Try to imagine, as Western specialists in communist affairs often do, a Politburo meeting in the Kremlin. It is the spring of 1981, the topic is Poland.1 Comrade A is impatient: "I thought Kania was one of us. He used to be in charge of their security forces. How is it he doesn't know what to do?" Comrade B is philosophical: "These Poles, they've never liked us, they never will. We liberate them from the Germans, we sell them cheap oil, we give them credit, we buy everything they can't sell in the West. What do we get? Why aren't they grateful?" Comrade C is bitter: "I'm sick and tired of all these East Europeans, but especially of the Poles. They want to be the 'bridge' between us and the West. (Laughter in the room.) Don't they know we want the West Germans to be the 'bridge'?" (More laughter.) Comrade D is business-like: "We have better things to do than to worry about Poland all the time. I move that we give this Kania fellow another chance. If he doesn't have everything under control by the end of the year, we'll move in. We'll call it 'fraternal assistance.' Enough is enough. What will the Americans and the Chinese think of us if we let this thing go on indefinitely? We're patient, of course. We're always patient, but we're not a paper tiger!" The motion carries.

It is now early 1983. Same location, same subject, the new leadership in place. Comrade A is still impatient: "This Jaruzelski, we made him a general, didn't we? Why did he release Walesa? Did he think we weren't paying attention to Poland in November? Jaruzelski should know that 'conciliation' and 'reform' can come only after everyone in Poland understands we're in charge." Comrade B is still philosophical: "Yes, when they're down, they'll appreciate anything. Let them be grateful for the reform! Let Poland be Poland!" (Laughter in the room.) Comrade C is still bitter: "We could afford to bail out the Hungarians in '56 and the Czechs in '68, but we simply can't do it now. As it is, they have more to eat than we do. Don't they understand that?" Having taken D's place in the chair, Comrade E is also business-like: "We have better things to do than to worry about Poland all the time. I move that we give this Jaruzelski fellow another chance. If he doesn't have everything under control by the end of the year, we'll move in. We'll call it 'fraternal assistance.' Enough is enough. What will the Americans and the Chinese think of us if we let this thing go on indefinitely? We're patient, of course. We're always patient, but we're not a paper tiger!" The motion carries.


Although the Polish crisis of 1980-81 was the third major eruption of the post-Stalin era in Eastern Europe, Soviet leaders did not seem ready to respond to it.

During the course of the first crisis, in 1956, they crushed the Hungarian uprising, installed János Kádár as Party leader, provided emergency food and easy credit to the new regime in order to allay popular discontent, and spoke vaguely of change-but then pressed for severe punishment of those who could not be appeased. A decade or so later, however, they allowed Kádár to institute the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) and build the foundations for his "goulash communism." Today, Kádár can claim to have achieved a unique feat for a communist leader: he is trusted by Moscow, respected by the West, envied by other East Europeans, and cheered by his compatriots.

In their second major crisis in Eastern Europe, the Russians intervened in 1968 in Czechoslovakia to put an end to Alexander Dubcek's reform movement. They selected Gustav Husak-who, like Kádár, had spent several years in Stalinist prisons-to head the new regime, proffered reconciliation, and gave the new government enough food and credit to mollify the population. Like Kádár, Husak has since earned the backing of the Soviet Union-but his path, unlike Kádár's, has been the path of orthodoxy and repression. Thus, although the same sequence of events developed in Czechoslovakia as in Hungary-Soviet intervention, followed by aid and solemn pledges of reconciliation and reform, followed by a period of harsh repression-present-day reality in the two countries is altogether different.

In 1980-81, during the course of Poland's "socialist renewal," what options did the Soviet leaders consider to resolve their third major crisis in Eastern Europe? Did they envisage a Hungarian or a Czechoslovak solution for Poland, or would it be something else this time?

Then, as always, the goals of stability and conformity were at the top of the Soviet Union's wish list for Poland and, indeed, for all of Eastern Europe. Regional stability would obviate the need to bail out unpopular and incompetent regimes or to save them through military intervention. A stable Eastern Europe could make a more substantial contribution to the Warsaw Pact and permit the Soviet Union to deploy its resources and energies more profitably in order to attain its objectives at home and abroad. To obtain stability, however, the Soviet Union would have to grant the East European parties a larger measure of independence, encourage reforms, and allow for a more liberal scheme of political participation.

The other aim-conformity-would require Eastern Europe to be ideologically attuned to the Soviet Union. This, in turn, would demonstrate the legitimacy of the Soviet presence in the region and hence the appeal of the Soviet version of socialism. To obtain conformity, however, the Soviet Union has to demand strict adherence to its domestic and foreign policy norms-surely a conflict-producing proposition.

The problem for the Soviet leaders, then, is how to reconcile such incompatible needs and preferences. As they know, policies aimed at achieving stability jeopardize Soviet control over the region, while policies aimed at achieving conformity result in widespread apathy at best and popular uprisings at worst. Confronted with this dilemma, Moscow has deferred the choice by adopting a position toward Eastern Europe that combines traditional hegemonical habits and attitudes with an uneven and grudging pragmatism.

The Soviet Union's handling of the Polish challenge of 1980-81 demonstrated its dilemma. In a campaign of increasingly ominous words, which began immediately after Solidarity was born, Moscow charged "anti-socialist" elements with instigating the unrest, criticized the Gdansk agreement between the workers and the government, and issued daily reminders to "healthy forces" of Poland's obligations under the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) . The substance and tone of its gradually escalating rhetoric, combined with preparations for intervention, recalled the carefully orchestrated Soviet response to the 1968 Czech crisis, one that ranged from early expressions of concern to subsequent warnings, threats and military intimidation. In the case of Poland, the Soviet leaders appear once again to have decided, from the beginning, to somehow "reverse the course of events" and thus "eliminate the peril looming over the socialist achievements of Poland."2 The main question was not whether they would tolerate a pluralist Poland or help reestablish one-party rule-old-fashioned or liberalized; the choice they kept deferring was whether they could mobilize their Polish supporters to reconstitute one-party rule or whether Soviet intervention would more effectively accomplish that objective.

Yet this was not simply a squabble over the least damaging way to proceed. After all, the Soviet leaders made and then cancelled two preliminary decisions for direct military interventions-in December 1980 and March 1981-and they waited 16 long months to bring Poland under control. Their hesitation and vacillation suggest both indecisiveness at the top and a serious debate over the possibility of finding a political solution to the crisis. The Soviet leadership's search for such a political solution was apparent in almost all public statements during 1980-81, including those delivered at the important forum of the 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

In his main address to the Congress, in February 1981, the late Leonid Brezhnev viewed the Polish situation most darkly: "opponents of socialism supported by outside forces, by stirring up anarchy, are seeking to channel events in a counterrevolutionary course"; hence, "the pillars of the socialist state in Poland are in jeopardy." In a passage widely quoted at the time, Brezhnev added an ominous message to "Polish communists, the Polish working class and the working people of that country" who, he said, "can firmly rely on their friends and allies; we will not abandon fraternal, socialist Poland in its hour of need, we will stand by it." As if to counter other views, however, Brezhnev also reminded his listeners that "at present, the Polish comrades . . . are striving to enhance the Party's capacity for action" by making plans "to restore a sound Polish economy" and "to tighten links with the working class and the other working people."3

What Brezhnev's code words implied was that once the Polish Party succeeded in resolving its internal divisions and began to tackle the main problems of the economy, it would then be in the position to work out a modus vivendi with the industrial proletariat. Echoing that view, Polish party chief Stanislaw Kania explicitly affirmed that "our Party chose the road of political solution to the social conflict, the road of restoring society's trust in the people's authority, and this is the fundamental direction of our activity."4

It seems likely that for almost a full year-perhaps until the conclusion of the Ninth Congress of the Polish United Workers' [Communist] Party in July 1981-the Soviet leaders actively considered not only two, but three, options. Concerned as they were about the costs and consequences of direct military intervention and about the possible failure of an attempted crackdown by Polish military and security forces, they kept alive the possibility of finding a political solution to the crisis. Those who argued for this option presumably believed it was the only one, in the long run, that would lead to stability in Poland-and, by implication, elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Fundamentally, this counsel was based on the belief that the Soviet Union could cope with the resulting diversity in the region. Certainly, a political solution would have been the alternative least costly to the Soviet Union, and it would have also had the advantage of enhancing prospects for increased trade with the West. Moreover, implementation of this option would have made the Soviet Union appear a self-assured and decisive great power, fully capable of taking fresh initiatives to guide the evolution of new economic and political institutions and attitudes in its sphere.

What were the broad outlines of a "political solution" acceptable to Moscow? So important is the question-so much might it reveal about the limits of Soviet tolerance for change in Eastern Europe-that it should be addressed even if the answer has to be based on conjecture and past Soviet behavior.

1. The Soviet Union could have accommodated itself to an independent trade union in Poland, provided that the union could have been persuaded to focus on economic matters and in the expectation that a revived Party would sap the union's strength-or, at least, arrest its momentum.

2. The Soviet Union could have tolerated a relatively open Polish press-one of the most striking developments of Poland's "socialist renewal"-provided that the Party retained control over television and radio stations as well as over its own dailies and weeklies, and that the press as a whole refrained from criticizing Soviet domestic institutions and foreign policy positions.

3. The Soviet Union could have lived with a Polish legislature whose members were elected in competitive, multi-slate-though not genuinely multiparty-elections, provided that the Communist Party oversaw the nominating process and that all representatives accepted both the socialist foundations of the economy and the Warsaw-Pact commitments of the Polish state.

4. The Soviet Union would have endorsed almost any combination of economic reforms within the existing socialist order, provided that the processes of reform would be under the supervision of the Communist Party.

By Western standards, a political solution along these lines may appear little more than window dressing. After all, Moscow would have insisted on reserving to the Polish Communist Party a controlling interest over both state and society. Indeed, the Soviet leaders would have allowed a more narrowly defined renewal process to continue only in the hope that the communist cause would soon revive and eventually prevail in Poland. While attesting to some flexibility in the Soviet position, such a course would have asserted that the issue of ultimate control was not negotiable: a more or less homogeneous Communist Party, however small, would have been the final arbiter of Poland's future.

By East European and especially by Soviet standards, however, such a political solution-prompted by a spontaneous, grassroots movement-would have represented a watershed in the history of communism. It would have demonstrated the wisdom of what the major autonomist or "Eurocommunist" parties of Yugoslavia and Italy had been advocating for many years: that no country could build a successful socialist order based solely on a blueprint borrowed from the Soviet model. In the past, Moscow had paid mainly lip service to the concept of "different roads to socialism." Now, by blessing a measure of experimentation instead of damning it as heretical-and by doing so in the most important country in Eastern Europe-the Soviet Union would have made itself a partner in redefining the scope of innovation in the communist world.

But, as we know, this third option was eventually discarded. The Soviet leadership preferred to impose conformity, instead of working out new arrangements for a potentially stable, yet still one-party, political order. Its old hegemonical habits prevailed over its desire to be, or to be seen as, flexible. The aging leaders of the Politburo could not make a decision substantially different from the precedent set in 1956 and 1968-they could not let Poland embark on the uncharted path of socialist renewal-because their fear that Poland would slip away overwhelmed their hope of gaining a measure of legitimate authority in that country. During the course of those difficult months, the concessions they made, or allowed the Polish party to make, turned out to be too little and too late-and, to make matters worse, they repeatedly tried to back out of agreements already reached. Tragically, but inevitably, the more concessions they made and then attempted to withdraw, the more they emboldened the whole Polish nation-Solidarity, the Church, even Party members-to dream of being altogether free. That is when, and how, Poland's struggle for liberalization became a struggle for liberty.


In this second phase of the Polish crisis, General Wojciech Jaruzelski's military government has so far followed the precedent set by both Kádár and Husak. Its earnest pledges of "orderly liberalization" have predictably yielded to harsh measures of repression. Having all but abandoned its own program of national reconciliation and economic reform, the government has even formally reneged on its promise of accommodation with a "reconstructed"-presumably more pliable-Solidarity movement. As tens of thousands of Party members turn in their membership cards, the Party-staffed by opportunists-tries to find a role for itself under the martial-law regime.

As the euphoria of 1980-81 gives way to an atmosphere of utter hopelessness and indeed despair, Polish society is once again divided into two nations. The people spend time looking for essentials-food, soap, clothing for the children; the rulers spend theirs blaming American imperialism for the economic mess. The people await the Pope's visit; the rulers call it provocative. The people want Solidarity and Walesa to represent their interests; the rulers want company unions. The people claim their rulers have proved they cannot manage the economy; the rulers claim the people have proved they can destroy the economy. The people would go a long way to obtain Western aid and assistance; the rulers cynically refer to their $26-billion debt as a Western problem. The people call the rulers Soviet puppets; the rulers call the people misguided victims of counterrevolutionary propaganda. The people believe Poland is their country; the rulers believe in "people's Poland."

The hopelessness of the political stalemate is surpassed only by that of the country's economic condition. The Polish economy is clearly bankrupt. It suffers from the gnawing problems of negative growth, declining productivity, unavailability of Western imports and credit, loss of foreign-Western and Eastern-markets, and an inflationary spiral. Against the background of an unprecedented decline in growth everywhere else in Eastern Europe and of a stagnating Soviet economy unable to assume another burden, the Polish economic collapse, according to an astute observer, is "beginning to rival the Great Depression of the 1930s."5 In the absence of parts for machinery, scores of factories lie idle and fall into decay; indeed, not before 1990 is aggregate Polish industrial output again likely to reach its 1978 level.6 During the decade ahead, the Polish standard of living is going to remain considerably below that of the late 1970s. Moreover, as the zloty continues to lose much of its purchasing power and as stores show their empty shelves to the Polish consumer, there is little or no incentive to make, let alone save, money. Ironically, only a black market flourishes, together with the so-called "second"-officially illegal, but gladly tolerated-economy.

Thus, as economic conditions worsen and the appeal of Solidarity persists, the Jaruzelski regime cannot claim to have acquired even a modicum of legitimacy, fulfilled deeply-held nationalist aspirations, or tempered popular discontent either by a policy of consumerism it cannot afford or by a broadly-based scheme of political participation it is frightened to adopt. Under the circumstances, Poles-and Western observers-keep asking themselves: Can it go on like this much longer? Can the Polish economy continue to "muddle through" under conditions of de facto bankruptcy? Is the time of reconciliation near, and-if so-what form will it take?

Despite the well-publicized mystery that appears to surround General Jaruzelski's politics and personality, he has given clear indications of the future he has in mind for Poland. In plain language, he aspires to be Poland's Kádár; he would like history to recall that he assumed the reins of power at a most difficult time in Polish history in order to create a humane political order under one-Party auspices. Indeed, he has repeatedly held up Hungary's example for Poland to emulate: he visited Kádár in Budapest and he secretly consulted with a high-level Hungarian delegation in Warsaw-led, significantly, by Kádár's clever alter ego, Politburo member György Aczél.

Soviet support for such a "Hungarian solution" is all the more likely now because of the prominent personal role Yuri V. Andropov played in Hungary as Soviet ambassador to that country from 1954 to 1957. Prior to the Hungarian revolution, in the summer of 1956, Andropov was instrumental in having Hungary's Stalinist leader, Mátyás Rákosi, removed from power. During the revolution, Andropov consulted daily with the head of the revolutionary government, Imre Nagy, assuring Nagy repeatedly-and deceitfully-that Moscow would consent to Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact if only Soviet troops were allowed to leave the country in an honorable and orderly fashion. Concurrently, however, Andropov invited János Kádár to the Soviet embassy in Budapest to inform him of the Soviet leadership's decision to overthrow the Nagy government and to replace it with one that would be sensitive to Moscow's needs and policies. As Kádár subsequently intimated, Andropov had told him to take over the reins of power-that he, Kádár, was not only Khrushchev's choice but Marshal Tito's as well-because of Kádár's reputation as a centrist between the revisionist Nagy and the Stalinist Rákosi. Thus, during his only diplomatic assignment, Andropov seems to have understood that an effective East European leader must not only protect the interests of the Soviet empire, but that he must also attempt to come to terms with his country's traditions and-to an extent-with his people's aspirations. In short, Andropov's diplomatic activity aimed at assuring the implementation of Moscow's traditional objectives in Eastern Europe-conformity and stability.

If Jaruzelski is to replicate the post-1956 Hungarian pattern, three major conditions-partly political, partly psychological, and partly economic-will have to obtain. First, he would have to pursue his long-term aims skillfully, without allowing potential political opponents to form a common front against him; thus, he must have in hand all the important levers of power. Second, he would have to be decisive and firm-to the point of brutality if necessary-in a concerted campaign to break the will of those who continue to resist his policies. The Polish people would have to realize that, having lost their struggle for freedom, survival is the only alternative. To put it another way, he would have to infuse Polish society not only with fear, but also with such abject defeatism that his subsequent efforts at a reconciliation, based on the promise of half a loaf, would not meet stubborn rejection. Third, he would need to extract extensive, perhaps unparalleled, economic aid from the Soviet leadership to initiate a long process of economic reconstruction. Eventually, Jaruzelski must hope, a consumption-oriented and largely depoliticized society would learn to appreciate, however grudgingly, what his regime had to offer.

But even if one supposes that Jaruzelski has, or will have, the time to develop the necessary political skills to stay on course-to maneuver as a centrist between Left-orthodoxy and Right-revisionism-can he force a proud people to kneel obediently while he tries to raise the economy to its feet? Any answer must begin with an understanding that-despite similar historical developments and correspondent traditions prizing both "idealism" and "realism" as national traits-Poland is not Hungary. Above all, the Polish working class, unlike the Hungarian, has frequently initiated change, displayed organizational skills, and shown political discipline; what Marxists call "class-consciousness" is one of its enduring qualities.

Yet, as the Polish regime "militarizes" the factories and unleashes the security forces on the population, arguments among workers and intellectuals over to the best way to proceed are likely to intensify. While many will surely remain willing to sacrifice even their lives for the cause of Poland's freedom, others-cautioned against violence by the Pope and especially by Archbishop Jozef Glemp-will make the point that it might be better to wait for the terror to run its course. Tocqueville once wrote that "The most perilous moment for a bad government is when it seeks to mend its ways," and some Poles will conduct themselves accordingly. Others will recall, painfully, that every previous outbreak of labor unrest in communist countries-from Lenin's Russia to Ceausescu's Romania to Gomulka's Poland-has been effectively crushed by the authorities. Given that lesson of the past and given the apparent choice between the Scylla of rebellion and the Charybdis of resignation, the Polish working class may choose to suspend its strategy of open and active resistance.

Should that choice prevail, the regime must then still try to reverse the country's economic decline. An apathetic working class will surely offer no help in improving productivity, nor will the West come to this government's rescue. It may be, however, that the Soviet Union, once there is Soviet-style order in Poland, will find it to its advantage to make that country a "socialist showcase." If so, it would not be because Moscow felt obliged to reward a faithful ally; rather, by assigning top priority to the cause of rebuilding the Polish economy, the Soviet Union would seek to demonstrate the veracity and wisdom of its course. Moscow's decision would be based on the proposition that economic aid to Poland, unlike such aid to Third World countries, would significantly enhance Soviet security interests; hence, in terms of priorities, Soviet assistance to Poland-consisting of food, industrial goods and, most agreeably, a hard-currency loan-should be regarded as second only to direct defense expenditures. Considering, moreover, the political benefits expected from Poland's orderly recovery-and assuming that the Soviet citizen's proverbial belt could be once again tightened-the Soviet leaders might well decide to take a chance.

With the population at once softened by a less gloomy economic outlook and effectively demoralized by repression-in some months from now, perhaps-the third phase of Poland's present saga could then begin. Having proved his reliability to Moscow by supporting its cause when others could not or would not rise to the occasion, and having consolidated his authority at home, General Jaruzelski would be poised to obtain Soviet approval either for a carefully calibrated course of controlled liberalization on the Hungarian pattern or for a course of continued orthodoxy and repression à la Czechoslovakia. Given Jaruzelski's aspiration to be seen as a Polish patriot and given the need to accelerate economic growth by improved productivity in a period of intensive development, the chances are that "Kàdàrization" would be the more appealing alternative.

If this were to happen, the lifting of martial law, regular consultation with the Catholic Church, and a general amnesty would set the tone for and indicate the future intentions of the regime; these measures would serve to effect at least an atmosphere of national reconciliation. In the economic realm, liberalization would entail decentralization, financial incentives, and a flexible price structure. In the political realm, the regime would authorize multi-slate elections on a national scale, allow a measure of autonomy for the company unions at the factory level, encourage a more open and critical press to serve as the regime's safety valve, and ease travel restrictions to the West. In terms of broad objectives, such a policy of controlled liberalization would signify the government's hope that it could obtain stability without sacrificing conformity.


For the first time since the end of World War II, a military junta has come to power in the heart of Europe. As of this writing and for the first time since the death of Stalin, one man heads the armed forces, the state apparatus, and the Party in one of Moscow's East European dependencies. To what extent-and why-should the United States be concerned or involved in Poland and, indeed, elsewhere in Eastern Europe? Acting alone or together with its West European allies, what can the United States hope to accomplish?

For over 30 years, since the Soviet bloc came into being, American policy toward Eastern Europe has been caught between maximalist objectives and limited opportunities. On the one hand, the United States has repeatedly, and often loudly, proclaimed its commitment to such lofty goals as independence for the East European states and freedom and democracy for their citizens. Mainly a function of political campaigns, such goals nonetheless influenced official thinking as well. For example, the very first comprehensive statement on American policy toward the region-NSC 58, a then secret document signed by President Truman in 1949-stated that, "Our ultimate aim must, of course, be the appearance in Eastern Europe of non-totalitarian administrations willing to accommodate themselves to, and participate in, the free world community."7

On the other hand, the United States has always and simultaneously pursued more limited objectives. Already in 1949, NSC 58 singled out Yugoslavia for U.S. aid and support despite Marshal Tito's notorious treatment of his political opponents, explaining that the United States must only "foster a heretical drifting-away process on the part of the satellite regimes." Then as now, U.S. officials were hoping to replace-"as a first step"-"Kremlin authority with any governments free of Moscow's domination, even though they be communist régimes."

While the propensity for stating apparently unattainable objectives, such as "democracy" and "independence," has derived from values inherent in American political culture, the concurrent pursuit of limited goals, such as regional "diversity," has stemmed from opportunities offered by developments in a Soviet sphere riddled with tension and conflict. Thus, even as elected officials, in particular, have found it more rewarding to feign support for the "legitimate aspirations" of East Europeans than to remind them of the very real limits on what they can hope to achieve under prevailing circumstances, Washington has tended to assert that which is desirable-an independent and democratic Eastern Europe-and actually pursue that which has seemed to have a chance to succeed-a semi-independent and diverse Eastern Europe. In short, the gap between what the United States has claimed it wishes to achieve and what it could do has been a striking as well as a permanent feature of the American approach to the region.

In their response to the course of "socialist renewal" in 1980-81, however, both the Carter and Reagan Administrations wisely refrained from exacerbating the crisis through excessive rhetoric; indeed, they did what they could to slow down the tempo of change. For example, when a Soviet invasion seemed imminent in December 1980, not only did Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski-the two Polish-Americans at the helm-issue almost daily reminders about the need for restraint, but the Carter Administration took the unprecedented step of warning the Polish people of intense Soviet preparations for intervention. By following that example in March 1981, the Reagan Administration signalled its own willingness to trade maximalist anti-Sovietism for actual gains. Moreover, both Administrations took the risk of releasing information about Soviet preparations, in the knowledge that such information might well allow Moscow to detect something new about American intelligence-gathering techniques.

Whether the United States could have done even more to circumvent the day of reckoning is, of course, debatable. Some argue that a massive economic aid package would have eased the prevailing atmosphere of crisis within Polish society and that the resulting atmosphere of normalcy would have so divided the Soviet and Polish leaderships as to force the cancellation or postponement of the military crackdown. Naïvely, those who believe in that possibility must also assume that the almighty dollar could have made a difference at a time when, in fact, the power and prestige-the vital interests-of the Soviet Union were at stake.

Now, after the crackdown, it is still untimely to debate the issue of offering unilateral U.S. incentives-or applying sanctions. For when the day of partial reconciliation comes, as it will, it will not happen because of the prospect of U.S. economic aid. Nor will it happen because of economic sanctions or because Western banks might find Poland in default of its huge debt.

Change will come when the Polish Communist Party will have satisfied itself and Moscow of having once again asserted full control over state and society; when it feels confident enough to believe that controlled and limited liberalization-instead of undermining its own authority-will give the regime the appearance of legitimacy and the country a measure of stability. To put the matter bluntly: U.S. economic incentives cannot hasten nor penalties compel the Soviet and Polish governments to return Poland to the pre-December 1981 status quo. Certainly, U.S. sanctions-especially those directed against the Soviet Union-do serve a valid diplomatic aim by registering the outrage felt by the American public, but they will not so worsen Polish conditions as to force the kind of change the United States favors in that country.

Compounding the problem of excessive confidence in what U.S. economic measures can now achieve in Poland has been the intense debate within the Reagan Administration about the lessons of the Polish crisis for the United States. For almost a year, officials at the Pentagon in particular have argued that as the 1956 Hungarian uprising proved the failure of the U.S. policy of "liberation," so the Polish crackdown proves that even the "liberalization" of communist regimes cannot take root in the face of Soviet orthodoxy. That being the case, they want the United States to treat all the East European countries alike-with the exception of Yugoslavia-irrespective of whether they depart from Soviet domestic patterns (as Hungary does) or from Soviet foreign policy positions (as Romania does). Thus, instead of the long-established U.S. policy of "differentiation"-which, by favoring some of the regimes and penalizing others, sought to weaken the Soviet hold over the region-they urge the United States to trade its discriminating stance for a policy that would seek to destabilize and eventually defeat all of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. To achieve that goal, they advocate the complete denial of U.S. trade, credit and technology to all Soviet-dominated systems.

Although President Reagan, rejecting the critics' case for such a major change, has reportedly affirmed the policy of differentiation in a recent presidential directive, it may still be useful to stress publicly that this American policy of the last three decades-characterized by the pursuit of only limited goals and by the differential treatment of each communist country-has contributed to Yugoslavia's independence, strengthened Romania's position as a maverick in the Warsaw Pact, and encouraged Kádár's moderate course in Hungary. Correctly, the United States has distinguished between the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe-between a colonial power which threatens the security of the West and its dependencies which do not.

As Washington has thus sought to compete peacefully for influence in Eastern Europe, it has engaged in a competition at least as legitimate as the Soviet effort to divide the Western Alliance. To do less would be to accede to the Soviet vision of the East-West contest, a vision according to which the present orientation of Eastern Europe is irreversible, while the present orientation of Western Europe is always subject to change-including change that would adversely affect vital American interests. Conversely, to aim at much more-to assume that the Soviet empire can be defeated-is to engage in wishful thinking. After all, if a far more cohesive and united West, led by a powerful and purposeful United States, could not roll back Soviet power from the heart of Europe for over three decades, how could the United States now achieve that goal when it finds itself in a situation of military parity vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and prevailing discord within the Western Alliance?

To put it another way: although it is prudent to concede that Washington does not have sufficient leverage now to influence the choices facing the Jaruzelski regime, and although it is imperative to recognize that the United States can only reinforce rather than initiate the processes of liberalization elsewhere in Eastern Europe, there is still reason to be concerned about the implications of the Polish crisis for America. For one thing, the European balance of power-the foundation of stability in the postwar world-is being threatened by the growing asymmetry between a deeply divided Western Alliance on the one hand and a tightly managed and controlled Soviet bloc on the other. Worse, as the new Soviet leaders nonetheless show signs of anxiety about the lack of conformity and cohesion in Eastern Europe in the light of the Polish crisis and at a time of increased international tension, they may be tempted to stamp out diversity in the region and compel the Hungarian and Romanian regimes to repair to more orthodox Soviet patterns and policies. If this were to occur, the political balance between the two halves of Europe would become even more asymmetric.

In addition, given the massive repression of the Polish people and serious violations of human rights elsewhere, the United States is entitled not only to express its disapproval and uphold the spirit of the Helsinki accords, but also to engage in a sustained effort to promote the values of tolerance and national sovereignty in Eastern Europe.

For reasons of both power and ideals, then, U.S. interests are very much at stake in the future of Poland and the peaceful evolution of Eastern Europe-yet, as of now, even modest American objectives exceed the means available to implement them. If, as Walter Lippmann used to argue, balancing ends and means is the prerequisite of a solvent foreign policy, then the disturbing lesson of the Polish crisis is that American resources-economic, military and political-have proved inadequate to effect American objectives. Under the circumstances, the United States is left with two choices in its approach to Eastern Europe in the 1980s: it can either further reduce its objectives or strengthen its resources.

By adopting the first option, the United States would concede its failure to assist the processes of liberalization in Eastern Europe, signaling its consent to permanent Soviet control over the region. Moreover, an indifferent American stance would signify acceptance of the self-serving Soviet view that Western Europe is, but Eastern Europe is not, a legitimate area of peaceful competition for influence between Washington and Moscow.

To obtain solvency between ends and means, the second option would mean strengthening U.S. resources, which could be done only by having the West Europeans join the United States in the active pursuit of limited liberalization in Eastern Europe. A coherent Western policy could not only reinforce the course on which Hungary and Romania have already embarked, but it could also make a substantial difference in Poland when the time of decision for or against "Kádárization" comes. Acting together, members of the Atlantic Alliance would be in a position to offer meaningful economic incentives that could help and to apply economic penalties that could hurt, using their leverage to advance both economic and political objectives.

Given the present condition of the Western Alliance, it would be naïve to assume that different leaders, or goodwill alone, could produce a coordinated Atlantic policy-a truly new departure-toward Eastern Europe. Yet it would be equally naïve to assume that the United States would long maintain its commitment to the military balance of Europe in the absence of West European contributions to the political balance of Europe.

Conversely, Western Europe cannot be expected to support U.S. objectives toward Eastern Europe unless the limits of these objectives are clarified-i.e., unless the West Europeans appreciate the fact that, for some time to come, the United States will seek diversity rather than democracy, the "Kádárization" rather than the neutralization of Eastern Europe. After all, the goal of limited liberalization differs not at all from the stated goals of West Germany's Ostpolitik or from the French vision of a peaceful continent that extends from the Atlantic to the Urals. Indeed, a broad Western consensus on long-term goals already exists.

As for specific measures intended to foster allied cooperation now, the Reagan Administration's effort to trade U.S. objections to the pipeline deal for a common Atlantic policy on credit, trade, and technology transfer represents a major step in the right direction. Moreover, if the Polish crisis should deteriorate, the United States could also reinstate a grain embargo against the Soviet Union, and thus demonstrate that for the common good the United States is prepared both to assume an economic burden and to absorb domestic political opposition.

In addition, Washington could provide COCOM-the Coordinating Committee of advanced industrial nations-with a new perspective on trade policy with the East and encourage the "Paris Club" of Western governments to exchange information about East European debts before another major crisis erupts. Most important, once Western credit is available again, a new international banking regime-one that is aimed primarily at the exchange of information among leading private banks-would help Western banks to find out in good time which East European country gets how much credit and under what conditions. Together, these measures would create the framework for a coordinated Western economic policy toward the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Finally, in the non-economic realm, American objectives would be better understood by West Europeans if the United States were to reduce its occasionally still divisive rhetoric, and if it were to appoint a non-partisan Atlantic advisory council to oversee the activities of those two immensely influential American radio stations-Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty-that broadcast around the clock to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

If, by the middle of this decade, Western economies experience a new cycle of growth and prosperity and if the Soviet-type economies continue to stagnate, the economic dependence of the East on the West will be a decisive fact of life in Europe. A more purposeful and united West-its political goals prudently defined and commensurate with its economic leverage-could then significantly influence the choice between enforced cohesion and diversity, between repression and liberalization in Eastern Europe, including Poland.

The time for American and West European diplomats to prepare for that window of political opportunity is now. What is at stake is not simply the future orientation of Eastern Europe, but the balance of political power between East and West.

4 FBIS Daily Report (Soviet Union), Vol. III, No. 37, Supp. 002, February 25, 1981, p. 41.

6 Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates, Centrally Planned Economies-Longterm Projections, Fall 1981, p. 40.



You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Charles Gati is Professor of Political Science at Union College and Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Research Institute on International Change. His latest work, of which he is co-editor with Jan F. Triska, is Blue-Collar Workers in Eastern Europe.
  • More By Charles Gati