WASHINGTON - The Automotive Trade Policy Council is so new - and unproven - that even its first president, Stephen Collins, sometimes chooses to describe what it is not, rather than what it is.
'We're not AAMA, and I'm not Andy Card,' Collins said in his first extensive interview at the council's new offices, about four blocks from the White House. 'We have to work our way to develop our own style.'
Indeed, the council is not the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, the once potent but now disbanded lobbying organization for the former Big 3. And neither Collins nor council Vice President Charles Uthus has the name recognition of Andrew Card, who as AAMA president was the Big 3's outspoken advocate.
But then again, Collins and Uthus are not novices. Both were top trade officials at AAMA. In fact, Collins, 48, already had served the domestic automakers for a dozen years in Washington before the Big 3 CEOs recruited Card to be AAMA president in 1993. Collins previously had been at the U.S. State Department and on the staff of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Now, General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler are asking Collins, Uthus and a small support staff to carry on with their trade and overseas investment agenda - but in a decidedly different global environment. Collins said, 'I think there is a general recognition in our business that the auto world is rapidly changing. How we approach these issues and what strategies we use to address them are also going to change. How? We're not quite sure yet.'
Collins said the council's overriding mission is clear: 'We've been hired to be very visible public representatives of those three companies with senior levels of the U.S. government and with other governments around the world on the views of those three companies.'
The council governing body is a board of directors, made up of a top executive - but not the CEO - of each of the former Big 3. Board members are Mustafa Mohatarem, GM chief economist; Martin Zimmerman, Ford vice president for government affairs; and Robert Liberatore, DaimlerChrysler senior vice president for external affairs.
Issues other than trade are to be handled by the companies' own Washington lobbying offices and by the newly formed Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Despite its modest size and its still-evolving style, the council has an imposing agenda, Collins explained.
First, there are always the so-called bilateral issues. These include monitoring the U.S. agreements with Japan and South Korea, through which the former Big 3 are seeking to gain greater access to those Asian markets.
U.S.-based makers are interested keenly in attempts to get China to adopt the economic reforms that would qualify it for membership in the World Trade Organization.
Second on the agenda, Collins said, is the council's involvement in trade legislation that will be considered by Congress. He listed expected measures that would do the following:
Restore broad - 'fast-track' - trade treaty negotiating authority to the administration.
Extend Section 301, the main law for penalizing trading partners for unfair practices.
Rewrite the nation's basic trade statutes, most of which are several decades old. Collins said the laws were written when tariffs were the big impediments to trade.
Next on the agenda, but not last in importance, are the multinational undertakings. These include the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation talks, which originally were supported by AAMA more than two years ago and which are scheduled to begin in Indonesia in July.
'Everybody wanted to develop their own auto industry. Everybody wanted to be a huge exporter. No one wanted to have imports coming in. You could see this pattern developing, which was not healthy,' Collins said.
'We stepped back and said, 'Wouldn't it be easier for all of us, everybody involved, if we could have some regional forum to talk, to dialogue, both governments and the industries?'' he said.
Talking will be one thing. Getting companies and nations, many of them struggling economically, to agree on regional cooperation will be something else.
'Our goal in the short term is to prevent backsliding,' Collins said.
That is, U.S.-based automakers want to discourage Asians from panicking, from restoring old trade barriers and inventing new ones.
In the longer term, the council wants to persuade Asian governments and companies that industry consolidation and globalization of the market make economies of scale essential.