Commentary Magazine

The Russia Hand by Strobe Talbott

The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy
by Strobe Talbott
Random House. 480 pp. $29.95

Strobe Talbott has devoted much of his career to chronicling the cold war, a subject he fundamentally misunderstood while the great conflict between the U.S. and the USSR was under way. As a prolific correspondent for Time magazine and the author of several books, Talbott consistently championed arms control and berated conservatives for their obtuseness in opposing détente with the Kremlin. When Ronald Reagan became President, Talbott dismissed him as a “befuddled character,” warning that his hard-line stance would only retard internal Soviet reform while his determination to build a ballistic-missile-defense system might provoke nuclear war.

When the cold war ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, in no small part because of the pressure applied by the United States under Reagan, Talbott did not acknowledge that he might have been wrong. Instead, without so much as a blink, he replaced his stale myths with fresh ones. Having previously asserted that Reagan’s policies were actively dangerous, now he insisted that they were irrelevant. “[T]he Soviet system has gone into meltdown because of the inadequacies and defects at its core,” he wrote in 1990, and “not because of anything the outside world has done or not done or threatened to do.” Doves like himself had it right “all along.”

Talbott went on to serve as deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration. Now, in The Russia Hand, he seeks to show that his (and Clinton’s) solicitous approach to foreign relations played a key role in transforming what had been a totalitarian state into a stable democracy. Studded with blurbs from Washington worthies, Talbott’s memoir seems intended to ratify his standing as a successor to the cold-war generation of wise men like George F. Kennan and Dean Acheson. But Talbott does not tout his own accomplishments; to the contrary, he remains ever the discreet courtier, burnishing his master’s reputation and basking in the reflected glow. It is Clinton, not Talbott, who is the indefatigable and visionary “Russia hand” of the book’s tide.



The burnishing begins with a look back at the days Talbott and Clinton spent together in 1968 as they traversed the Atlantic en route to Oxford, where they would both be Rhodes scholars. Already, in Talbott’s telling, Clinton was a serious student of foreign affairs: “[M]y first conversation of any substance with him was during the ocean crossing, and the subject was the Soviet Union, the giant, alien, antagonistic country that had preoccupied U.S. foreign policy all our lives.” And already, it seems, both young men were yearning for that golden day when a liberalized Soviet Union would allow the U.S. to leave behind the distortions and disputations of the cold war.

Two and a half decades later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Communist rule, and Clinton in the presidency, that day had arrived. Against the wishes of domestic-policy advisers, especially George Stephanopoulos, who wanted the fledgling administration to focus on the economy at the expense of foreign affairs, Clinton made it a high priority not to “lose” Russia. Given the neo-fascists and neo-Communists waiting in the wings to replace Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president had to be supported at almost any price, even if doing so meant “the enrichment and empowerment of the oligarchs” running Russian industry. Both the State Department and the Treasury were prodded to come up with ambitious plans for loans and direct aid to Russia. “I don’t care what it costs, it’ll be a bargain,” Clinton told Talbott. “If Russia goes bad . . . we’ll be . . . spending really big money to wage a new cold war.”

In addition to stabilizing Russia internally, the aid package had a second, no less important objective. It would, Clinton and Talbott hoped, help to secure Russian cooperation in foreign-policy hot spots around the world. Once more, Talbott portrays Clinton as the driving force behind negotiations with Russia on NATO expansion, missile defense, and the Balkan wars. In each of these areas, in Talbott’s recounting, the President’s policies were a resounding success—a tribute to his shrewdness as an analyst not only of politics but of politicians.



How much credence should one place in Talbott’s sunny account? In discussing efforts to repair the Russian economy, Talbott soft-pedals the scope of the looting and corruption set in motion by the cash infusion engineered by the Clinton administration; to the extent that he acknowledges the seriousness of the problem, he points a finger not at the White House but at Lawrence Summers, then at the Treasury Department. This, however, is unfair, and in any case unnecessary. Even if the aid program was implemented in a less than optimal mode, and even if a lot of money was siphoned off into undeserving hands, the fact is that in light of Russia’s bottomless economic problems, all paths toward reform would have entailed major difficulties. The Clinton administration’s attempt to aid stabilization was as defensible as any alternative policy.

Elsewhere, though, the record is far more mixed than Talbott acknowledges. True, Washington successfully persuaded Russia to accept NATO expansion, but it was really the backing of Helmut Kohl, Germany’s chancellor, that made continued Russian resistance futile. In the successive crises in Yugoslavia, the administration’s diplomacy was without distinction and also without success. The best that can be said for it is that it dissuaded Russia from actively seeking to block the United States by force, but even that assertion must be qualified; as we know from the memoirs of General Wesley Clark, the prospect of an armed clash between Russian and American units appeared harrowingly close in the endgame of the Kosovo war.

The one foreign-policy area that has gotten the least attention is the one where Clinton made almost no progress—and the one that may turn out to be the most consequential. Throughout his years in office, Clinton proved unable to dissuade Russia from selling nuclear technology to Iran. The Islamic fanatics governing that country continue to race forward in their effort to create nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, while also supporting terrorism in the Middle East and points beyond.



In sum, Talbott’s portrait of Clinton as a brilliant “Russia hand” is vastly overdrawn. Indeed, considering the fecklessness of the administration in virtually every other area of foreign policy, from its placatory approach to Communist China to its timidity toward tiny Haiti, it would be truly amazing if Clinton had been a pillar of wisdom and strength in dealing with Russia. Although Talbott’s account of eight years of diplomacy is engrossing and highly readable, its brief for Clinton himself is marred by an excess of the technique that distinguished the President whom he served: spin control.

Still, whatever the deficiencies of this book, and of the policy Talbott championed, one must acknowledge that the Clinton administration did, however clumsily, lay a foundation for what has followed. In fact, the essence of its conciliatory approach to Russia has been retained by the Bush administration, and it has led to developments that are almost beyond imagining. Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s successor, is on the U.S. side in the war against terrorism, and has accepted the presence of American troops all across Russia’s southern frontier. And Russia today is, of all things, a junior member of NATO—the very alliance that was arrayed against it for almost five decades.

The degree to which credit for this state of affairs can be imputed to the Clintonites has yet to be dispassionately calculated, but the exercise would be well worth undertaking by someone less heavily invested in it than Strobe Talbott. Along the way, it would also be worth pondering how someone like him, whose views on the Soviet-American rivalry were so divorced from reality, could have achieved even modest success as a State Department policymaker. Undoubtedly, the responsibilities of office helped to tamp down some of the more ideologically charged nostrums that so frequently surfaced in Talbott the journalist. But another part of the answer may have to do simply with the cunning of history. The emollient instincts of an unregenerate dove may not have been all that unsuitable for dealing with a bruised and crippled Russia.


About the Author

Jacob Heilbrunn is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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