Will American leaders now jeopardize from ignorance or for political gain what brave Poles have won? The signs are not encouraging. President Carter, who initially handled the crisis in an almost model manner, now seems to be speaking out more forcefully in circumstances that promise November political rewards. Ronald Reagan goes so far as to appear at a political rally with the father of the most prominent strike leader in Poland. John Anderson charges that the administration has not made enough propaganda use of the crisis.The president of the United Automobile Workers announces over national television that his union has given financial assistance to the Polish strikers.
Poland has always been unfortunate in its neighbors. Now it may turn out that it is equally unfortunate in its well-wishers. For each of the actions mentioned betrays a degree of ignorance or irresponsibility which could prove disastrous for the Poles. Yet such an approach continues a long tradition of irresponsibility.In 1944 Dewey injected the Polish issue into the presidential campaign and jeopardized delicate negotiations between the Soviets and centrist Polish leader Stanislaw Mikolajczyk.History can repeat itself, especially in an American election year.
Any sensible policy must be based on sound understanding. So to appreciate what is going on in Poland, we should not look at the crisis through the lens of our political campaign but listen to voices from the area. And here Andrei Amalrik's metaphor about political change in his book "Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984?" remains the best insight into the political tension which exists not only in his native Russia but throughout Eastern Europe.
According to Amalrik, the relationship between the regime and the people should be compared to the relationship between a soldier who holds a gun and a citizen who is lowering his hands when neither knows whether the soldier will shoot.
Clearly the gun will go off if the hands are lowered too fast. Probably it will go off if bystanders shout. Possibly it will go off if any outside event -- an irresponsible speech or a thoughtless action -- breaks the spell of fraternization and mutual understanding.
One reason for mounting concern over the way US politicians are increasingly responding to the Polish crisis is that the final effects will have an enormous impact on East-West relations for years to come. Thus, prior to Poland, or for more than two decades, the fearful or the hard line urged Americans to resist political change everywhere in the world on the grounds that they could not run the risk of a mistake and a country going communist, since once that happened the democratic spirit would be permanently crushed. After all, it was argued, several authoritarian countries like Greece or Spain had resumed the practice of democracy, but once communist, forever communist. Poland continues communist, but the workers' actions demonstrate that the democratic spirit in the world remains stronger than supposed.
More recently this same fearful group joined with Soviet propagandists in creating a Soviet superman -- a country apparently in adequate control of its internal problems and in total control of all external challenges. Americans were and are called upon to mount an extraordinary new military effort or face, it is contended, certain humiliation and final defeat.
Poland on this point offers a new lesson. While the world does face genuine dangers flowing from Soviet strength and we must have adequate arms to deal with this, it also faces grave dangers deriving from Soviet weakness. Poland documents that the Soviet Imperium is extraordinarily fragile. It forces all of us to recall that war broke out in 1914 not because Germany and Austria felt so strong but because they feared unfavorable political development in the Balkans triggered by an assassination at Sarajevo would make them so weak.
Handled well, the effects of this Polish crisis can be salutary. If the agreement holds, Soviets can with time learn to live with political change because it offers no clear threat and Americans can with time become more comfortable with the political reality of Eastern Europe because it offers the possibility of change. If the agreement holds, the American people also can develop a more balanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet Union and its allies.
To contribute to a favorable outcome in Poland, however, US policy must follow three guideposts.
First, the US should recognize that it cannot and should not intervene in Poland itself. The American position should be low-key, avoiding the political cheap shots we have recently seen from our political leaders. At an appropriate moment we should be generous in the economic terms we offer a Polish government that has weathered the crisis without repression.
If the Polish unions call for technical and financial help from Western labor unions, we should let the Norwegians and others take the lead.
Second, the US should acknoledge that there are certain limits that geopolitics will not permit any country in Eastern (or Western) Europe to cross. Political change in Poland will have to accompany loyalty to the Warsaw Pact. Just as Western communist parties finally accepted support for NATO as the price of becoming a relevant political force in Western Europe, so any reform movement in the Warsaw-bloc countries will have to express allegiance to the Warsaw Pact as the price of remaining a relevant political force in Eastern Europe.
Third, The US government, more positively, should not encourage but also should not stand in the way of those with credentials to speak out to do so. Austrian Chancellor and Social Democrat Bruno Kreisky has already stated that, if the Soviet Union crushes the Polish experiment, this will spell the end to any further attraction of the Russian Revolution for the world's workers. It is a point the AFL-CIO is making in another way by encouraging unions all over the world to boycott Polish goods if the regime crushes the workers.
This is an approach that can exploit the Polish crisis in a positive way. Hot political rhetoric promises only to return us to the sterile policies of the past.