NATO 'blundered' into its new unity on Poland

''I think we've blundered into the very best of Western policies,'' commented one veteran American diplomat, referring to the reaction by NATO nations to the Polish repression.

''I think it would have been much less influential if the US had (forced) the Europeans to step into line. If you want, the effect has been that the Americans offered the stick, the Europeans the carrot.

''If neither the carrot nor the stick has any influence on events in Poland, '' the diplomat continued, ''then you do have to draw consequences and move in some directions.''

The directions the diplomat meant were European sanctions against the Soviet Union to parallel American sanctions already declared. Asked if he really thought the Europeans were ready to go that far, he replied, ''No. Of course the Europeans are not ready. They hope they don't have to. They're whistling Dixie. (But) there is no evidence (of relaxation) so far from Poland to encourage us. And the Europeans have created for themselves a political box which domestic public opinion will not let them slip from.

''If the situation goes on as it has in Poland, if there is no progress toward Paragraph 2 of the EC communique the Europeans must begin movement in directions they don't want to.'' Paragraph 2 of the Jan. 4 European Community communique calls for release of those arrested in Poland, return to civilian law , and resumption of the government dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church and Solidarity.

The diplomat was expressing what is by now a growing Western pessimism about Poland itself and growing (relative) optimism about Western coordination of a response to it. His feeling, and that of a number of other American, West German , and NATO officials in Brussels and Bonn is that Western policy is converging again after several weeks of disarray.

In this analysis questions remain - notably concerning the final American decision on the Soviet-Western European gas pipeline, American public mistrust of West Germany, and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's weariness in office. But for now Bonn's own latter-day pessimism about Poland and Washington's sensitivity in not steamrolling the Europeans are pulling the NATO allies toward a fairly unified, coherent policy.

In this analysis all the Western allies started out cautiously in the first surprised and confused days after the Dec. 13 Polish declaration of martial law. None wanted to fuel an East-West crisis that might only harden lines of confrontation and make things worse for the Poles.

All the major Western nations did implement prudent ''sanctions'' against the Polish military government without necessarily using the term. All suspended new Western economic credits and new Western loans for interest repayment on Poland's huge hard-currency debt. All began ensuring that food and humanitarian aid to the Poles would go through church or other private channels and not through the military government. But Western rhetoric remained restrained.

Washington was the first capital to change its mind. Far from encouraging moderation in Warsaw, the Reagan administration concluded, Western restraint would only give Polish and Soviet hard-liners a free hand and forfeit any leverage the West might have in Polish developments. At this point Assistant Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger toured Europe to discuss ''sanctions,'' including economic sanctions on Moscow because of the massive Soviet pressure for the Polish crackdown.

At the time the West Germans wanted to avoid driving Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski - whom they still regarded as wanting to restore reforms - into the arms of the Russians (where the exasperated Americans thought he was already). And the Europeans as a whole deemed sanctions premature. This resistance to sanctions was evident in Paris as well as in Bonn, despite the sharp contrast by then between French verbal denunciations of the Soviet role in Poland and the West German refusal to mention the Soviet Union by name.

President Reagan therefore declared unilateral sanctions Dec. 24, without waiting for European concurrence. To the immense relief of the Europeans, he exempted the US-Soviet arms control talks in Geneva from his retaliatory measures, and confined his actions to such things as barring Polish fishing vessels from American waters, restricting Soviet airport and harbor access in America, and banning export of American high technology to the Soviet Union. Reagan also reserved America's single most effective economic weapon by suspending new negotiations on but not yet banning US grain exports to the Soviet Union.

There things stood until the Jan. 4 meeting of the EC foreign ministers and the Jan. 11 meeting of NATO foreign ministers. The EC members explicitly condemned the Soviet role in Poland and promised not to undercut the American sanctions. Each NATO member (except for Greece) explicitly condemned the Soviet role and promised to consider a list of national sanctions it could take if the Polish clampdown continues.

This doesn't yet amount to the ''parallel'' and ''tangible'' European sanctions asked for by the US. But a number of American and European diplomats expect that such sanctions will follow - by the Jan. 25 meeting of EC foreign ministers, perhaps in the form of increased tariffs on the 30 percent of West European imports from the Soviet Union that are not energy related.In any case the groundwork of a common Western analysis and strategy has been laid in this Polish crisis in a way that was never done in the Afghan crisis.This coordination was accomplished partly by an unprecedented sharing of Western intelligence in the period since Polish developments started heating up in the fall of 1980. It was accomplished also by the focus of foreign ministers' attention on the issue in the first special NATO foreign ministers' meeting in two decades - and in preparation now for the scheduled EC ministers meeting at the end of the month. It was achieved, finally, by West German disillusionment just prior to the NATO meeting about the likelihood of Jaruzelski's resuming social reform in Poland - or being allowed to do so by the Russians. Significantly, West German Foreign Miniter Hans-Dietrich Genscher is said by informed non-German sources to have played a prominent role in keeping the NATO communique from being watered down in its condemnation of Moscow.At this point, however, three challenges to this broad Western consensus remain unresolved. The first is the still-unsettled White House attitude on the multibillion-dollar Soviet-West European gas pipeline deal signed two months ago. The Reagan administration opposed this contract from the beginning as making Western Europe too dependent on Soviet energy and therefore vulnerable to Soviet pressure. (West Germany, for example, would become 5 percent dependent on Soviet energy sources.) Some officials in the administration would like to use the Polish crisis to kill the deal - by interpreting the European pledge not to undermine US sanctions as meaning that European holders of US licenses may not export US technology to the Soviet Union without Washington's approval.The European - and especially the West German - attitude is that the gas pipeline should be held in reserve and not scrapped short of any direct intervention by Soviet troops in Poland. Bonn's reasoning involves not only commercial interest, but also the political conviction that Moscow must have Western incentives as well as disincentives to restraint if any durable East-West stability is to be achieved.An American decision to press for cancellation of the pipeline might therefore loose a US-German fight that would make a shambles of the present consensus. The second challenge to the consensus is American suspicion of West Germany. This mistrust would be self-fulfilling if it led - as some American politicians and journalists propose - to a vengeful pulling of GIs home and letting the ungrateful Europeans defend themselves. Such an end to the NATO alliance would hand Moscow a victory without a fight.The third challenge to the consensus is what some Bonn observers see as the weariness of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Bonn's crucial diplomatic role in the alliance, and in spurring the ongoing US-Soviet arms control talks in Geneva, has depended largely on the experience and skill of Schmidt and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher.In the Polish crisis Schmidt has sometimes seemed to be his own worst enemy, however - to a degree that has worried his German and American friends.The chancellor's first mistake, his supporters say, was his comment at a press conference a few hours after Polish martial law had been declared. He was in East Germany, on the last day of his long-postponed summit with East German leader Erich Honecker. He had gotten on well with Honecker, he thought, and there would be some easing of East German extraction of $12 per day from every West German visitor to East German relatives or friends. He had no opportunity to discuss his own reaction to the Polish developments thoroughly and openly with advisers before making his comments. Under the circumstances Schmidt made a statement that left many Germans and Americans aghast. Honecker, he said ''was just as dismayed as I was that this (Polish martial law) was necessary.'' This gratuitous linking of himself with the man who may have been his host but was also one of the strongest Eastern European opponents of the Polish liberalization is still cited by Schmidt's political rivals.Next, the Bonn government spokesman went out of his way Dec. 30 to say that Bonn did not share the (American) view that Moscow was the ''instigator'' of the Polish repression. Schmidt was vacationing in Florida at the time, without advisers, and it is not clear whether he approved that statement himself. He didn't disavow it at the time, however, and the Americans had to twist his arm to get him even to endorse President Reagan's condemnation of the Soviet role in Poland on his visit to the White House Jan. 5. Since then Schmidt has been more explicit in criticizing the Soviet role himself, but he leaves the feeling that he has done so only reluctantly. Moreover, Schmidt, who likes to dispense his wisdom to others, seems to have lectured everyone except Reagan and Haig on his Washington visit. In the process he apparently alienated a number of Americans at a critical time. Some of his friends are wondering whether Schmidt's unsettling performance came from a growing tiredness after eight years in a very demanding position.

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