he pattern is familiar: the United States moves quickly out in front with sanctions against the Soviets; the Western Europeans, advocating caution and complaining about a lack of alliance consultation, hold back; West Germany seeks understanding for its special position.
First Afghanistan, now Poland. The Western alliance's record in dealing with diverging U.S. and European interests in detente--particularly U.S.-West German differences--during East-West crises is causing pessimism about the likelihood of the West reaching a coherent policy now toward the Soviet Bloc. At the same time, however, some lessons learned by the alliance in the last two years seem to be helping.
Following Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's visit to Washington, U.S. and West German officials have voiced satisfaction with the degree of accommodation reached between their countries. Alliance officials are trying not to let remaining differences on how to effect the lifting of martial law and resumption of reforms in Poland overshadow the crisis itself.
But the Western reaction so far to Poland's crackdown a month ago has highlighted aspects of West Germany's way of dealing with the Soviet Bloc--always the key factor for the United States in forming an alliance consensus on relations with the Communists--that have renewed concern here and abroad about the long-term prospects for a cohesive Western ostpolitik, or policy toward the East.
Most alarming for critics of the Bonn government was what appeared to be West Germany's great reluctance to make a moral judgment against the Soviets. This was corrected last week, but still to be reckoned with is Bonn's opposition to moves to threaten or punish the Soviets as a way of trying to effect change in Poland or Eastern Europe.
In the interest of alliance unity, the Reagan administration appears not to be pressing the Western Europeans to join in sanctions right away, settling for now on a strong statement that pins blame for Poland's martial law on the Soviets.
The problem posed by differing U.S.-European sensitivities toward the Soviets, first sharply defined after the invasion of Afghanistan, was anticipated this time. U.S. officials made a point early of consulting Western European governments, although the Americans and the Europeans still seem to differ on what constitutes consultation.
As alliance strains surfaced, officials on both sides of the Atlantic moved to present a picture of unity and avoid giving the Soviets a wedge. A U.S.-German accommodation last week was made easier by the higher regard Schmidt holds for President Reagan than he had for former president Jimmy Carter.
But Bonn officials continue to rule out sanctions against either the Soviets or Poles for now. A senior Schmidt aide spoke in terms of weeks--as opposed, he said, to months--before West Germany might consider strong measures.
Schmidt's commitment to consider actions to complement U.S. sanctions apparently largely involves plans in case repression in Poland does not ease, or worsens.
Bonn's approach is expected to remain limited to an offer of money and food to Poland that would depend on an improvement in political conditions there. The rationale is that the same conditions should be maintained--namely, the promise of Western assistance--that allowed for liberalization to occur in Poland in the first place.
While conservatives have argued that the Polish crackdown should have proved the bankruptcy of such an approach, Schmidt's left-center coalition appears unshaken in its beliefs, anchored in East-West trade and humanitarian ties.
Schmidt's view of sanctions as being relatively ineffective is said by his aide to be shared in Washington, where such measures are valued primarily as symbols. The U.S. moves are interpreted here as being dictated by an American public opinion that favors confrontation with the Soviet Union, in contrast to a West European public that does not.
The Schmidt aide, however, said an important dispute remains between officials here and some parts of the Reagan administration about whether to leave the Polish leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, to carry out his announced intention to return to a reform course, or to try to force him to do so.
The pressure on West Germany from France, Italy and Britain to condemn the Polish crackdown in sharper terms--unlike the Afghan crisis, when Bonn was less isolated--is expected here to play less of a role in coming discussions.
Bonn officials say their attitudes toward Poland do not differ essentially from those in other Western European capitals, where support for sanctions is also weak. The West Germans have stressed their own role in drafting both last Monday's strong European Community statement on Poland and the U.S.-West German communique issued in Washington Tuesday.
Relations with the French, who spoke out early and decisively against the Polish crackdown, remain a concern for Bonn. The Bonn-Paris relationship is central to West European policy, but the French Socialists under President Francois Mitterrand in the past year consistently have distanced themselves from the German Social Democrats by taking a tougher stance toward the Soviets.
Gripped by old French fears of Germany drifting East--fears sparked again by the rise of West German campaigns against nuclear weapons and Western alliance security policies--the French press has jumped on Bonn's reserved reaction to Poland as a sign of German appeasement.
Bonn officials complain that the French have been all talk and no action in planning steps toward Poland, while the French, after thinking Bonn took too soft a line, are now worried that the West Germans may overcompensate by pushing sterner moves under U.S. pressure.
Worry about where West Germany is going in relation to the alliance occupies a number of leading East-West experts inside the country .
"What struck me most was a lack of moral quality on the German part," said Uwe Nerlich of the Institute for Science and Politics outside Munich, "not so much the policy. You can be morally strong if you have some sense of identity. It is now clearer than ever that the Federal Republic of Germany has not become a political identity that would stand any major strain. Its instinct is toward accommodation with the East."
Handling of the Polish crisis, on top of other conflicts over nuclear deterrence and the Middle East, drew a pessimistic forecast from Nerlich. "It is difficult to see any kind of scenario that will restore U.S. confidence in West Germany, or any situation where the Bonn government can restore full-fledged cooperation with Washington."
Less bleakly, Karl Kaiser, director of Germany's Foreign Policy Society, saw the current strains more as a phase in which the United States would have to get accustomed to the same kind of criticism of its policies from the West German left that has been tolerated for years from socialist groups in Italy and France.
"Americans are overreacting to a new development in Germany, and the Germans are worried about an overreaction in America," Kaiser said.