U.S. foreign policy is starting to hinder foreign trade, panelists said Tuesday at an international business conference sponsored by Kansas University.
David Lambertson, former U.S. ambassador to Thailand, told attendees at KU's Global Advantage Conference that American businesses still were having success in international markets, but said foreign companies had started to change their attitude about America.
"We have always been the big gorilla and so we've always been perceived differently than any other country," said Lambertson, a panel member. "But I think we're still largely perceived as a kind, benevolent gorilla.
"But I do think our foreign policy has undercut that image some. I think we have lost ground over the last three years because of our foreign policy," he added.
Robert Riordan, vice president for government affairs for Black & Veatch engineering, said he had felt a different attitude among foreign business partners that dates to the beginning of the war on terror.
"Ever since the U.S. said it will use a first-strike policy if needed, everybody is a little uncomfortable," Riordan said. "That's why I say we're being perceived as more of an imperialistic country in the world. We're using imperialistic tactics. Most of the world understands imperialism and it has made them a little bit uneasy right now."
Lambertson, who was appointed by the first President Bush, said the United States' willingness to act unilaterally on foreign policy issues, such as the war with Iraq, was the single biggest issue leading to a change in thinking in international markets.
"But we're in an extremely difficult situation right now because of the overriding importance of the war on terror," Lambertson said. "It is difficult for us not to break some eggs right now."
Lambertson said he thought the damage to businesses seeking to conduct international business had been relatively minor. He said he still believed U.S. companies were the "partner of choice" in most countries.
Riordan said that was changing though. He said particularly in southeast Asia, the Chinese were becoming larger players.
Martin Park, vice chairman of the Kansas World Trade Center in Wichita, said attitudes were beginning to change in Europe, as well. He said he believed the Europeans had become tougher negotiators with American companies.
"The Europeans are saying they don't give a damn anymore," Park said. "They're saying they're going to do whatever it takes to beat the Americans when we try to bully them."
Melissa Birch, director of KU's Center for International Business Education and Research, which was a sponsor of the conference, said the comments tracked with what she had heard from other businesses and educators.
"I think the feeling may be that conducting international business may be more difficult, but it is not impossible," Birch said.
The conference, which attracted about 100 participants, brought together educators, government officials and businesses to specifically talk about international business. KU officials said they were hoping to the conference would become a regular event, perhaps being conducted once every two years.