House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) forcefully defended his party against charges of isolationism yesterday, arguing that free trade is the surest way of promoting democracy abroad.

In a speech his aides billed as a major foreign policy statement, Hastert told Chicago civic and business leaders that the Republican Party is committed to defending U.S. security interests when necessary and encouraging overseas commerce.

As House Republicans fight this year to retain their slim majority, they are determined not to let Democrats undermine them in the arena of international affairs. President Clinton and Democrats began attacking the GOP as isolationist last year after the House failed to support the air war in Kosovo and the Senate voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

"Today I want to take on the 'I' word--isolationism--directly," Hastert said in a speech prepared for delivery to the Mid-America Committee. "I believe my party is firmly rooted in a mainstream American tradition that looks upon what President Washington called 'foreign entanglements' with caution and skepticism but is prepared to act when our national interest demands."

Hastert emphasized that Republicans tend to be more supportive of free trade than Democrats--and trade will come to the forefront this session as the House votes on whether to extend China's normal trade relations status as part of that nation's entry into the World Trade Organization.

"As an agent for democratic change and economic growth and individual prosperity, trade has no equal," he said. "And when it comes to trade, one must ask, 'Is the Democratic party the true 'isolationist' party in America today?"

In an interview yesterday, Hastert said he believed Republicans "ought to lay out some parameters which we believe in" as they head into a year filled with important foreign policy votes. He said he spoke with Clinton on Sunday about the president's plan to provide more than $1 billion in military and development assistance to Colombia, and said any peace agreement between Israel and Syria would likely include an aid package subject to congressional approval.

Hastert, who has worked on combating drug trafficking for more than five years, said he hoped to reach an agreement with Clinton on Colombian aid because most of America's illegal drugs come from that South American nation.

"We're going to work together so we can try to come back and save Colombia, and it also has ramifications for people in our country," he said.

Hastert said he would welcome any Middle East peace deal, but cautioned that U.S. allies should share the burden in paying for any new economic incentives aimed at Syria and Israel.