MAKE NO BONES about it: Ronald Reagan may still be talking tough on the disputed issue of the Soviet natural gas pipeline, but the recent "softening" of American boycott measures against U.S. subsidiaries involved in the pipeline deal is a significant and long-overdue muffling of the President's previously intractable stance. Nevertheless, the downscaling of the President's blacklist is too little too late. Reagan must still go a long way in rethinking the pipeline.
The Administration initially proposed an allied boycott of the Siberian pipeline as a response to the military crackdown in Poland last December. Reagan has held fast to his opposition-despite marked criticism from former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and others, on the grounds that events in Poland were severe enough to preclude a "business as usual" stance towards the Soviets. He also feared the pipeline would endanger allied security by making western Europe dependent on the Soviet Union for energy.
But the allies not only rejected the call for sanction but also challenged the Administration's June decision to boycott foreign firms that delivered pipeline equipment to the Soviet Union. France, Great Britain and Italy have ordered American subsidiaries operating in their respective countries to carry out pipeline contracts.
These governments do not view the pipeline in the cold-war terms in which Reagan has framed it. Instead, they see the deal as providing a badly-needed energy supply to free them from the stranglehold of Arab oil, as well as stimulating their struggling economies by providing jobs. Many point to U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union as a parallel "marriage of convenience," they're justifiably angered at Reagan's hypocrisy in supporting a deal that he could just as easily have subjected to the boycott, and even having to trot out such arguments is odious to many who feel Reagan is meddling in an issue which only tangentially affects the United States.
Reagan restored grain sales (a major campaign pledge) on the grounds that the boycott only damaged American farmers. A pipeline boycott would similarly injure European economic interests; the Administration is highly insensitive to gloss over the pipeline's importance to the firms and economies of western European nations, which lack the luxury of vast domestic energy resources enjoyed by the United States.
REAGAN SHOWS his usual cold-war shortsightedness by running roughshod over a carefully-thought-out business--one the Europeans certainly do not take lightly, as their extensive pre-deal debates made clear.
By seizing upon the issue as an acid test of East-West allegiances, Reagan has only fabricated a crisis and generated unnecessary strains in the less-than-solid western alliance.
More worrisome than this cold-war perception of the pipeline deal, however, is the force with which it has been applied. There are East-West ramifications to the deal and legitimate arguments against the project: it is particularly unfortunate, for example, that western governments are in a sense subsidizing the pipeline construction by guaranteeing low-cost credit to the Soviet Union for the deal. Allegations that the Soviets are using slave labor to build the pipeline cast further doubts. Nevertheless, the stiffening of Administration opposition to the deal in the face of European reaction raises disturbing questions about what Reagan perceives to be the proper sphere of activity for the U.S. and the nature of the alliance.
Reagan's pronouncements on the pipeline have been inappropriate and ill-conceived, in both style and substance. Certainly the Administration is entitled to voice its strong disapproval of the project and attempt to dissuade the allies from participating--for instance, at the Versailles summit. But there, Reagan was content to grandstand unity and deliver the sanctions announcement once he got home--a clear insult to European officials caught unawares.
But more importantly, the idea that the United States should try to coerce the allies into cooperation once persuasion failed is nothing less than absurd. How does one justify American intervention in a legitimate business deal between sovereign nations? Only by assuming an all-important role for the United States as the leader of the free world, a western hegemony.
Reagan, it seems, holds just such an overblown and dangerous vision of American preponderance and Europeans are rightfully angered by his paternalist policies. The idea that the United States can, or should, dictate terms to the allies is as far off base in the pipeline matter as it is with regard to the Israelis in Lebanon. France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy are our allies, not our satellites. It is a strange state of affairs when Reagan wages war for democracy by attempting to emulate the Soviet system of coercion.
UNFORTUNATELY, Reagan allowed the pipeline to become a major embarrassment, despite warnings from both Administration and foreign officials. It is hard to see just what Reagan thought might be gained from such posturing in light of unswerving European commitment to the project; surely he was aware that the intricacies of international law would force the issue to a showdown. By ordering American subsidiaries and foreign firms to break legitimate contracts--thus placing their credibility as reliable partners on the line--Reagan virtually forced the western European governments to rescue the firms by ordering compliance with the contracts, a move that could not help but appear to be directed against the U.S. Such a glaring oversight set the United States up for an inevitable slap in the face.
It must be frustrating for Reagan to watch American technology, albeit produced abroad, facilitate a project to which he is vehemently opposed; besides, he is technically within his rights in ordering the sanctions. Nevertheless, he is inexcusably naive to believe that complex international economic ties could be made to conform with a bipolar political policy.
The recent relaxation of the boycott of firms defying the sanctions is a long-overdue concession to reality. Nevertheless, the Administration's announcement still represents only the watering down of a policy that remains unacceptable. A partial boycott is as inappropriate as a full one on a question where no retaliatory measures are called for, and the obstinacy with which Reagan has pursued this issue betrays a dangerous mindset which remains unaltered. The President persists in pitting West against East and electing himself captain of a mythical team of "good guys," substituting machismo for persuasive integrity.