Sarah E. Mendelson is Senior Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and coeditor of The Power and Limits of NGOs: A Critical Look at Building Democracy in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
Throughout his time in government, Strobe Talbott was rumored to go to bed as soon as duty permitted and rise as early as possible to write about his experience as President Bill Clinton's principal Russia adviser, and later as deputy secretary of state. That diligence may explain why Talbott is now the first senior Clinton administration official to publish his account of the president's foreign policy legacy. The result, The Russia Hand, looks closely behind the scenes of U.S.-Russian relations in the 1990s. Like the works of another Russia hand, George Kennan, this book is the best sort of political memoir, putting us in the room as the negotiations happened and world history was made.
Talbott places the focus clearly on Clinton. The president's voice comes through loud and clear, urging his aides to "think bigger" on Russia. We can feel his outsized personality and his warmth as he throws his arm around Talbott's shoulder or drops by his house to eat ice cream from the carton, feet up on the couch. Occasionally we see glimpses of the president's sloppiness and infamous lack of personal discipline. But Talbott also provides an invaluable portrait of Clinton as the architect of U.S. policy toward Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It turns out that Clinton, not Talbott, was the principal "Russia hand" in the U.S. government.
It also turns out that the role of personalities in world politics is far more important than many think. Often underappreciated by scholars of international relations and typically beyond the scope of journalists, the significance of personality is illuminated in this book, which makes for an excellent case study. A central tenet of Talbott's is that "government-to-government relations often succeeded or failed on the basis of personal relations." Nowhere was this truer than in Clinton's close relationship with President Boris Yeltsin -- which Talbott hints may have prevented Washington from pursuing a tougher policy toward Moscow in such sensitive areas as
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