ONE of the questions most frequently asked of a visitor to Poland is: What can be done to improve relations between the United States and Poland? The answer is not easy. General Jaruzelski's imposition of martial law on Poland on Dec. 13, 1981, profoundly shocked the American as well as the Polish people. President Reagan's response -- to apply limited sanctions -- was widely supported then, both by the American people and by the independent Solidarity trade union and its Polish supporters. The polemics that followed the President's action and in which both sides have engaged ever since represent a major obstacle to the improvement of relations.
During the 1970s there was some reduction in ideological polemics on both sides and a major effort to improve relations on a mutually profitable basis. Educational, cultural, and scientific exchanges flourished. The volume of bilateral trade expanded, financial and credit ties increased, and Poland's agricultural policy led to the purchase of sizable quantities of American farm products. The Polish government in the 1970s showed sensitivity to rising US concern for human rights.
With the Poles, the US joined in sponsoring periodic ``round table'' conferences to exchange views among academic, political, parliamentary, and news media representatives on the state of the world and our relations. US political leaders, including Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, visited Warsaw to underscore the importance the US attached to Poland's role in Europe and beyond.
The crisis of 1980-81 showed that the divided Polish Communist Party leadership could not cope politically with the views and activities of Solidarity. To maintain unquestioned political supremacy, the government used force to suppress the union.
Years of progress in US-Polish relations were virtually wiped out as both sides resorted to an essentially vapid exchange of polemics.
What can be done now to improve relations?
Although the United States removed some lesser sanctions in 1984 after Poland lifted martial law and released most political prisoners, the Poles want the US to withdraw the ban on US government-guaranteed credits and to restore most-favored-nation trade status.
The US wants Polish authorities to release all political prisoners and not jail them again under a kind of ``revolving door'' policy. We want the Poles to push ahead with economic reforms, such as encouraging incentives for workers and managers to increase efficiency, quality, output, and exports.
The US also thinks well of Polish Agricultural Foundation, sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, because it gives promise of significantly boosting the agricultural output and productivity of Polish private farmers, who are still the mainstay of Polish food production and an indispensable element to a comprehensive economic recovery program.
Responsible people on both sides would like to see a normalization of the relationship if the domestic political costs are not too high. The two sides share surprisingly broad common interests which are not being exploited.
The first step must be a toning down of polemics by both sides. US and Polish political leaders and official spokesmen must sheathe their verbal swords and soften their rhetoric.
The second step should be to negotiate all outstanding issues at an appropriately high level, including removal of economic sanctions, release of political prisoners, resumption of scientific and other exchanges, formal legal establishment of the Agricultural Foundation, and overall normalization of relations. The visit to Warsaw in April by former Deputy Secretary of State Walter J. Stoessel Jr. was a clear indication of US interest in that possibility. A good time for such negotiations would be after the congressional fall elections.
The American role and influence in Eastern Europe, at no time very great, are in danger of being further eroded. It is high time we brought our policy up to date and undertook to place our relations with Poland back on the right track. In this instance, our European allies will support us.
Nicholas G. Andrews was US deputy chief of mission in Warsaw from July 1979 to July 1981.