Sanctions could complicate US-Europe relations
President Reagan's decision to impose economic sanctions on the Soviet Union was taken at a time when domestic pressures almost dictated that he ''do something'' about Poland.
Viewed from the home front, therefore, the decision made considerable sense to many Americans, even if it amounted mostly to a moral and symbolic gesture which would not really hurt the Soviets.
Viewed from an international perspective, however, the move has made less sense. It has complicated already strained relations with America's European allies. And it came at a time when the Polish authorities already appeared to be moving tentatively in the direction of lifting martial law and engaging in negotiations with Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity trade union movement. This is presumably the direction in which President Reagan wants the Soviet-supported Polish authorities to move.
Key West European allies, and the West Germans in particular, have disagreed with President Reagan's interpretation of the repression in Poland. While Reagan places much of the blame on the Soviet Union, the Germans see a more fluid situation in which the Soviet role is still unclear.
Fortunately for the US and its allies, however, intense consultation over the issue has been taking place. There is still a chance that some agreement among the allies can be reached before President Reagan decides on tougher sanctions against the Soviets. A meeting of allied foreign ministers, including the US, is likely to take place soon.
Some administration officials are now giving consideration to the possibility of having President Reagan visit key Western European countries sometime in the spring or summer of 1982. The feeling is that the President has now proven himself competent in one-on-one meetings with foreign leaders and that his ability to communicate his views might help to overcome the strain in US-European relations. Reagan is already scheduled to go to a summit meeting of the industrialized nations in France, now set tentatively for early June.
West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is to visit Washington next week, and that will provide yet another opportunity to overcomedifferences. But some specialists are warning that if the US tries to make Poland a litmus test of allied unity or tries to force the West Europeans to go along with the sanctions , it may only make matters worse.
President Reagan clearly recognized the danger of getting too far out ahead of the European allies when he made the decision on sanctions against the Soviets on Dec. 29. He did not threaten to break off the Geneva talks with the Soviets on limiting medium-range nuclear missiles. Such a break would have been extremely disturbing to many West Europeans. He did not use the only big economic gun which he could have used against the Soviets -- a grain embargo and an end to superphosphate shipments. Indeed, senior administration officials went out of their way to describe the sanctions which were imposed as ''moderate.''
The danger for the West European allies is that their disagreement with the Reagan approach to Poland will feed what is often referred to as isolationist sentiment in this country. There is a growing perception in the US Congress that the West Europeans are too soft on the Soviets and too often reluctant to see to their own defenses. As Peter Hermes, West Germany's ambassador to the United States, put it in a recent speech at Yale University, there is an American perception ''that the Germans are getting a free ride . . . ,'' are exposing themselves to Soviet political and economic pressures through profitable trade, and pursuing a policy of accommodation with the Soviet Union.
But Mr. Hermes asserts that it would be a dangerous mistake to conclude that the US-European alliance is eroding. West Germany's commitment to the common values upon which the alliance is built is as strong as that of the Americans, he says.
Perhaps unwittingly, however, the ambassador underlined one of the sources of disagreement. In his Dec. 1 speech at Yale, he said that it would be an ''oversimplification'' to label the entire European peace movement a communist-inspired anti-American movement. Behind the demonstrations seen on the television screens, he said, ''is not the invisible hand of Moscow, at least not as far as Germany is concerned.'' He acknowledged that Moscow was exploiting the movement, fueling it, and to a lesser extent also funding it. But at the roots, he said, are ''genuine Western European causes.''
Three weeks later, President Reagan proceeded to tell commentator Ben Wattenberg over the Public Broadcasting System that the European demonstrations ''are all sponsored by . . . the World Peace Council, which is bought and paid for by the Soviet Union.'' Reagan's departure from the West German view could not have been more starkly stated.