BRITAIN's redoubtable Maggie Thatcher went to Poland last week and put a protective arm around the Polish people. Her action, incidentally, provides us with an example of how the great game of power politics is being played in these times. First, here is exactly what she did:
She went to Warsaw for a three-day official visit. She was the guest of Poland's Communist Party leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. She joined him in laying wreaths at the monument that honors Polish soldiers who defended the frontiers of Poland against the Germans in 1939.
But she also went to Gdansk and joined Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity movement, in laying roses at the monument to the 28 Polish workers who fell defending the Lenin shipyard against Polish soldiers in 1970.
And she laid a wreath at the grave of the Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, who in 1984 was beaten and strangled to death by Polish government security agents.
And at the formal state dinner given her by General Jaruzelski and Poland's new prime minister, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, she lectured them on the rights of workers to trade unions of their own choosing and the virtues of free private enterprise.
And (here lay the heart of the matter) she turned a deaf ear to hints that Poland would love to get some prompt, new economic help from Britain. She told the Poles, in effect, that she would support a World Bank loan program if and when Poland had met the conditions set by the bank.
Britain could do a lot more than that for Poland, if it chose. The private banks of Britain have plenty of money these days for foreign investment. Since 1985, Britain has increased its investment in American securities and properties from $43 billion to $75 billion and is the largest foreign investor in United States properties. (Incidentally, the Dutch are second, at $47 billion; Japan third, at $33 billion; and Canada fourth, at $21 billion. Britain's US investments have nearly doubled since 1985.)
Having surplus investment funds these days is power, the kind of power that was once largely military. Britain's military reach was once a factor in the Baltic. It is no longer. But the possibility of British investment capital is today enough to cause the Polish government to let Mr. Walesa carry on his agitation for Solidarity and to refrain from any more atrocities like the murder of Fr. Popieluszko.
Poland today is economically bankrupt. It must have a fresh infusion of investment capital from outside if it is to regain economic health. The Soviet Union is of no help. It is having to seek foreign technicians and foreign investment for its own economy. It has just sought, and received, large bank loans from West Germany.
The combination gives all Western governments a new degree of influence in Poland. The Polish government knows that it must treat its own people better and that it must reorganize its system away from communism toward a marketplace economy. It can do this only with Western investments and technicians, which will be granted only if it abandons the practices left over from the Stalin era.
The fact that Walesa is still alive, still free to agitate publicly for a free trade union, still free to receive the prime minister of Great Britain as though he were the true leader of the Polish people, is all due to the economic backwardness of the communist system and the prosperity and technical superiority of the West.
Guns and bombs and tanks still count as instruments of power in today's world. They can still determine small local conflicts. But among the greater powers a surplus of investment capital can be as important as raw military power.
Besides, people who are backward economically will eventually lose the ability to possess modern weapons.