The drama reaching its climax in Poland holds not simply that troubled land, not simply the Soviet empire, but the entire world on a knife edge of history. Whichever way the strictly Polish crisis heads from now on, the repercussions are likely to spread far beyond the frontiers of Poland.
If the Polish Communist Party succeeds in "adjusting to the realities of today" (party leader Edward Gierek's phrase on television Aug. 24) through compromise and not force, the consequences are likely to be felt throughout the entire Soviet empire.
The challenge to the present Soviet leadership would be enormous; and that leadership's response, whether desperate or measured, could demand of the United States and its allies either unprecedented resolve or unprecedented understanding.
If the drama moves toward a more tragic resolution, through force and Soviet armed intervention -- which apparently all parties are trying to avoid -- US-Soviet detente would be dealt a setback far beyond that following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia or the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
With the anniversary of the Sept. 1, 1939, German invasion of Poland less than a week away -- an invasion that started World War II -- the sensitivity of Poland's historic strategic location on the map of Europe should be self-evident.
Even if events in Poland take the least catastrophic turn, toward compromise and a loosening of absolute Communist Party control of the workers, long-term challenge to the Soviet empire may well be heightened, not exorcised. Soviet awareness of this is indicated by the resumption last week of the jamming of broadcasts from the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the German Deutsche Welle.
Ironically, the man from whom a single utterance could decide the future course in Poland in either direction is a Pole sitting in neither Warsaw nor Moscow and without a single armed division under his direct command. He is the former Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow, now Pope John Paul II in Rome, 800 miles away from the seat of government in Warsaw.
To date, the Pope has been cautious. He has revealed his sympathy with the Polish workers. But he seems to be as anxious as anybody to prevent an explosion likely to bring in Soviet tanks. At the same time, aware of his power in Poland, he can be expected to play the cat-and-mouse game to win advantages for the Roman Catholic Church. He perfected this skill while living under a Communist regime as Cardinal-Archbishop of Krakow.
Poles are among the most intensely loyal Catholic peoples on earth. But the very intensity of this commitment to the church springs from the Poles' identification of it with their sense of nationhood. Since their unwilling but perhaps inevitable incorporation in the Soviet empire at the point of victorious Soviet bayonets after World War II, Poles have used the Roman Catholic Church to pound out a steady drumbeat of national defiance and assertion.
The Soviet empire, stretching today from the Elbe in the heart of Europe across Asia to Vladivostok and the Kuriles off the northern tip of Japan, is the only European empire of the Victorian era not yet dismantled. Its durability stems in part from Russian expansion taking place overland and not overseas (as in the case of the other European empires). Until Afghanistan, its latest and most significant acquisitions had been in Europe, to provide the Russian heartland with a protective buffer against a hypothetical replay of Napoleon's, the Kaiser's, or Hitler's invasions from the West.
Poland occupies a key position in that buffer-empire. Within it, the Soviet Union maintains its supremacy through a system of indirect rule in which the key agent is the local Communist Party. Britain and France, in their heyday of empire, often resorted to the same indirect system -- but using cooperative traditional local rulers, not any local ideological organization.
If the Poles, asserting their nationalism and hunger for freedom as much as their economic grievances, now force their local Communist Party to surrender some of its hitherto absolute and unquestioned authority over workers, other nations within the Soviet bloc might be encouraged to attempt the same route.
The immediately neighboring European lands subject to indirect rule in the Soviet empire would be the most vulnerable. But down the road are other nations within the empire directly run from Moscow -- not just the Baltic states or the Ukraine but the 45 million Muslim peoples of the empire in Central Asia.
The Kremlin must be sensitive to the possible wider fallout from any precedent established in Poland for less absolute Communist Party control of organized labor that the Polish workers might be able to wring from Mr. Gierek. Within the Soviet Union itself, there were reports of labor trouble and a two-day strike in May of this year at the big automobile plant at Togliatti east of Moscow, although some knowledgeable Moscow sources discount this. But in one sense, the Soviet leadership is between a rock and a hard place: On the one hand the long-term risk of concessions in Poland, on the other the almost incalculable consequences of armed Soviet intervention to preserve or restore the status quo.
At the moment, both the Polish workers and the Polish Pope are apparently playing the same game: non-violent brinkmanship to get the maximum concessions from Mr. Gierek. Both know that Mr. Gierek is aware that his political life is at stake and that resort to force and Soviet armed intervention would be as calamitous for him as for anybody else.
If Mr. Gierek makes the concessions, a case can be made for more economic help from the outside world, and more particularly the US and West Germany, to help him survive. An enlightened Soviet leadership would also consider parallel extra help. But at such a point, the thoughts uppermost in the Kremlin might be how to contain reform in Poland without demands for parallel reform mounting and proving irresistible elsewhere in the Soviet empire -- even one day at the doorstep of Mother Russia herself.