Anybody who doubts the awful strains working on the Atlantic Alliance should come here to Bonn and talk to the top West German leadership about Poland. For there is a huge gap in perception between Bonn and Washington and, when it comes to considering action, the two capitals live in different worlds.
The official reasoning here begins with a view of Leonid Brezhnev. "Some old men like to pick quarrels," I was told, "but not Brezhnev. He is one of those old men who don't want to make trouble. He is always trying to patch up differences. His attitude is, 'Why don't you children stop squabbling?' He doesn't want to take risks that involve people getting killed. He wants to go down in history as a man associated with peace."
It is, of course, acknowledged here that the Russians have stakes in Poland that they must protect at all costs. There is the danger of unrest spreading to Rumania and East Germany and Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. It is also understood that Soviet security interests would be directly affected if strikes in Poland tied up the railroads or other lines of communication binding the Warsaw Pact countries together.
It is doubted that the Polish authorities can secure these vital Soviet interests by themselves. "I think the chances are 51 percent that the Russians would have to intervene," I was told.
But envisaging forms of Soviet intervention, the West German leadership tends to believe in a myraid of benign possibilities. One is that the Polish leaders invite the Russians to come in. A second possibility foreseen by the German leadership is that the Soviet and Polish forces act together. Such action might take the form of joint military maneuvers in Poland.
In any case, the West would not be faced with either naked invasion or clear intervention. "The Russians," it is said, "might well be able to quell the resistance without violating any national agreements, not even the Helsinki Accords, or the United Nations Charter."
As to reaction, it is readily conceded here that unless the West did something, the Soviet appetite for expansion would grow. It is also admitted that there is broad sympathy for Poland throughout the world. "A Soviet crackdown," I was told, "would stir high emotions in Scandinavia, in France, in Britain, in Germany, in the United States and even in many developing countries in Africa and Latin America. Poland is much closer than Afghanistan."
Nobody here doubts, accordingly, that a Soviet move against Poland would have a strong impact on East-West relations. "The whole world would be transformed," is the usual concensus.
In those conditions, some specific moves to build up Western strength are favored here. The enactment of a draft by the United States is a notable example. "Such a measure," I was told, "would impress the Russians more than anything anybody else could do."
But most other potential moves are dismissed. Meeting NATO targets for a 3 percent annual increase in defense spending is laughed off as "playing games with paper money." Bigger increases in defense spending are "useless."
As to personal and commercial exchanges between West Germany and Eastern Europe, especially East Germany, that is held sacrosanct. Before dismantling any of the arrangements, the West Germans insist that the United States first frame a comprehensive strategy.
Such a strategy, the Germans claim, would have to make clear to the Russians exactly what the West would not tolerate. In the process of making that clear, the United States would have to talk to the Russians in an expansive way. "You have to talk to the Russians and listen to them," it was said. "You have to talk back to the Russians, and then listen some more. You have to keep talking and keep listening."
The critical point here is not whether the Germans are right or wrong in their appraisal of the Polish crisis. The critical issue is the huge gap between Washington and Bonn. Just as the United States is beginning to face dangers and take steps, anguished Germans seek to discount trouble and avoid action. That is a weapon for a steady unraveling of alliance ties. It foreshadows a complete cave-in, and it underlines the urgent need to restore political communication among the allies on the highest level at the earliest opportunity.