U.S. embassies serve as the front line for businesses seeking contacts abroad to operate and invest in foreign markets, a symposium audience of Foreign Service and diplomatic personnel was told last week.

The embassy's role, members at the symposium stressed, can be crucial to the successful completion of business contracts.

Export promotion, identified as one of the key components in the Reagan administration's domestic economic recovery program, was the focus of discussion Wednesday at a Georgetown University symposium on "The Role of Embassies in Promoting Business."

"The administration is taking a very aggressive role in developing trade policy to deal with some of our domestic problems," said Raymond J. Waldmann, assistant secretary of Commerce for international economic policy.

Department of Commerce figures show last year's total balance of payments trade deficit to be $27.8 billion, which represents a 9.9 percent increase over 1980.

The administration, said Waldmann, considers export promotion one of the means by which to stem the deficit trend. "We have not until very recently given this activity the priority it deserves." He identified special government funded export programs to be among the primary activities for the Commerce Department and warned that the "OMB should not consider these projects to be erector-set activities" that can be swiftly and easily dismantled.

Specifically, the administration is working to remove export disencentives that may inhibit the flow of U.S. goods to foreign markets. As an example, Waldmann cited ambiguities in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Unsure of the legal implications of the language in the act, exporters are reluctant, he said, to initiate sales activities.

Waldmann also called for the effective enforcement of U.S. trade laws and international agreements that protect domestic industry from unfair competition.

Ken George, deputy director general of the Foreign Commercial Service (FCS) of the Commerce Department, explained the administration's push on exports. In looking at the "economic success stories" that unfolded after World War II--Japan, West Germany and South Korea--it is evident that many of the positive developments came about because of a national emphasis on exports, he said.

"In each case," said George, "the strength of the system was dominated and influenced by the export sector." The United States, in George's opinion, lacks an "export mentality."

After World War II, said Waldmann, the United States emerged with the strongest economy in the world. "World finance was based on the dollar. We had a clear, dominant superiority and were not bothered with international trade."

However, "in the last decade or so, the world economic situation has changed," said Waldmann. "Our own economic position has been shrinking relative to the rest of the world's." The United States has had a trade deficit in eight of the last 10 years, he noted.

Erland H. Heginbotham, director general of FCS in the Carter administration, pointed out that Japan has a 13-to-1 advantage over the United States in the number of people involved in export promotion. Both Heginbotham and George noted that FCS with its 162 U.S. officers and 468 nationals is devoted to facilitating U.S. commercial interests in foreign markets.