President Ronald Reagan in Washington is headed for the end of his first month in office without yet fulfilling his campaign promise to lift the embargo on grain to the Soviet Union.
One reason cited among State Department officials is that to lift the embargo might be taken in Moscow as a green light for a general Soviet military occupation of Poland.
Also, to hold back on the cancellation keeps a bargaining counter in hand for use at some future time when Moscow might be willing to pay something of value to the West for freer access to the United States grain market.
the deferral on the grain issue was about the only thing Washington could do which it has not already done to try to give some aid and comfort to the Poles in their remarkably bold and continuing drive for independence and self-determination.
That drive continues to underline the difficulties Moscow is having with its subjects and supposed friends. Unrest in Poland and bitter military resistance in Afghanistan advertise for all to see the failure of the Soviet system to make willing friends among its neighbors.
The only willing friends are such countries as Angola, Cuba, and Vietnam. Even these are showing signs of wishing to unhook themselves from total reliance on Moscow. Angola is busy building new trade connections with the West. Cuba has made conciliatory gestures toward the new Reagan administration in Washington. It would like to "talk." And Vietnam is such deep trouble in its own neighborhood that one wonders how long it will want to continue to play Moscow's game.
But Washington can take little comfort from Moscow's troubles with its supposed friends and official allies. The American administration is itself heading straight into extreme difficulties with its own most important allies.
A gathering of European Community leaders in Luxembourg is shaping up a common European foreign policy before talking to the new American President. And the pressence of President Sadat of Egypt at that meeting points up a coming difference of opinion with Washington over Middle East policy.
From the end of World War II right down today, the President in Washington has been able to deal with the West European leaders individually, and thus dominate the policies of the alliance. That era has ended, and probably will not return in the visible future. Washington is going to have to deal with them collectively, not individually. And it will find them differing from established Washington policies in two important respects.
All of them differ with Washington on Middle East Policy. They are pushing now for recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and for progress toward self-determination for the Arabs of the Israeli occupied territories. Mr. Reagan campaigned on a pro-Israel policy and within the week has downgraded Jewish settlement in Arab territory from illegal (the standard State Department contention) to "unwise." But the West Europeans all stand on the proposition that the settlements are illegal and must eventually be abandoned.
And the West European allies also differ over "detente." Washington has rejected detente, Mr. Reagan even more so than his predecessor. In 1980 the European allies paid at least lip service to Mr. Carter's campaign of sanctions against Moscow over the invasion of Afghanistan. But today it is clear that they would put up a collective front against any attempt to pull them farther away from detente -- unless vigorously shaken by a cataclysm such as a Soviet invasion of Poland.
The relationship of the United States to Western Europe will continue to be within the framework of an alliance, but within that alliance the substance is going through a profound change. In the past the NATO alliance walked down the street like a well-drilled Victorian school class on parade: teacher in front, children following in line behind. Today the children are conferring among themselves and will decide when and how far they will follow the teacher.
The change is identified by State Department officials as being the result of four new conditions shaping alliance policy. First has been the rise in Soviet offensive military power in Europe. Second has been the failure of the West to match that with a commensurate rise in western defensive power. Third has been instability in the Middle East threatening Western access to the oil of the Gulf. And fourth has been the rapid rise in West European trade with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
The combination of these four factors has produced a gulf between West European and Washington attitudes toward detente. In Washington detente has been a dirty word. In Western Europe, particularly in France and West Germany, it is almost seen as a necessity of life.
The same four factors have increasingly widened the gap over Middle East policy. President Reagan in Washington refers to the PLO as "terrorists," but among the West Europeans the Palestinian Arabs are seen as having as much right to a homeland in Palestine as do the Israelis. And they are ready to recognize the PLP as a legitimate spokesman for the Palestine Arabs.
The big question in Luxembourg this past week between Egyptian President Sadat and the West European leaders was whether he, Mr. Sadat, dares break away from Washington (which is currently paying a good many of his bills) in order to team up with the Europeans on the subject of recognizing the PLO and bringing it into the negotiations. They would like him to join them in recognizing the voice of the PLO. He would be willing, provided it did not lose him his monthly check from Washington.
And here, of course, is where Reagan budget-cutting enters the picture. If foreign aid is cut back drastically, as proposed at the Office of Management and Budget, there will be less inducement to Mr. Sadat to stay on the Washington side of the fence -- a point that US Secretary of State Alexander Haig has undoubtedly pointed out in the discussions over foreign aid bud get cuts.