THE visit to Eastern Europe by Secretary of State George Shultz is a useful reminder of the diversity of that vital political and strategic crossroads between East and West -- Moscow and Washington. The trip also reflects the importance of having a Western policy toward the region based on differentiation -- the uniqueness of each of the nations within the area -- rather than a policy based on the rigidly anticommunist fervor of most of the postwar era.
Over the weekend Mr. Shultz visited West Berlin, where he criticized what he called the ``unnatural and inhuman'' division of Germany. He then visited Romania, where he warned President Ceausescu that Romanian violations of human rights could lead to congressional derailing of current trade links between the United States and that country. Mr. Shultz then traveled to Hungary and Yugoslavia.
To suggest that the Shultz visit, important as it is in securing better US ties with Eastern Europe, is part of some grand American strategy toward the region is to miss the mark. Rather, the evidence suggests just the opposite, that there is considerable disarray within Washington over exactly what US policy should be. The East-bloc nations, for their part, clearly want a reduction of tensions between Moscow and Washington in the wake of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit.
The Reagan administration, to its credit, has scored some successes in its dealings with Eastern Europe. The US has gained some goodwill by largely pulling back from its confrontational strategy of seeking to isolate Poland economically and diplomatically. It has allowed a significant growth of trade between the US and the region, particularly with Romania and Hungary, both of which have most-favored-nation tariff status with the US because of their independent stance with Moscow. It has even begun bri efing sessions for East-bloc nations.
Unfortunately, other crosscurrents have also begun to appear. A growing conservative-liberal coalition within Congress -- upset by Bucharest's human rights violations -- is calling for an end to the preferential US trading status with Romania when the agreement comes up for renewal next year. At the same time, calls are starting to be heard from within Congress for a rollback of the preferential trading status with Hungary.
The administration, meanwhile, has initiated a somewhat harder stance toward the East bloc in general by requiring approval of trips within the US for four Warsaw Pact nations -- East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Bulgaria. The prior approval of trips is designed, according to the administration, to prevent spying.
It would be particularly unwise if the White House were to allow the policy of differentiation that has developed regarding Eastern Europe to be derailed. That is not to say that Washington should not bring up legitimate human rights concerns, as Secretary Shultz did over the weekend. It was also appropriate that he rejected the absorption of Eastern Europe into the Soviet sphere, as he did in his remarks in West Berlin.
That said, Washington should move with caution regarding Eastern Europe. Taking away the preferential US trading links with Romania and Hungary would end the main US leverage with those two nations. For Romania in particular, its economy terribly mismanaged, the ending of special US trade links could not help having an adverse impact on the lives of many Romanians. Romania exported $1.2 billion worth of goods to the US in 1984.
Thus, special needs among East European nations require case-by-case Western approaches.