If you are discombobulated and generally mind-boggled by the roller-coaster crisis in Poland, there is some comfort in listening to a panel of recognized experts on the subject. At the very least, you will discover that you are in good company.
On the central question of whether the upheaval inside Poland will remain within tolerable limits or explode in a way that brings Soviet military intervention, the experts make no bones about it: they doubt whether even the Soviets could give you an educated guess. The essence of the evolving struggle for new freedoms in Poland, in short, is that its outcome cannot be predicted precisely because it remains so perilously close to -- if not already beyond -- the point of effective control.
That, at any rate, was the one solid conclusion I derived the other day from a two-hour discussion of the "Soviet Shadow Over Eastern Europe." Participating were Vojtech Mastny, a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (where the panel met); Marshall Shulman, the leading Soviet expert of the Carter administration; Helmut Sonnenfeldt, former State Department counselor in the Nixon/Ford years; and William McSweeney, president of Occidental International Corporation, which does a lively trade in energy-related products with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Now you can argue that this is not a particularly helpful or reassuring conclusion. But that is just the point. When you read, one day, that "U.S. Doubts Moscow Will Move on Poles" and another day that Secretary of State Alexander Haig believes that a Soviet move is "virtually certain" and yet another day that "A New Polish Peril Is Seen in Moscow," it is worth remembering that nobody knows.
That makes it easier to deal with, in terms of what the experts actually can offer in the way of valid conjecture about the way the Polish crisis might unfold and what possible useful influence the United States and the Western Europeans might be able to bring to bear.
It was taken pretty much as a given, for example, that there are strict limits to how much of a challenge the Soviets can tolerate to Communist Party authority in Poland. There was a sense, too, that the test will not be allowed to drag on indefinitely -- that the new team just installed in Warsaw will be given only a relatively short time to come to terms with the Solidarity union, the farmers and other dissident forces.
"The European consensus," said McSweeney, who is in close touch with knowledgeable people in Eastern as well as Western Europe, is that "something very dramatic will happen in Poland within the next few weeks."
One factor that may well be concentrating minds in Moscow is the upcoming 26th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, scheduled to open Feb. 23.The Polish unrest, Shulman argued, raises crucial questions about the Soviet system and about the economic viability of the Soviet bloc -- the effective "allocation of resources" in an "imperial relationship."
It is Shulman's view that this relationship is in danger of becoming "dysfunctional," which is to say that the usual economic benefits are more and more becoming "costs." It's his guess that in discussions in preparation for the party Congress, there must almost certainly be a lot of "soul-searching" under way about whether this dysfunctional relationship is supportable. "Eastern Europe, and particularly Poland, is now a burden, economically," Shulman said.
What can the United States and the West do to help? There was talk of a joint effort by Western banks and governments to relieve the Poles of the crushing weight of huge international debts. The idea was that by easing Poland's economic problems the confrontation between the Warsaw government and the workers might be eased.
But American "policy options," Sonnenfeldt argued, are strictly limited. While he sees it as distinctly in the U.S. interest to see Poland and the rest of the Eastern bloc "come gradually out of that abnormal order of things imposed at the end of World War II," he warned that "we are not in a position to advance or promote these tendencies very rapidly."
What the West can do is make clear, privately, "the penalties the Soviets would have to pay" if this gradual process is interrupted. While encouraging a general loosening up, the United States has to recognize the Soviets' "extraordinary sensitivity" to their own security interests: "This cannot be made the subject of manipulation for geopolitical gains."
What if the Soviets can't see the value to them of a certain tolerance in the interest of preventing "explosions"? The impact on Soviet relations with the West of massive military intervention, it was agreed, would not be anything as shortlived as in the case of, say, Czechoslovakia in 1968. Then, East-West business as usual was restored in not much more than six months. Coming so shortly after Afghanistan, a bloody subjugation of Polish dissidents would set back East-West relations for several years.