The recent US decision to extend export restrictions affecting the Soviet natural gas pipeline to Western Europe, and American allies' negative reactions to it, raise familiar problems in the use of peacetime economic coercion.
The history of such measures in this country goes back to at least Jefferson's embargo before the War of 1812 (if not to the Boston Tea Party). That collective experience shows that three conditions are essential for success. First there must be a leak-proof cutoff of the commodity in question to the country being coerced. Second, the cutoff must put real economic pressure on the target country. And third, the use of economic coercion must be tied to an achievable foreign policy goal.
Today's international interdependence of production and distribution makes an efficient cutoff of any commodity extremely difficult, even a technology as esoteric as the 25-megawatt gas turbine rotors involved in this deal. General Electric, which designed the rotors, had in the normal course of pre-sanctions business licensed their maufacture to foreign firms, some in Western Europe. Although the licensing agreements provided that the rotors be subject to US export control laws, holding them back will be an extremely difficult legal undertaking now that most Western European governments have decided to oppose the administration's plan.
The Europeans are opposed because they see two benefits in the pipeline: first, in selling the technology needed to build it and, second, from the diversification and cheapening of their energy supplies that will result after it is constructed. The upshot is a dilemma for the US. It can either weaken the Atlantic alliance by antagonizing its allies in a (possibly unsuccessful) effort to slow down the pipeline's construction, or it can weaken the Atlantic alliance by allowing the line to proceed and the allies to become more dependent on Soviet-supplied energy.
The second condition for success of economic sanctions, that of putting real economic pressure on the target country, raises other difficult issues. Assuming rotors are cutoff, will the USSR be hurt badly - more than, say, American companies and workers who will lose sales or jobs as a result?
Clearly, the loss of those rotors will not hurt the Soviets as would a cutoff of grain shipments. Denial of the rotors may, however, cheat the Soviets of some technological knowhow that might be of general use to their economic progress; it may make the line more expensive, thus diverting resources from other uses; and it could delay the pipeline - administration officials argue for two years - costing the Soviets that much foreign exchange they hope to earn through gas sales.
Such penalties can only be judged marginal in the grand scheme of the Soviet state and empire. But the real question is whether they will be sufficient to persuade the Soviet leadership (its public will hardly be asked) to do what the administration wants. In other words, is the foreign policy goal to which the sanctions are tied achievable?
This third condition of success is the one on which the current US policy seems most chancy. For the goal of expanded sanctions (like their limited precursors) is to change Soviet policy in Poland. Specifically, it is to secure the end of martial law, the release of Solidarity's leadership, and the recognition of the trade union by the government of Poland.
Here the US is touching on a question of ultimate concern to the Soviet state , the security of its Eastern empire. What must be asked is whether the Soviet leadership would feel more dissatisfied with (at best) a two-year delay in its gas pipleline project or with a relaxation of its hold over Poland. Given the specter of disintegration in Eastern Europe which must haunt the Soviet leadership, the consequences of the latter must seem to them horrific and the decision not difficult to make.
It is possible, of course, that the administration's goals are broader than this one sanction decision. If so, the objective would be not to get the Soviets to take a particular decision on Poland, but to force them into a series of guns-vs-butter decisions whose net effect would be a lessening of the threat they pose to the West in general and the US in particular.
It is hard not to agree that the West should do nothing to aid the Soviet Union in building its aggressive capabilities. But the outcome of generalized arguments in that regard is impossible to predict, and history provides no sure answers.
But if the administration did want to attach economic coercion to an achievable foreign policy goal, one is clearly at hand. And it is a goal which might even enlist the Europeans in its support.
The goal is arms reduction, specifically in the European theater, The US could condition all its economic measures against the USSR, including an alliance-wide food cutoff, on meaningful reductions of Soviet theater weaponry. If matched by stabilization in the Western arsenal, such a concession might well seem less undesirable to the Soviet leadership than the pain inflicted by a broad trade/grain/credit/technology cutoff. Precise weapons reductions could be linked to precise restorations of economic intercourse. And the whole effort would be more inherently logical (if the aim is really to contain the Soviet threat) than linking turbine rotors to Solidarity's future.
Most of all, such a program would harness the economic weapon unambiguously to the service of peace, offering the worlds' fondest hope at least one practical means for its accomplishment.