Giving the Russians Their Spinach

Strobe Talbott
Strobe Talbott; drawing by David Levine


Strobe Talbott is a former diplomat who needs no ghostwriters. For most of his professional life, he was, in fact, a working journalist. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the late 1960s, his interest in Russian language and politics, which he’d studied at Yale, landed him a job as the translator of Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs. Because Khrushchev’s book strongly implied criticism of his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, Talbott’s involvement in the project earned him the official anger of the Soviet leadership, and he was subsequently banned from travel to the USSR for many years. (Like many of America’s leading Russian experts, he has never lived in the country.) None-theless he made use of his interest in the region, and in foreign policy in general, during his twenty years as a commentator on international affairs for Time magazine.

But Talbott’s years analyzing arms control agreements and diplomatic dealings probably wouldn’t have gotten him a job at the State Department if his roommate at Oxford had not been Bill Clinton, who even then was making a name for himself with his insatiable appetite for politics. Talbott’s book provides us with a cozy picture of Clinton frying eggs for breakfast in their college lodgings as Talbott reads aloud excerpts from Khrushchev’s memoirs. Clinton and Talbott would maintain their friendship for years to come, and in 1992 the president-elect decided to bring Talbott into his foreign policy team.1 Initially Talbott received the title of ambassador-at-large with special responsibility for Russia and the “newly independent states” of the “former Soviet Union” (both terms have since been declared officially obsolete by the State Department). Later he was promoted to deputy secretary of state, a position he retained until the end of the Clinton administration.

Talbott filled these jobs during a particularly confusing period in the history of Russia’s relations with the West. By virtue of his post, which centered on security and arms control, Talbott had a leading part in American efforts to keep Russia stable and friendly. Yet the “Russia hand” of the title refers not to Talbott but to his boss, Bill Clinton. It is Clinton, Talbott argues, who deserves the credit for what he considers Washington’s successful Russia policy during the decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.2 Clinton, he argues, kept his eyes on the “big picture,” relentlessly persisting in his support of Boris Yeltsin as the guarantor of the new freedoms, economic and political, that Russia was trying to achieve and sustain.3 Talbott argues that this intense “personalization” of diplomacy—augmented by the efforts of Vice President Al Gore, who was paired in a working group, for most of the period, with Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin—was a huge success all around, yielding “half a dozen major understandings that either resolved or alleviated disputes over Russia’s role in the post–cold war world.”

Specifically, Talbott cites agreements to


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