The dilemma of sanctions

Undoubtedly, in the discussions with the Europeans on sanctions against the Soviet Union and Poland, the Europeans are asking, ''Until when?'', ''Until what?''

Given the importance the Europeans attach to their trade with the rest of the continent and the long-range interests they -- and particularly the Germans -- have in communication with the East, it is to be expected that they would want to know the objectives of sanctions before agreeing to their imposition.

Even though the Europeans feel deeply about freedom in Poland and about the interference of the Soviet Union in Polish affairs, they would find it difficult politically and economically to contemplate an indefinite suspension of trade and normal contact with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. There may, of course, be an element of rationalization in the reasons they give; the Europeans are not reluctant to have the United States take the major steps in relations with the Soviet Union. There can be no doubt, however, of the existence of major concern on the continent over the reestablishment of a total ''iron curtain.''

With the US, it is different. We are less inclined to ask what the ultimate objective of a policy may be. Particularly in events relating to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, we tend to believe that punitive reactions are a justifiable end in themselves. The pressures of the ethnic East Europeans in our society, the deep antipathy toward the Soviet Union, and the normal propensity for demonstrable action in any situation make it imperative that any US chief executive act in the face of events such as those in Poland. Minimal sanctions of the kind President Reagan has announced, combined with suitable rhetoric, represent probably the least he can do.

Yet, sanctions without a clear objective pose problems for the US as well.

The sanctions against Iran and Rhodesia in which the US participated were designed with specific goals: the release of the hostages; the creation of an internationally acceptable independence in Zimbabwe. Although these sanctions were, in varying degrees, controversial, they succeeded in their objectives.

On the other hand, both the US and the Europeans had to talk back from Afghan-related sanctions - in part because there was no agreement on a precise, realistic objective and because neither of us was prepared to maintain these sanctions for an indefinite period.

It is even more difficult to say what the end result of the current sanctions against the Soviet Union and Poland may be. Ideally, the US would like to see the return to the status quo ante martial law and to a continuation of the emergence of a free society in Poland. Short of that, the US would like to see the release of prisoners, the ending of martial law, and a dialogue between Solidarity, the church, and the government.

If we are to accept something less than a return to freedom in Poland before we relax sanctions, the burden is then on us to determine the measure of freedom which will be acceptable. We, in effect, risk setting ourselves up as a judge of what is an appropriate measure of independence and freedom in Poland. If we relax sanctions over time without demonstrable gains for the Polish people we risk demonstrating the weakness of our influence in Eastern Europe.

In each of these situations -- and in others such as Cuba and Nicaragua -- we face this dilemma. Not only our propensity for action, but the expectations others have of us, and our own strong support for freedom demand that we let the world know of our opposition to Soviet actions. Yet, without far greater risks than we are prepared to take, we may not be able to make the kinds of gains we would like. It may be, in ways we do not fully know, that the measures we have taken in response to Afghanistan, and now Poland, may have had a restraining effect on the Soviet Union. This has yet to be fully demonstrated.

If, however, the US is to carry the Europeans with it into specific economic sanctions against the Soviet Union and Poland, it needs to have a more precise answer to the question of what is an ultimate and realistic objective. Punishment, without some agreement on the conditions which will permit, in a respectable way, the resumption of normal relations with the East, may not be enough to gain full European cooperation.

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