The opening game in the long match between Reagan administration took place last week on the playing field of Poland. The Brezhnev administration won going away.
The Russians have reversed the drift of events in Poland, and are now moving through the Communist leadership to cut down the independent union, Solidarity. Instead of applying counter-pressure, the United States has been obliged, by reason of divisions in Washington and with the allies, to congratulate the Russians for their "moderation."
The latest round in the Polish crisis began on March 19 when a group of policemen beat up some Solidarity members in the industrial town of Bydgoszcz. Solidarity immediately demanded an investigation of the incident. The union threatened to call a general strike and set a date of March 30. The Polish government responded, as it had repeatedly in the past, by moving to give way under pressure. A deal was struck with the Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, whereby the government agreed to punish those involved in the beating, and Solidarity called off the threatened strike.
At that point the Russians made their most significant move so far in the Polish affair. They did not go along with the compromise. Although the general strike had been canceled, the Russians piled on the pressure by troop maneuvers and a chorus of threatening statements.
The Polish Communist Party, with the sword over its head, then at last started to move against Solidarity. A party hard-liner, Stefan Olszowski, went to a meeting of the Czech Party Congress in Prague and reached an accord with another visitor, Leonid Brezhnev. The deal provided for a 60-day ban on strikes in Poland. On the basis of that understanding, Brezhnev, in a speech to the Czech Party on April 7, said that one "supposed" the Polish leaders could look after their own affairs. The military maneuvers were then relaxed. On April 10, the Polish prime minister, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, proposed, and the Polish Parliament approved, the 60-day ban on strikes.
Solidarity now finds itself just where the Polish Communist Party used to be -- on the downside of a slippery slope. If the union breaks the no-strike rule, there will be a crackdown headed by the Polish Party leaders. If the union knuckles under, there will be new pressures, and a steady whittling-down process.
The United States, in these conditions, could usefully be putting in an oar on behalf of the Poles, but the Reagan administration has never formulated an overall strategy for dealing with the Communist world.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig believes in building positions of strength, the better to reach an eventual accommodation with Moscow. But Haig has been under wraps since various rumbles with the White House staff, and during the week of April 3-10, he was in the Middle East. That made Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who was visiting Europe for a NATO meeting, the chief American spokesman as the Russians turned the tables in Poland.
Weinberger started in London by hinting that if the Russians invade Poland, the United States might arm mainland China. In Bonn, he elicited from 15 NATO defense ministers a threat that Soviet intervention in Poland would "gravely undermine the basis of arms control negotiations." Then in Rome, at an airport press conference, he struck out at "the Soviet prison wall, that great monumment to Soviet realism which stretches all the way from the Balkans to the Baltic."
European leaders regard, or professed to regard, the Weinberger rhetoric as maladroit. They viewed the statement about arming China as a bluff that Peking might well call with embarrassing consequences to the United States. As to Russia and Poland, they favor tough talk behind the scenes. But -- if only for political reasons -- they want to keep open the lines of negotiation with Russia on arms control.
Helmut Schmidt, the West German chancellor and foremost allied leader, made the most of the opening created by the secretary of defense. In a State of the Nation address on April 9, he asserted that "the better relations are between the United States and the Soviet Union, the better it will be for us Germans." On April 11, when Haig came to Bonn to report on his Middle Eastern visit, Schmidt tied down an American promise for an early resumption of arms control talks with the Russians. In defense to German complaints about Weinberger, Haig said that the Polish situation was "somewhat improved" and that the Brezhnev speech showed signs of "greater moderation."
For the time being, at least, Schmidt has emerged as master of the East-West game. Barring some new turnabout in Poland, the United States, unless it wants to risk disrupting the alliance, is now bound to follow the German lead in dealing with Moscow.