The Polish crisis is once more testing the efficiency and the effectiveness of the rival power alliances of Europe -- NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact. Once more the test proves that the Warsaw Pact is an efficient and effective instrument for serving the immediate and short-time interests of the Soviet state.
The test also demonstrates that the NATO alliance is strictly limited to a defense role. It can be mobilized to express disapproval of a reassertion of Soviet control over a Soviet client, in this case Poland. But it cannot be mobilized to neutralize Soviet pressure on Poland, or to take effective punitive action in the event that Moscow uses overt violence to regain its control over Poland.
True, the NATO allies could and did agree during their recent meeting in Brussels to say that detente has been "severely damaged by Soviet actions," meaning the invasion of Afghanistan and the mobilization of Warsaw Pact forces around Poland.
And the communique issued Dec. 12 at the end of that conference could and did go on to assert that, "It [detente] could not survive if the Soviet Union were again to violate the basic rights of any state to territorial integrity and independence. Poland should be free to decide its own future."
But the NATO allies meeting in Brussels stopped short of announcing a list of punitive actions they will take if indeed Soviet tanks begin to roll through the cities of Poland as they have previously rolled through the cities of Czechoslovakia and Hungary and through East Berlin.
Did the warning play a role in the fact that at the time this is being written the tanks have not yet rolled although they are still lined up around Poland? Probably not. Moscow has something more serious to worry about than the certainly temporary and probably partial boycotts it would suffer as the penalty for reimposing its rule over Poland by over force.
Had it sat quietly on the sidelines and allowed Poland to go free, Moscow would have lost the one thing it prizes most out of its winnings from World War II: control over the western approaches to the Russian lands through which those Russians lands have been thrice invaded in modern history. Napoleon's Grand Army, made up heavily of Germans, came through Poland on its way to Moscow. So, too, did the German armies of both World Wars I and II.
Moscow has no intention of letting those western approaches get out of its control. Hence the ring of tanks that surrounds Poland and that, more than any NATO warning, has concentrated the thinking of everyone inside Poland on essentials. If this crisis passes without overt Soviet violence on Poles it will be largely because Moscow controls the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact and because through that control it has ringed Poland with tanks to the point where Polish workers and the Polish church could recognize the vital importance of not challenging that control -- at this time.
The NATO alliance is an entirely different kind of institution, a fact that is newly outlined and emphasized by recent events. NATO is not an instrument of US purpose. The Warsaw Pact is an instrument of Soviet purpose. NATO has no offensive capability. Most of its European members, probably every one, would pull out rather than have it used offensively. The Warsaw Pact armies could be used offensively since Moscow can give the orders and impose obedience. The Polish crisis proves that no one can resign from the Warsaw Pact in the way that France has resigned from the NATO military organization -- although not from the alliance.
None of this means that NATO is worthless. On the contrary, it is livelier today than the past several years. It was refurbished by the Afghan invasion, which worried the West European allies, although not enough to lead to effective group sanctions.It has been further refurbished by the Polish affair. But the refurbishing has taken a new turn in the history of NATO. It is more nearly now than ever before a true alliance.
During the '50s and even into the early '60s the US provided such an overwhelming proportion of the wealth and armaments of the alliance that Washington dominated its activities almost as much as Moscow dominated activities of the Warsaw Pact. But the Afghan and Polish crises outline sharply the fact that NATO is a voluntary association for specific and limited purposes and that when it comes to collective action the European allies can set the limits.
In today's NATO councils the European members do a lot of the talking. When Germans and French act together they can carry as much weight as does the voice of Washington. Sometimes it seems that they can dispose of more weight. Helmut Schmidt and Valery Giscard d'Estaing together are a formidable match for a Mr. Carter. They will be no less independent when they face Mr. Reagan.
But all of the above refers to the short-term implications of the Polish affair. The long-term is another matter. Had there been no Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and no intimation of it in Poland, NATO might have continued to wither on the vine. NATO has been revived by Soviet resort to force. NATO presumably will wither whenever the Warsaw Pact nations either break apart or the Soviet Union becomes a relaxed and satisfied power.
But meanwhile the Polish affair discloses how reluctant are some of the members of the Warsaw Pact and it raises questions about the pact's offensive capability. There are 66 divisions in the armed forces of the subordinate members of the pact. The Soviet Union has 173 divisions of its own. If the 66 could be relied upon to seerve willingly under Soviet leadership, then Moscow would control a force that could overwhelm NATO.
But how many of those 66 divisions of subordinates could be trusted by Moscow in a true East-West crisis? And how many Soviets divisions would have to be subtracted from the effective Soviet order of battle to keep the forces of the subordinates under control?
The Warsaw Pact emerges as a powerful and effective instrument for asserting Soviet control over the western approaches to its home territories. But the Polish crisis reduces the offensive capability of the armed forces of the pact. The difference cannot be measured specifically. Some of the subordinate units might fight, after a fashion, for Moscow. The Bulgarians are usually rated as truly loyal allies of Moscow.
But it is obvious that most of the 66 divisions maintained by the subordinate members are less than trustworthy, from a Moscow point of view. Which means that the forces that Moscow could use against NATO today are less than the paper grand total of 239 divisions in the forces of all Warsaw Pact members.
To get the true figure of forces Moscow could put into an attack on NATO, one must first deduce the 46 divisions deployed on the Chinese frontier and another 24 divisions in the USSR and Afghanistan. Then how many Soviet divisions would be needed to keep the subordinate allies from defecting?
The Warsaw Pact is a powerful short-term instrument of Soviet defensive power. Its value for long-term offensive use is less.