chapter  3
14 Pages

The politics of the lesser evil: The West, the Polish crisis, and the CSCE review conference in Madrid, 1981–1983


By the beginning of December 1981, it appeared that the Warsaw Pact and NATO were on the verge of a final compromise to conclude the review meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Madrid. The fears of Washington’s West European allies that the staunchly anticommunist administration of US President Ronald Reagan would abandon the CSCE proved to be unfounded. Although Reagan had continued the Carter Administration’s practice of publicly confronting the Soviets at CSCE about individual human rights violations, as opposed to the quiet diplomacy preferred by most West European governments, the new US President had given Western unity a boost in November 1981 by voicing support for a French proposal at Madrid to convene a Conference on Disarmament in Europe (CDE). The Soviets also supported a CDE, but to their own ends – to divide the Western alliance over disarmament and to pressure Washington’s allies to forestall the stationing of US Long-Range Theater Nuclear Forces (LRTNF) in Western Europe under NATO’s dual-track decision. In return for Washington’s support of CDE, Moscow and its allies seemed willing to accept Washington’s demand, supported by its NATO allies, for the inclusion of additional human rights provisions in the Madrid Conference’s final document. On December 16, the neutral and nonaligned (NNA) delegations at the conference tabled such a potential compromise, RM-39.1

By then, however, it was too late. On December 10, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, under pressure from the Soviet Union, imposed martial law in Poland. Jaruzelski’s actions ‘plunged the CSCE into the worst crisis of its existence.’2 The Polish government’s massive and ongoing violations of human rights demanded a Western response at the CSCE; RM-39 would have to wait. The imposition of martial law also sparked a major crisis between Washington and its NATO allies, which resisted Reagan’s demands to impose sanctions on the Soviet Union in response. In particular, they refused to abandon their contracts with Moscow for a planned Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe.