In the impending battle over his Panama Canal treaties, President Carter seems likely to have some powerful allies often found on the conservative side of the political barricades - the leadership of America's business and financial communities.
It's still too early to say precisely how the battle lines will be drawn. But there are clear signs that, in this campaign, many of those who guide the big multinational banks and corporations will be marching in a different column than the Ronald Reagans. Strom Thurmonds and other political conservatives seeking to derail the treaties in Congress.
That's the case even though, as a Washington lobbyist notes, "probably half of these guys or better are hard-core conservatives who normally would like nothing better than to see Reagan as President and Thurmond as Secretary of Defense."
On the canal issue, however, the attitudes of the multinational corporate managers seem to be shaped less by ideological preferences than by concern about what rejection of the treaties - and possible subsequent Latin American political reaction - might mean for their sizable trade and investment stakes in Latin American.
Private U.S. investment in Latin American is estimated at $24 billion, and is approximately two-thirds of the total U.S. investment in all developing nations. There is also a two-way U.S. Latin American trade that amounted to $34 billion in 1976. Last year the United States sent $16.9 billion in exports to Latin America and had imported from the region of $17.1 billion, 40 per cent of it in oil and petroleum products.
That's a factor that so far has been largely overlooked in all the high-decibel debate about whether the United States should hang onto the canal because it's vital to the national defense or because it's a status symbol whose loss would play havoc with the national pride.
But, the economic considerations bound up with the treaties and certain to play a big role in the battle over their approval or rejection. What's more, these economic factors could produce some startling surprises about where different interest groups line up in the battle.
There is the strong likelihood that the normally conservative, Republican-leaning business establishment will be solidly on the side of a Democratic President. But there's also a chance that the powerful American labor movement, usually a bulwalk of Democratic support, could end up fighting alongside the President's foes to defeat the treaties.
Where the business community is concerned. Carter administration strategists contend, the case for supporting the treaties seems inronclad. In fact, the administration privately is counting on big business to provide some potentially crucial help in getting the treaties past the hurdle of Senate ratification.
It's the administration's hope that the big corporations will unleash their powerful lobbying machinery to make clear to their congressional allies that they want the treaties approved. Such a signal, administration sources say, could provide many Republican and conservative Democratic legislators with an escape hatch to retreat from the opposition and vote for ratification.
Weather the business community will be willing to twist arms on behalf of the administration is still far from clear. But, business sources say, a lot of worried thought is being devoted in corporate board-rooms to the adverse consequences that rejection of the treaties could have for U.S. business interests in Latin America.
Because they earn a great deal of money from the Latin countries, American firms doing business there have frequently have been targets of nationalistic attacks and threats of expropriation. For that reason, banks, oil and mining companies, manufacturers and trading concerns with sizable Latin American interests are all anxious to avoid situations that might stir new waves of anti-Americanism.
These companies also are keenly aware that the most sensitive issue in U.S. Latin American relations if the demand, backed by every country of the region, that sovereignty over the canal be transferred to Panama.
Should the United States reject that demand, the multinationals fear a reaction of dissapointment and anger that would not be confined just to Panama, where several U.S. banks and trading companies have sizable operations.
Instead, the expectation is that the backlash would spread from one end of Latin America to the other and touch off terrorist attacks, boycotts and expropriation pressures against U.S. owned interest.
For that reason, business community sources say, the clear feeling in big-business circles is that peaceful resolution of the canal issue will remove the biggest single potential for U.S. Latin American tension and make life considerable easier for U.S. companies in the area.
Now, the sources add, the business community has to balance its obvious desire to dispose of the canal issue against other considerations - whether supporting the treaties will incur the wrath of domestic conservatives and subject them to problems with antitreaty customers and stock holders at home.
For the moment there's a breathing space, since the details of the treaties are still secret: no prominent corporate leader is going to rush to their support until he's had a chance to read the fine print.
In the end, different companies obviously will react in different ways. However, assuming that the treaties prove clearly unacceptable to public opinion, the sources think the ratification effort will slowly start to generate substantial business support.
One clue pointing in this direction came recently from the Council of the Americas, a nonprofit business association dedicated to "understanding and acceptance of the role of private enterprise" in the hemisphere. The council's membership is a virtual Who's Who of every major U.S. firm doing business in Latin America.
Although the council does not officially engage in lobbying, its pronouncements are generally regarded as representing a consensus of members' attitudes. On July 27, council President Henry R. Geyelin told the House Panama Canal Subcommittee:
"History has shown that unresolved political issues can generate a widespread xenophobia which not only disrupts U.S. diplomatic relations, but creates an unfavorable trade and investment environment. A responsible new arrangement designed in conjunction with Panama will signify to the Latin American nations a new level of U.S. political maturity and sincere intentions for cooperation with all nations."
Geyelin's statement has been echoed either openly or privately by such other influential business groupings as the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. Once the treaties' provisions are public, the expectation in business circles is that these endorsements of the concept of a settlement will turn into expressions of specific support for treaties.
Even the shipping industry - that part of the business community with the most reason to oppose Panamanian control over the canal - seems to be shying away from any serious effort to fight the treaties.
For example, last Wednesday, Rep. John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, delivered a blistering attack on the treaties that was assumed by many commentators to reflect the views of shipping and other maritime interests.
However, that is denied by industry sources and aides to Murphy who say his opposition is based primarily on fears that a change in the canal's status would seriously weaken the U.S. military and strategic position.
Shipping industry sources, while conceding that they would prefer the canal to remain clearly under U.S. control, say they are aware of the larger implications for American business, which includes their customers. They also say the industry believes it can live with a 25 per cent increase in canal tolls that is expected if the treaties go through.
Perhaps the biggest unknown quantity among the various parts of the American economic system invloves the laboor movement and its attitudes toward the canal treaties.
Approximately 10,000 people now working in the Canal Zone, more than 30 per cent of them Panamanian citizens, are represented by seven U.S. labor unions. Most belong to the National Maritime Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The unions, working through the AFL-CIO, have insisted that any canal treaties protect the job rights of their members and have threatened all-out opposition to the treaties if that demand isn't met to their satisfaction.
In an attempt to disarm a conflict on this score, U.S. negotiators arranged for a coordinating committee representing the unions invloved to act as observers during the applicable parts of the negotiations so their views could be taken into account.
Union sources say they now are waiting for disclosure of the treaty provisions before taking a position on supporting or opposing ratification.
However, Sol. M. Linowitz, one the two chiefs U.S. negotiators says that once the labor provisions of the treaty are made public he doesn't believe the unions will be a problem.
"They're not going to get 100 per cent of what they wanted." Linowitz said, "but I think they'll be more than satisfied with the protection guarantees that are given to their members.