THE WESTERN WORLD is living a New Year of frustration and helplessness brought about by the Polish crisis. In Paris and Washington, Bonn and London, Rome and Ottowa, citizens and leaders alike are asking the same question: What can be done to preserve the ailing Solidarity movement and counter the brazen arrogance of the Soviet Union? So far, this query has elicited sanctions from the United States and a "wait-and-see" response from Europe. But all the allies must come to realize that there is no panacea for the Polish dilemma. The alliance's divergent responses to the Polish crackdown do offer one clear lesson: The West must rethink its policy toward the Soviet Union if it is to avoid future "Polands" and bolster a shaky partnership. The West must seriously consider rescuing detente--a concept buried recently under an increasing barrage of bellicose rhetoric--from its premature grave.
Actions undertaken by one ally are inneffective without the cooperation of the others, but that understanding has eluded Western governments throughout the Polish ordeal. By imposing economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, President Reagan has helped relieve the American conscience but has put himself at the mercy of his Western European friends. For good reason, they are likely to show little pity.
Take, for example, West Germany, whose government has done everything in its power short of blindfolding itself to ignore the military coup in Poland. Until his meeting with President Reagan on Tuesday, Chancellor Schmidt had never publicly acknowledged a Soviet hand in the crisis. Schmidt has a crucial stake in good relations with the Eastern bloc. His Social Democratic party got where it is by advocating Ostpolitik, a policy that views trade with the East as the basis for an eventual normalization of relations--if not outright reunification--with East Germany. In fact, Schmidt--who was visiting East German leader Erich Honecker at the moment of the crackdown against Solidarity--did not bother to cut short their talks. He is clearly sensitive to the political clout of the European peace movement that this fall mobilized several hundred thousand of Germany's youth.
Most important, economic ties link Germany and the Soviet Union, bonds that cannot realistically be broken. In November, 1.5 million Germans were out of work with another 500,000 people expected to be unemployed by next month. Severing trade with the Russians would eliminate another half a million jobs--possibly including Schmidt's.
Nor are the Germans alone in not condoning the American sanctions. Other members of the European Economic Community (EEC) eagerly await the construction of a natural gas pipeline between the Soviet Union and Western Europe that will supply the EEC with 20 per cent of its annual gas needs while creating numerous jobs. Europeans will go to great lengths to get their gas, making Reagan's ban on the export of Caterpillar pipe-layer equipment virtually meaningless.
The United States' moral outrage at this display of callous European self-interest overshadows the fact that even should the allies fall in line. America's steps would be either insignificant or counter-productive. A food embargo against Poland would no doubt cause hardship but would not end martial law the victims would be the Polish people, not their leaders. A similar embargo aimed at the Soviet Union would hurt American farmers at least as much as the Carter administration's futile ban on grain trade over Afghanistan--Reagan's paradoxical lifting of the ban proved that much.
Other actions would prove equally futile and dangerous. Blocking the rescheduling of Poland's $27-billion debt could severely damage Western banks should the Poles forfeit; besides, most experts agree that the Soviet Union could easily bail out Poland. Cancelling scheduled U.S.-Soviet talks on nuclear arms reduction would be worst of all, and would split the alliance asunder.
WHAT, THEN, can the West do? It must start by comprehending the significance of the "Solidarity affair." The rise of a union that cried out for food as well as freedom shows the utter sterility of Communism and the gradual disintegration of the Soviet economic model. In the Soviet Union and most of the Eastern bloc countries, people are fed, clothed and housed at the barest level of subsistence. In Hungary, perhaps the sole exception to this rule, "socialist" market economy reforms have slowly--and quietly--phased in, bringing relatively more freedom and prosperity.
Quite possibly, this lesson will not be lost on those who in the near future will take over from Brezhnev and Co. Soviet moderates anxious to better the lot of their people conceivably could admit some reform into the Soviet economic system, helping liberalize the society as a whole.
Yet the West's dual response of sanctions and of turning the other cheek has only served to strengthen the hawkish elements in the Soviet Union. By accelerating the arms race, the United States has assured that the historically paranoid Soviets place their best resources and brains into the military, the only sector of the Russian economy that works well. Should the West boycott trade with the U.S.S.R. and its satellites altogether, a policy favored by some members of Congress, not only would Western Europe suffer if indeed it went along, but the West might push the Soviets to the economic brink. When people have empty stomachs, they are not rational. In these circumstances, thanks to the U.S.S.R.'s well-oiled propaganda machine, the real enemy--the system--is easily camouflaged by a more handy one, the West. Just as the Germans clamored for "living space" during the 1930s, the Russians could be forced to strike out for food as their "causus belli." The unthinkable could then become possible.
The alliance must in chorus shout its outrage over the Polish crackdown. Nothing would be more dangerous or morally reprehensible than cowering in front of the Soviet Union for this reason, the maintenance of a strong joint defense is necessary. But to aim for elusive military superiority as the Administration has suggested it is doing, is no substitute for diplomacy; the U.S.S.R., after all, cannot be destroyed. Hence, the West must begin carefully thinking through the long term implications of its actions. A strategy to bring to the forefront Soviet moderates--specifically through economic, technological and cultural exchanges, coupled with serious arms control negotiations--must begin. It is an often painful process that bears little in the way of immediate fruit. But in the shadow of a thermonuclear holocaust, courage in the face of an enemy must be tempered by a measure of humility.
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