When Vice-President George Bush arrives in Poland today, he will be the highest-ranking American official to have visited that country in a decade - a symbol of improved American relations with Poland. But diplomats and analysts interviewed recently in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw argue that Washington must reevaluate its entire Eastern European policy. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's call for reforms could upset the delicate balance in the region, and the observers worry that the United States is not ready to respond.
``With Gorbachev, America has more terrain for activity,'' says Gyorgy Konrad, the eminent Hungarian writer and opposition intellectual. ``America should speak up.''
Traditionally, Washington has followed a policy called ``differentiation'' toward the six European allies of the Soviet Union. Briefly put, differentiation holds that each Eastern European nation seeks to be different from the Soviet Union because of different culture, history, ethnic composition, and geography, and that the West should promote such differences.
Countries were rewarded with most-favored nation (MFN) status that either exhibited a streak of independence on foreign policy issues, such as Romania, or a tolerant human rights attitude at home, such as Hungary. Countries which bowed to Soviet pressure were denied these trade advantages or punished with sanctions. This was the case with Poland after the brutal application of martial law in 1981.
In the new Gorbachev era, diplomats and analysts say the policy of so-called differentiation has become outdated. Washington has maintained good relations with Romania, even though the observers say the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu is the most repressive in the region. And until recently, Washington froze relations with Poland, even though Solidarity leaders long called for the lifting of sanctions and Wojciech Jaruzelski began to tolerate large amounts of criticism.
``We used to want the East Europeans to be different from the Soviets,'' says a Western diplomat in Prague. ``But now we should want them to follow the Soviets.''
To a certain extent, Bush's present visit to Poland shows that these criticisms are being heard in Washington. When the vice-president last visited the region in 1983, he gave a blunt speech in Vienna challenging Soviet control. In contrast, Bush is now formalizing a rapprochement with his former b^ete noire Poland. Ambassadors are to be exchanged and the Poles plan to give Bush an opportunity to express his views on state-run television.
A less spectacular warming is under way with Czechoslovakia. The US recently concluded cultural and civil aviation agreements with Prague, the first bilateral agreements since the 1968 Soviet invasion. John Whitehead, a deputy secretary of state, visited last winter and Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia followed this summer.
American relations with Romania meanwhile are confused. Congress has included a clause in an omnibus trade bill to deny MFN status to Romania, but the administration is trying to block the action.
These shifts in US policy do not represent ``a full-scale policy review,'' says one Western diplomat in Budapest. Specific suggestions of additional actions are offered by William Luers, the former ambassador to Czechoslovakia. Writing in the summer issue of Foreign Affairs, Luers argued for increased trade and contacts in the region, both in human and commercial terms.
``The United State should expand relations with senior officials in all these countries and enlarge contacts with the technocracies and scientific-intellectual communies,'' Mr. Luers writes, ``in order to learn more about them and even to help shape on the margin the decisions of these oligarchies which will inherit power over the next decade.''
In practice, diplomats say such a policy would translate into a stronger financial commitment to the region. Increased funds are needed for bilateral exchanges while restraints on trade must be loosened.
Luers notes, for example, that a more-active US trade policy could expand the use of personal computers and video recorders - information systems ``which could have a shattering effect on the restraint of information flow in these closed societies.''
As much as such investments can promote liberalization, observers caution that Washington must accept limited goals.
For the foreseeable future, the Soviet Union will remain the dominant power in the region. Unlike in the Philippines or in Haiti, that means the West cannot expect to win dramatic victories in Eastern Europe.
``America can increase its presence here and speak to our society,'' says Mikos Haraszti, a Hungarian opposition leader. ``It is not within American possibilities to change our situation. We must do that ourselves.''