AFTER the Polish government's release of all recognized political prisoners in September, the Reagan administration has been pondering how to respond. Should it lift its economic sanctions against Poland? The two key remaining United States sanctions are the ban on government credits and government-insured credits, and the suspension of most-favored-nation trade status. It is time to lift both.
There are three points to bear in mind. The first is that the termination of US sanctions will not provide Poland with any economic windfall. Most-favored-nation status is worth only $60 million to $80 million a year in additional export earnings, a small sum for a country like Poland, with a $31 billion debt.
Furthermore, Poland is simply not creditworthy. Neither Western bankers nor governments are likely to open their pocketbooks until they acquire a more confident feeling about Poland's ability to meet its current financial obligations. But the removal of sanctions and the possible future assistance of the International Monetary Fund, which Poland rejoined last June, can together provide hope for quicker Polish economic recovery than would otherwise be the case. Polish debts to the West cannot be repaid in the absence of economic growth.
The second point is that the prospective termination of sanctions calls for some high-level understanding about future US-Polish relations. The ending of sanctions does not automatically restore US-Polish relations to the situation before Polish martial law in December 1981 which triggered the sanctions. The degree of mutual mistrust and bad feeling is such that bilateral discussions at a fairly high level appear to be an essential prerequisite to an attempt to normalize relations.
The purpose of such talks would be to clarify the expectations of both sides, to set an agenda for the improvement of relations, and to warn against the kinds of actions by each side which would jeopardize that improvement. If the outcome of these talks satisfies both sides, the path should be further eased toward the termination of sanctions.
The third point to keep in mind is that both the United States and Poland have much to gain and little to lose by resuming normal ties. From the US viewpoint, the continuation of economic sanctions would provide diminishing returns. Normalizing bilateral ties could yield positive and fruitful dividends.
At this stage, Washington should seek to expand its influence in Eastern Europe concurrently with wide-ranging disarmament negotiations and the reviving of d'etente. Poland can be an important player in these areas.
From the Polish viewpoint, Warsaw wants to rebuild normal political and economic ties with the United States and the West in general. It will thereby gain greater flexibility in revitalizing its stagnating economy.
The expanded economic integration of the Soviet bloc, the Poles have learned, cannot resolve Polish economic problems, let alone pay off Polish debts to Western banks and governments. Poles therefore appreciate the need to strengthen their Western orientation at the same time as their bloc's economic ties.
With US congressional elections in the offing, Polish officials should not expect any American action on sanctions until after the Reagan administration has digested the election results. In fact, before taking definitive steps, the administration might prudently wish to consult the leadership of the next Congress and of its key committees early in 1987.
One hopes that Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and his associates can afford to wait a few months for Washington to take the necessary political soundings both here and in Western Europe. And, too, that they will avoid the temptation of rearresting and imprisoning members of Solidarity and other opposition groups who, for example, may wish to lay a wreath on Dec. 16 at the monument in Gdansk in memory of the shipyard workers who died in the 1970 protests. And that members of the Polish opposition will also be on their best behavior.
Already, the Polish-American community and many knowledgeable US observers have come around to the view that the sanctions have outlived their usefulness and should be lifted. In Poland, the Roman Catholic Church, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and other noncommunists have called for their removal.
The consensus in favor of lifting US sanctions continues to grow.
Nicholas G. Andrews, author of ``Poland 1980-81: Solidarity Versus the Party,'' was US deputy chief of mission in Warsaw from July 1979 to July 1981.