There was a time not so long ago when the American small businessman's attention span did not have to go beyond suppliers, customers, partners, and employees in his own community. That time is long gone and will not come again. New and stronger links are forged every day between our small businesses and the economies of the rest of the world. Since other countries' attitudes toward small business vary widely, this is going to complicate the future more than most of us yet realize.

Small and big businesses alike have found themselves increasingly affected by competition from abroad. Some of that competition comes from countries with very different ideas about government and business from ours. We are going to live more and more in our own country -- as will people in other lands -- with "domestic" firms whose owners are foreign companies and even foreign governments.

One interesting example is the recent acquisition of Texasgulf Inc. by Elf Aquitaine, an oil company controlled by the French government. The French company purchased 63% of the American company directly and 37% from a quasi-government Canadian corporation in exchange for Texasgulf's Canadian mineral rights.

A good deal for the Canadians, no doubt. But what is important is that the French government -- presently Socialist -- will wind up owning control of a billion-dollar American company. That's not unprecedented, but it is a striking example of how quickly the so-called iron wall between government and government-sized business can disappear, even in this country. That's a matter of concern for small business people in the United States, France, and Canada.

Other concerns arise from the recent takeover of Conoco by Du Pont, an adventure that began with an offer to Conoco by The Seagram Co., a Canadian company. A large part of the reason Conoco wound up with Du Pont was simply that Conoco preferred to be owned by an American company, if it couldn't remain "free-standing, as we were for 105 years," or so said Ralph Bailey, Conoco's chairman. Just as important is the fact that, again according to Bailey, "no more than 30" of his 70,000 shareholders caused the disappearance of Conoco as an independent company. Institutional investors don't tend to worry about geography or flags of ownership.

The fact that our domestic market has been such a big and appealing one cushioned our smaller businesses for a long time. They did not feel the drive to compete abroad as a matter of life and death. There was so much more room to grow at home than other countries had. Now its size and richness has made our domestic market the world's prize. Foreign businessmen, foreign governments, and all kinds of in-between entities will be turning up in places and lines that have never seen them before.

American small business has yet to achieve the effective leadership and influence that it must have to safeguard and expand its position at home. Now, more than ever, that will take knowledge and understanding of other nations' economic and political outlook, strategies, and tactics. In some cases, their views about business will be much like ours; when we talk about "small enterprise," we will both mean profit-seeking entrepreneurial ventures. In others, we will be talking about physically small units of production, distribution, or service whether owned privately, by government, or a combination. But talk we must.

Unfortunately, we do not yet have an adequate nongovernmental international framework within which small business people can meet and talk easily and continually about such broad policy questions. The closest approximation is the International Symposium on Small Business, which will meet for the eighth time in Ottawa later this month. It is good news that 40 to 50 countries are likely to be represented by seven or eight hundred attendees.Most of them will be academic and government people. We hope they'll talk about how to involve more real small business people in future meetings. The issues of importance will not diminish, and the world is shrinking fast.