There is an element of irony in the Reagan administration's policy of pipeline sanctions. Many East Europeans do not like the sanctions any more than do the West Europeans, and it is understandable why. The sanctions are supposed to be a form of pressure on Moscow to alter its behavior in Poland. But the end result is to curb East-West trade and thereby weaken a tool that has helped bring about the very liberalization which the Reagan policy seeks.
The sanctions, in short, are counter-productive - not only because they are damaging transatlantic ties but because they are damaging efforts for reform in Eastern Europe.
It all comes down to the fundamental question of how you influence Soviet actions over the long term. Those who devised detente reasoned that in a climate of East-West exchanges, including trade, it would be possible for the East European satellites to relax the worst aspects of their dogmatic systems, begin reforming socialism, and give their peoples a little more breathing space. Not the freedom to institute Western-style practices,to be sure, but the chance to make life more decent and rational. Ultimately, the reasoning went, as changes gradually took place in its East European empire, the Soviet Union would feel less insecure and perhaps begin to experiment with reform itself.
Have things been working out that way? There are some signs they have. The East-West agreements concluded in the early '70s led to a relaxation in certain areas - freer travel, greater religious freedom, more emigration. Poland, even before Solidarity came into being and launched a struggle for political reform, was a much freer society than it had been in earlier days of communist rule. In fact, that very relaxation seemed to make possible the emergence of a free trade union movement and the bold pursuit of more basic change.
Detente, in other words, may have had the negative effect of lulling the West into apathy to the continuing Soviet military threat - and that has to be redressed - but the benefits of detente tend to be overlooked these days.
It should sober policymakers in Washington that today the citizens of Poland - to whose fate the Reagan sanctions are ostensibly tied - are often critical of US policy. Travelers there find Poles saying that the sanctions in effect are intended to perpetuate martial law so that Mr. Reagan can carry on a vendetta with the Soviets. They do not see Moscow caving in to economic blandishment, and they feel that US restrictions are hurting only the Polish people.
The Hungarians are especially concerned. Hungary, many Americans may not realize, is fast moving away from a rigid socialist economic system and embracing capitalist-style methods. It is now a member of the International Monetary Fund and is seeking advice from Western experts about how to put into effect a modern pricing system based on supply-and-demand principles. The degree of openness on the part of sophisticated economists in Budapest is described by World Bank officials as no less than ''amazing.''
Logically, this is what the Reagan administration should want to promote: a gradual change in the East European economic systems that helps loosen overweening Sovietism in the bloc. But what it has failed to understand is that reform must come in a measured, unprovocative way so that it does not frighten leaders in the Kremlin into tightening the screw even more. Economic reform is one thing. Overturning of the communist political order is another.
This is not to give in to the depressing thought that Soviet communism is here to stay or to say that the West should not seek to encourage its ultimate demise. It is simply to recognize that the evolution of thought - and of the systems stemming from it - takes time and that Western policy should be geared to what is practical and possible. Americans tend to want quick solutions to problems. But President Reagan should not cater to this tendency. The need is for a long-range perspective.
In these terms, the pipeline sanctions do not serve the economic interests of the West - or foster political change in the East. Just the reverse.