselor, saying it required a "flexible approach" by the United States on all fronts.
Paul Freedenberg, the top export-control official during most of the Reagan administration, said that what is occurring now is a "drawing back from the feeling that the Cold War is over and that security concerns are finished." He added, 'It's all related to what happens in the U.S.S.R. and in the Third World after Saddam Hussein."
The administration's caution is causing flutters among corporate executives, who had counted on broad decontrol of technology to all destinations to perk up revenues.
"What makes business most nervous is the unilateral application of our controls," said William T. Archey, international vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "History shows that other people don't necessarily follow our leadership, and so they get the sales that we don't make."
COCOM consists of the member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, except for Iceland, and Australia and Japan.
Under a plan worked out by the allies in June, controls would have been maintained in telecommunications, computers, software, lasers, turbines, navigation, avionics and propulsion systems and other "core" categories, but only at the most sophisticated end of the technology spectrum.