The Reagan administration at last is searching for a compromise that may end alliance divisions over the proposed Soviet gas pipeline to supply Western Europe. But is this dispute the result of a simple policy misunderstanding by Washington or the manifestation of a deeper problem within the alliance?
The likelihood is that it is the latter. For the fundamental problem is not alliance disagreements over the details of East-West trade but the absence of any alliance understanding on two critical issues: the West's real options in Poland and its response to growing Soviet weakness.
Poland has always been an issue of special sensitivity to the United States. In the 1944 presidential election Thomas E. Dewey introduced the Polish issue into his struggle with Franklin Delano Roosevelt by promising to help the exiled anticommunist Poles in Warsaw.
This initiative led to a remarkable exchange of correspondence between foreign policy pundits Walter Lippmann and Dewey foreign policy adviser John Foster Dulles. The former saw the Dewey statement as irresponsible, as it provided ''tremendous backing to those reactionary Poles in refusing to accept the compromise which the moderate and democratic prime minister has been negotiating'' with the Soviet forces, who held most of the levers of power. The latter replied that the basic issue between Lippmann and Dewey was that Lippmann did ''not believe that the US should have any policies at all except in relation to areas where we can make those policies good through material force. The governor, on the other hand, believes in moral force.''
It is accurate simplification to state that today the Reagan administration accepts the Dulles argument whereas all West European governments embrace the Lippmann view. Yet from the standpoint of East-West peace, the Lippmann view has more validity.
Americans embrace the Dulles view in part because both liberals and conservatives here reacted with such emotion to events in Poland. Liberals probably saw in those events a sign that progressive change could take place in Eastern Europe which the West could favor and which the East might not fear. Conservatives, in turn, probably saw in the same events a sign that the Soviet empire was now about to crumble. Understandably, both groups felt bitterly betrayed by the December 1981 crackdown. There was a strong national consensus that the US should find some way to affect events in Poland and reverse the new course.
Yet within the framework of the postwar European settlement, the West ultimately has limited influence in Eastern Europe. It can nudge but it cannot push unless it wishes to call into question the very understandings that have preserved peace in Europe for nearly 40 years. Recent disputes within the Western alliance come down to the fact that the Reagan administration wants to push whereas West European governments want to nudge.
West Europeans regard the US attitude as profoundly dangerous. Some years ago a British foreign minister Selwyn Lloyd, suggested why: ''The world is a much safer place if in critical areas there is direct confrontation of the major parties and not an area of uncertainty. In Central Europe the two great nuclear powers do confront each other directly. As long as this situation prevails, a war triggered off by chance border incidents will be unlikely.''
The weakness in the Reagan administration's approach to Eastern Europe is that it could create the very uncertainty that concerned Lloyd. President Reagan has several times suggested that the world is witnessing the final days of the Soviet empire. His administration has called for a crusade for freedom and suggested in leaked documents even covert destabilization efforts in Eastern Europe. His administration favors economic sanctions against the Soviet Union as a tool to accelerate Soviet economic decline. Some of his advisers favored the Soviet invasion of Poland because of the disorder such a move would bring to Eastern Europe.
No approach could be further from that of our European allies, even conservatively led Britain. They are not anxious to strengthen Soviet power. Indeed, they believe that the Soviet Union will find it more and more difficult to maintain postwar levels of alliance discipline among Warsaw Pact countries. But a period of change in Central Europe is a period of uncertainty and thus danger. It is not a time for rash acts. West Europeans will support renewed efforts to exploit the West's financial ties to Eastern Europe. They probably will agree to strengthen controls on militarily relevant exports. But they will not support efforts to corner the Soviet Union or create political or economic instability in Central Europe. For they fear that the result could be to create even military instability.
To achieve greater alliance unity, therefore, the Reagan administration will have to do more than compromise on its original position regarding the Soviet gas pipeline. It will have to move closer to the Lippmann view and further from the Dulles view of US options in Eastern Europe. In short, it will have to recognize that while the West can help contribute to an atmosphere in international relations that will encourage Moscow to accept change in Eastern Europe - but even then only at the margin - it does not have the tools to persuade Moscow to accept change it is determined to resist. To ignore this reality is to shake the structures of postwar peace in Europe and the Western alliance as one of its major pillars.