Doing business with -- communists!

Economic mismanagement in the Soviet bloc countries needs no documenting. Everyone in the West (and in the East, for that matter) knows that communist systems are inefficient, sometimes to the point of comic absurdity. The Soviet Union is not a technological wasteland, however, and some people might be surprised to learn that, if the USSR and its clients profit from the import of Western technology, the West also benefits occasionally from the purchase of sophisticated Soviet-bloc products.

To be sure, the transfer of East-bloc technology westward is still minute in volume. The East European nations have sold about 100 licenses to American firms in the past 15 years, with royalties and fees amounting to about $60 million - hardly a munificent sum. But the volume may be growing - and the technology includes such sophisticated items as electromagnetic casting of aluminum, roller dies, surgical instruments, and particle accelerators. If the Soviet Union and its partners would only improve their salesmanship and reduce bureaucratic barriers, such trade with US as well as West European companies would doubtless burgeon.

It should not escape notice, too, that opportunities are opening up for Westerners even in such an economically prostrate country as Poland. The Wall Street Journal reports that over 350 Western businessmen, mostly expatriates, are setting up small or medium-sized private businesses in Poland - to do everything from building schools to making plastic products. They are allowed to own the companies and are making good profits. Despite criticism from hard-bitten communists, the Jaruzelski government defends these capitalist inroads as helpful to the Polish economy.

All of which is to say that the West should not write off the possibilities of doing business in the Eastern bloc, and the positive impact such business might have in the long run. West Europeans know this, of course, more than do Americans. Nor should it be naively thought that the industrialized West can somehow topple the communist system by squeezing it economically. It is as self-defeating to underestimate the strengths of the Soviet-bloc nations as it is to exaggerate their weaknesses. As John Kiser III, research consultant to the State Department and an expert on technology transfers, comments:

''We lull ourselves into a state of complacency by saying the Russians need our technology. The Russians can do a lot of things we can't do.''

In future, the world is likely to see more - not less - economic cooperation between East and West. And that should be beneficial to everyone.

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