PARIS — Paris. The United States found itself without friends at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last week. This was unhappily consistent with its increasingly isolated position in world trade disputes. More and more, Washington is the outsider.
Whatever the merits of the American arguments in these environmental and trade controversies, the outsider's role is a dangerous one to choose to play. The U.S. no longer is economically invulnerable.
The U.S. government's opposition in Rio both to an international agreement on reducing so-called greenhouse gases and to a biodiversity protection treaty derived from a wish to protect American business from what it considers undue restrictions, but also, in the latter case, to give the American pharmaceutical industry an advantage its foreign rivals would lack.
The State Department's Deputy Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Michael Young gamely defended the American case at Rio by saying, ''I think a number of countries end up tending to confess in the dark of the night the wisdom and the soundness, conceptually, of many of the U.S. positions.'' While this was an improvement on an earlier White House comment that Japan and Germany disagree with the U.S. out of a desire to appear ''politically correct,'' it was still a fairly lame argument in the absence of any evidence of what other governments really do think ''in the dark of the night.'' In the daylight they oppose the U.S.
In trade issues, the U.S. Trade Representative's office consistently takes an extremely aggressive stance in trade conflicts, which it is expected to do. However, other U.S. agencies, under pressure from industry groups and Congress, have too often attempted -- and succeeded -- in imposing disguised forms of protectionism. Washington wants it both ways and seems to assume that it has the power to perform such a feat, to the frustration of its rivals.
This has already jeopardized the future of the new U.S.-Canadian Free Trade Agreement. U.S. Customs decisions concerning the domestic content of Japanese automobiles manufactured in Canada and unilateral restrictions on Canadian lumber exports to the U.S. have provoked one prominent Canadian public figure involved in the affair (Toronto attorney William A. MacDonald) to comment that while many Canadians had argued that ''there was inadequate protection in the agreement against U.S. protectionist forces, . . . no one said the United States would not at least honor the agreement.''
The Japanese government issued a report last Monday saying that the United States is ''the world's most unfair trader,'' breaking the rules in nine of the 10 categories of free-trade rules defended by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Japan is scarcely a country to take a high line on protectionism -- unofficial forms of protectionism being something of a Japanese specialty -- but the confidence with which Tokyo mounted this unprecedented attack on U.S. practices (''For America to be told the truth is probably not
pleasant'') indicates that it considers its case a strong one.
Few in Western Europe would disagree with the Japanese report's general thrust. The West Europeans are themselves preparing for an unexpected battle with Washington over a whole new range of penal tariffs imposed in order to change EEC policy on oilseed products.
In fact the U.S. has given up a commitment to ''free trade'' in
favor of one to ''fair trade,'' which is not the same thing. That was President Bush's message to the Japanese during his disastrous visit to Tokyo earlier this year. For most practical purposes, ''fair trade'' is Washington's euphemism for protectionism.
The problem, however, is not protectionism as such. The fundamental problem is the existence in Washington and in American business of a state of mind which holds that the United States -- being the ''world's only superpower'' -- is free to do as it wishes. The implications of this are political as well as economic. It implies a unilateralism which would be hard to defend even as a form of policy ''realism,'' since the U.S. is no longer strong enough to be able to impose its will on Japan and Europe.
The real issues are those of the wider international cooperation and progress of the democracies. The period from the late 1940s to the 1990s saw a new international collaboration among the advanced countries, whose prosperity was reconstructed on the basis of an international consensus of belief in the value of free trade, open economies and political cooperation.
The United States, more than any other country, was responsible for creating this system of creative collaboration. The great contemporary institutions of economic and political cooperation, beginning with the U.N., Bretton Woods, the World Bank and OECD, were either invented or decisively shaped by the United States. But since Lyndon Johnson financed the Vietnam War through borrowing and inflation, and Richard Nixon's brutal abandonment of dollar convertibility, the United States has been in steady retreat from international economic cooperation.
Last week saw its isolation on environmental issues of great importance to the economic future. Can political isolation be far behind? But the real question is this: Can a weakened United States afford such an isolation from its natural allies and partners? It is not a question this administration seems to recognize.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.