The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was fraught with turmoil and political peril. That it did not end in disaster was due in no small measure to Russian president Boris Yeltsin, for all his flaws--and, insists former administration insider Strobe Talbott, to Yeltsin's partner in reform, President Bill Clinton. Before Clinton took office in 1992, he imagined that he would devote most of his energies to domestic matters, in keeping with the "It's the economy, stupid" slogan of his campaign war room. But, writes fellow Rhodes Scholar Talbott, his adviser on Russian affairs, "It became apparent that being president meant ... doing the heavy lifting in the management of relations with a giant nation that was reinventing itself and, in doing so, reinventing international politics and requiring us to reinvent American foreign policy." Though the Clinton administration took a few missteps early on, by Talbott's account the president soon rose to the historic occasion, tirelessly helping Yeltsin negotiate the difficult task of democratizing the former Communist power while contending with Yeltsin's troublesome penchant for drink and self-destruction--to say nothing of a committed political resistance on the part of disaffected members of the old guard. That things turned out reasonably well may seem amazing, given some of the incidents Talbott relates. His book offers an instructive, lively view of international diplomacy, personal politics, and the odd turns involved in changing the world. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Talbott (At the Higher Levels), Clinton's top adviser on Russia policy and deputy secretary of state from 1994 to 2001, recalls the president musing, "the thing about Yeltsin I really like... is that he's not a Russian bureaucrat. He's an Irish poet. He sees politics as a novel he's writing or a symphony he's composing.... It's why he's better than the others. But it's also his shortcoming." In this memoir of his years in the State Department, Talbott traces the evolving relationship between Clinton and the mercurial Yeltsin, recalls his own encounters with key Russian and American players (including some colorful cameos of Nixon) and describes how he and his State Department colleagues negotiated nettlesome issues like arms control, the expansion of NATO, the cease-fire in Chechnya and American missile defense. Yeltsin weathered several near-disasters as Russia's first post-Soviet leader, such as the shelling of his residence by Communist opposition in 1993, an election he nearly lost to a Communist rival in 1996 and the country's economic collapse in 1998 not to mention his own alcoholism, depression and ill health. Talbott movingly depicts Clinton's steadfast, affectionate loyalty toward "Ol' Boris" through these crises a devotion that sometimes went against the advice of his Russia experts. Talbott also expresses reservations about Yeltsin's successor, Putin, whom he describes as part of a sea change in Russian politics over the last few years from "unabashedly pro-Western reformers... toward nationalistic bureaucrats." Though there's probably too much detailed policy analysis for general readers, Talbott is a fluid and often engaging writer, and those who are wonkishly inclined should enjoy his war stories.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.