Now the Russians worry about dominoes

The domino theory, communist style, must be the subject of lively debate inside the Kremlim these days. Soviet policy toward Poland may hinge on the outcome.

If the Soviet leaders decide that the Polish experiments with democracy are likely to be contagious -- in other words, that the domino theory is valid -- then we can expect them to adopt a much harder line, including military intervention if need be, to resist change in Poland.

If, on the other hand, the Soviet leaders decide that the case of Poland is sui generism and that change can be contained in Poland, then they will probably swallow hard and accept it.

Where the Soviets come out on this is by no means a forgone conclusion. The domino theory is no doubt as contentious in Moscow as in Washington. Nor does history provide many reliable guidespots.

Dean Rusk explicitly disavowed the theory as the basis for the American involvement in Vietnam, and, except for the three Indochinese states themselves, no domino has fallen in Southeast Asia. Alexander Haig seems more taken with the theory in Central America, perhaps with reason.

Lyndon Johnson rested his intervention in the Dominican Republic partly on the domino theory, and a few years later Leonid Brezhnev used it in partial justification of his intervention in Czechoslovakia. But two decades earlier Stalin chose to look the other way with respect to Yugoslavia, and Tito did not start a chain reaction.

Maybe one reason the theory excites so much controversy is that both believers adn skeptics tend to approach it as something which either is, or is not, valid at all times and places. But it deals with politics, not physics, and so the truth may be that sometimes it works and sometimes it does not.

The problem of Poland for the Soviet Union involves two questions: How far can the process of change be tolerated within Poland itself? And how likely is it that this process will spill over into other contries of Eastern Europe or even, heaven forbid, into the Soviet Union itself?

Poland's imortance to the Soviet Union is almost entirely strategic; it provides the lines of communication to East Germany and Western Europe, and is something of a linchpin.After all, the Warsaw Pact takes its name from Poland's capital. In other respects, Poland is a liability to the Soviet Union. It is a political problem and an economic burden.It is reasonable to assume, then, that so long as Poland stays securely in the Warshaw Pact, the Soviet Union could tolerate considerable change -- unless ideology gets in the way. Doctrinaire Marxist-Leninists might conclude that any weakening of the role of the communist party is inherently destabilizing and thus potentially disastrous. (This is curiously similar to the American school of thought which holds that any change in status quo in Central America is destabilizing and threatening.)

As to whether other countries in the Warsaw Pact will be infected by the Polish movement, the answer is a good deal murkier, but the safest one seems to be, not necessarily. Eastern Europe is not as monolithic as many people believe , and Poland particularly has important distinguishing characteristics. Chief among these are the strong and independendent Roman Catholic Church and peasantry -- and now, also, industrial labor.

At the same time, because of its desperate economic situation, Poland is more vulnerable than the rest of Eastern Europe. Without massive infusions of easy credit from all available sources -- the Soviet Union, Western Europe, the United States -- the country may literally collapse with consequences which cannot be foreseen in either Moscow or Washington.

Withal, Poland has to be the most exquisitely painful problem of foreign policy the Kremlin has faced in many a day. It's likely that only the hardest of the hard-liners are arguing the domino theory applies. Most Soviet policymakers are no doubt fervently hoping they may be spared the consequences either of intervening in Poland or of dealing with the spread of the Polish contagion. In either case, their resources would be strained to the breaking point and their international political position, already buffeted by the Afghan adventure, would be further damaged.

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