Sanctions: symbol or substance?

President Reagan's desire to demonstrate solidarity with the Polish people is commendable. He understandably does not like to see the United States stand by, seemingly helpless, while force is applied to put down a movement for freedom in a communist country. The imposition of limited economic sanctions on the Soviet Union is thus a moral gesture and will no doubt we welcomed by most Poles. Whether it is the wisest step under the circumstances is open to question, however.

First of all, the extent of direct Soviet involvement in Poland has yet to be sorted out. Secretary of State Alexander Haig himself suggests that it is as much the Polish government as the Russians who are responsible for the state of martial law. By imposing sanctions on Moscow, Washington seems to relieve the onus on the military rulers in Warsaw to negotiate a political settlement.

The point is that for the past two decades the United States has sought to treat the countries of Eastern Europe individually and not lump them into a homogeneous bloc under the Soviet thumb. The Russians have effective military control of Eastern Europe, yes. But, it was felt, by dealing with each East European nation on its own merits and by playing down the Soviet presence, the US could help foster independence and freedom and loosen ties with Moscow. The policy has worked pretty well. Would it not be better, then, to apply the pressures to the Polish authorities?

Certainly the Reagan administration must carefully weigh the implications of its policy for US-Soviet relations. If the Russians are blamed for everything that happens in Eastern Europe, this could escalate tensions to a point of dangerous confrontation. That is what many West Europeans fear.

Secondly, sanctions are a tricky business. Unless strong enough and unless based on consensus action, they are ineffective. In this case they are so mild as to be largely symbolic. They will not measurably hurt the Soviet economy. Moreover, they were imposed unilaterally by the US without the support of the European allies, thus once again pointing to the fundamental disagreements within the Western community. The rulers in Moscow, who seek to split Europe off from the US, can only take comfort from this exhibition of disunity. Furthermore, unless the allies can now be persuaded to join Washington, the American people may be misled into thinking the sanctions will have a real effect.

Then there is the matter of consistency. It will strike many as illogical that the Reagan administration is cutting back on trade and scientific exchanges with the Soviet Union because of events in Poland, while it has removed any economic penalty on Moscow for its continued suppression of Afghanistan. Poland has not been invaded by Soviet troops; Afghanistan has. Domestic farm politics accounted for the lifting of the grain embargo, despite the continuing occupation of Afghanistan, and this time, too, American businessmen are concerned about losing business with the Russians. This tends to blunt the moral message of the sanctions.

This is not to argue against the use of economic leverage to sway developments in Poland. But the best leverage would seem to be the aid which the West can provide to save the collapsing Polish economy -- aid both in tangible goods and in the rescheduling of Poland's enormous debt. There is still a chance thjat the Polish military will bargain with Solidarity and that a political compromise can be worked out. The West should spare no pressure on General Jaruzelski to carry out his promises. Step by step, it should link its economic help to tangible relaxation of martial law and political reconciliation.

Poland's ordeal is far from over and it is frustrating for the US to watch. But it must make certain that its rhetoric is matched by a capability for influencing what happens. Otherwise it will be only a hollow cry.

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