U.S.-Soviet relations were in a whirlwind of confusion even before Polish workers staged their latest occupation strikes.
The United States is engaged in the always disorienting process of choosing a new president.
And the Soviet Union is emerging from a tumultuous Communist Party conference filled with boisterous calls for economic reform and greater democratization.
"Not only is it a period of great flux, but as far as the Soviet Union is concerned, it is in the most fluid state since the (1917 Russian) revolution," said Madeleine Albright, the chief foreign policy adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Albright, born in Czechoslovakia, is an expert on East-West relations and a professor at Georgetown University.
The latest Polish upheaval poses, loud and clear, one of the unanswered questions about the reform program of Kremlin leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev: How much political power are communist authorities willing to hand over to their people in return for a popular commitment to invigorate the economy?
The wrong answer from Moscow or Warsaw to that question will pre-sent the next American president with a dilemma.
"The problem that the next president is going to have to decide is whether to continue to demand perfection from the Soviet bloc, or whether to just declare victory and accept any change for the better. And there is no question that things are getting better," said Jerry Hough, a Soviet expert at Duke University.
"It seems that everybody is holding his breath," said Charles Fairbanks of the Johns Hopkins center for advanced international studies. "There is a marked movement toward detente, but no one is sure how much momentum it has."
A new explosion of violence in Poland could delay or derail the train.
Two weeks ago Polish workers, with their backs to the economic wall, began a second wave of occupation strikes this year, demanding that the government recognize and negotiate with the banned Solidarity trade union.
The strikes forced Polish leaders to meet this week with Solidarity's leader, Lech Walesa, with whom they had vowed not to negotiate since releasing him from martial law internment in 1982.
Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jar-uzelski has introduced reforms which, like Gorbachev's program, loosen central controls and allow a greater role for market forces. But the Polish reforms have not stimulated the economy: production remains sluggish and the foreign debt has risen to $40 billion.
The government's decision to meet with Walesa could be a major step on the road toward a healthier Poland.
Gorbachev has been silent on the Polish predicament, but he said in Yugoslavia earlier this year that there were many paths to socialism. Many people interpreted that to mean the Soviets would not force Polish communists to smash a resurgent Solidarity, as they did in the military crackdown of December 1981.
The head of the largest U.S. trade union, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, last week urged the Reagan administration to invoke provisions of the new trade bill calling for sanctions against nations that violate workers' rights.
Poland's communist authorities "should be denied access to the American market under those provisions since they are in violation of worker rights," Kirkland said.
Poland is desperately trying to break into Western markets and to secure credits from the United States and the International Monetary Fund.
The Reagan administration has lifted most of the sanctions it imposed against Poland and is in no hurry to slap them back on just as U.S.-Soviet relations are improving. But new credits are out of the question until Poland stabilizes its political situation.
The administration, says State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley, hopes Polish communist authorities can find the path to "national reconciliation."
"Free labor unions can help the Polish economic reform effort, not hinder it," Oakley says. "Indeed, it is hard to see how economic reform can succeed without the participation of free trade unions."
Another State Department official said "we've been telling the Polish government very consistently that their ability to reform the economy and our ability to support that process will depend on national reconciliation"; in other words, give Solidarity a slice of the political pie.
"That's not ideology, that's practicality. No one is going to accept the kind of austerity needed for economic reform without making sure they get political reforms first," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
This is one area in which the Reagan administration and the would-be Dukakis administration are pretty close, Albright says. Last week, the Dukakis campaign urged Poland to legalize Solidarity.