THE REAGAN administration -- or at least part of it--wants to tighten up the rules on exports of American high technology to keep the Russians from getting it. The same Reagan administration--or at least part of it--wants to expand high-technology exports to strengthen the national economy and industries crucial to national security. One view prevails at the Defense Department, the other at the Commerce Department. Congress, presumably, will be the referee.
The Defense Department already reviews export licenses for certain types of goods being shipped to the Soviet bloc and China. But it wants a veto over a wider list of sales, including those to non-communist countries as well. As a practical matter the reviews would mean delays, much uncertainty and rising incentives for foreign buyers to find sources of supply elsewhere. How would the benefits balance against this disruption of commerce?
The congressional Office of Technology Assessment has just published a sensible paper on the subject. Unquestionably the Soviets are able to exploit American technology--bought, borrowed or stolen. But much of that leakage is inevitable in an open society. The OTA also observes that "it is rare to find examples of technologies obtained from the West which the U.S.S.R. could not have produced itself, albeit with delays."
It is a fair generalization to say that embargoes of technology can work fairly well when they are limited in scope and when they are supported by a consensus among the industrial countries. That consensus is currently administered through the CoCom --the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls--in Paris. But when a government pushes beyond that consensus, it invites a divisive quarrel very likely to end in a costly fiasco.
Two examples fresh in memory are President Carter's grain embargo and President Reagan's campaign against the Soviet gas pipeline. The first brought a vehement reaction from American farmers, and, after Mr. Carter lost the election, Mr. Reagan reversed him. As for Mr. Reagan's attempt to stop the construction of the pipeline, it led to a blazing row with the Western Europeans, the only result of which has been that American manufacturers have lost contracts to their European and Japanese competitors.
If Mr. Reagan wants wider controls on the leakage of technology, he will have to begin by building support for them not only among American producers but abroad as well. The Defense Department wants to press faster and much further into highly controversial areas. To weigh the wisdom--or even the possibility-- of that, Mr. Reagan might reflect on the way the grain embargo and the pipeline quarrel turned out.