Reagan and the pipeline

The light of reasonableness appears to be returning to Washington on the Siberian pipeline issue. At long last. By imposing a ban on the supply of US equipment for the natural gas pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe, the Reagan administration hoped among other things to punish the Russians for the repression in Poland. But what it primarily managed to do is anger the West Europeans and stir up a crisis in the Atlantic alliance, an outcome that can only serve the purposes of the Soviet Union. The price of such economic warfare is indeed high - and should not be paid.

Apparently President Reagan has been persuaded so, both by the allies and by American firms that would profit from the project. He is reported to be searching for a means of easing these and other US sanctions - as a response to some gesture of relaxation from Poland, for instance. Where the pipeline is concerned, it must be asked if such a linking of political and economic issues is the best way out of the situation. Why does the administration need reasons or excuses for reversing a bad decision? Surely the turmoil in the alliance is the best excuse. Great Britain, Italy, West Germany, and other allies would no doubt be content with a simple change of US policy and with calling as little attention to the matter as possible.

The reasons for US opposition to the Siberian project - which began even before the imposition of martial law in Poland - were always exaggerated. To be sure, there is a risk in Western Europe becoming dependent on the Soviet Union for a key resource. But West Germany and others are taking steps to diversify sources of energy and decrease their vulnerability to Soviet blackmail. While a sudden Soviet cutoff of natural gas would be damaging, therefore, it should be possible to cope with it.

There are, on the other hand, solid reasons for going ahead with the pipeline. It is in the West's interests for the Soviet Union to exploit its fossil fuels. This will expand the total supply of energy, take the pressure off the world market, and should lessen Soviet temptation to move southward in the Gulf region in pursuit of oil. It also will help Western Europe reduce its overwhelming reliance on Middle East supplies at a time when events in the region grow increasingly unpredictable.

As for the argument that the deal will help the Soviet economy, indeed it will. But who would ever suggest that East-West trade should not be mutually beneficial? The Russians will earn much-needed hard currency from sale of the natural gas, and the prospect of losing it makes them equally dependent on Western Europe and less likely to use the gas as political leverage.

Some within the administration voice concern that the supply of advanced Western technology enables the Russians to spur their military effort. But it is espionage more than trade through which they have acquired the most sensitive technology, and the overall benefit to the Soviet economy from trade (due to the gross inefficiency of their system) probably has been only marginal.

The whole Siberian pipeline issue should never have become such a source of friction between the United States and its allies. A more poorly handled problem can hardly be imagined. But it is not too late to repair the damage done - by lifting the US ban and then proceeding to work out with the allies some guidelines for East-West trade which will prevent such diplomatic tangles in the future.

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