In light of the melancholy events in Poland, it is understandable that the West should want to use the forum of the Madrid conference on European security to voice its moral anguish. Over the objections of the communist bloc, the United States and its allies have raised the Polish question and denounced military rule as a flagrant violation of the letter and spirit of the so-called Helsinki accords. Millions of people in both East and West will support this moral stance.
It is only realistic to recognize, however, that the outpouring of indignation is not likely to change the situation.It will not force the Russians to abandon their involvement in Poland or the Polish military government to lift martial law. The political struggle in Poland has a dynamic of its own and there is probably little the West can effectively do at the moment other than wait and see. Few believe that the Jaruzelski military regime can prevent a resurgence of worker resistance somewhere down the road unless it is prepared to continue martial law indefinitely - or, as is to be hoped, negotiate a modus vivendi with Solidarity.
The reason the Madrid conference cannot effect change is that it is not designed to. The Helsinki Final Act, which provides the framework for conference negotiations, is not a binding document and establishes no mechanism for enforcement of its human rights and other provisions. Signed in l975, the vaguely worded document is basically a political instrument tacitly recognizing the postwar Soviet position in Eastern Europe and promoting diplomatic, trade, and other exchanges in line with the general policy of detente.
Because of its weaknesses and ambiguities, the Helsinki forum has never been in the mainstream of diplomacy. The East-West wrangling in Madrid stems from the fact that each side has always placed different interpretations on the Final Act, and each side finds suitable wording to support its case. In this instance , the West can castigate the Russians for not allowing Poland the right of self-determination or freedom of thought and conscience. In Soviet eyes, however, the West is overstepping the bounds of the Helsinki agreement by challenging Moscow's legitimate interests in Poland.
If the Helsinki forum has its limitations, however, it has served its useful purposes, and some of the talk heard in Washington that the Final Act be scuttled altogether seems shortsighted. Not only would this put the US at variance with its West European allies, who have benefited most from detente. It would mean abandoning some worthwhile long-range efforts in the political and military fields - and doing so at a time when Leonid Brezhnev is embarked on a vigorous propaganda campaign on European arms control. The NATO allies risk undercuting their own credibility by dropping disarmament initiatives such as those under consideration in the Madrid meeting.
Even in the human rights field, the Helsinki process has brought some gains, and at least makes the issue a central factor in East-West relations. The East Europeans themselves have used it as leverage on their Soviet patron to obtain a bit more freedom of action -- a side benefit not to be ignored.
Whether to adjourn the Madrid talks early because of Poland has been a matter of controversy at this writing. We are inclined to think it is better to keep it going - in order to give the West visibility in supporting the Helsinki principles and to provide at least a measure of moral pressure on Warsaw and Moscow. In any case, Western diplomats must look beyond the emotions of the moment, and think twice before unraveling the whole process of East-West detente.