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Revisiting the Prophetic Memoir of Clinton's Top Russia Adviser

A fresh look at Strobe Talbott’s The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy

MORE: Politics

Gilbert Doctorow is a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow.


Talbott has had consistently hard-line views on dealing with Russia going back 25 years, when that country was flat on its back and hard-liners were in the minority
Talbott has had consistently hard-line views on dealing with Russia going back 25 years, when that country was flat on its back and hard-liners were in the minority

I made the mistake of trying to insert my own view into Clinton’s stream of consciousness…The president gave me a look that combined amusement and impatience. I’d just reminded him, he said, of why I was a journalist and not a politician.

Given that Strobe Talbott’s memoir was published back in 2002, one might reasonably ask why do a “review article” now, in 2015? To that I have several justifications for what follows.

First, re-examination of this memoir of Strobe Talbott’s years in government is timely because the author is reportedly the first choice of Hilary Clinton to be her Secretary of State if she wins the presidency. Hilary has just announced her candidacy for the 2016 election. and by general agreement of the pundits, she is the front runner. The book provides invaluable information about Talbott, the respected friend and adviser to the Clintons.

The blurbs on the dust jacket rightly highlight the author’s journalistic eye for detail and felicitous command of language. What we do not see praised are the author’s analytical skills, capacity for intellectual leadership, or ability to take the long view. Nor do we find inside the covers that his professional training in Russian literature endowed him with any profound understanding or appreciation of Russia.

Secondly, quite apart from any future possible return to power, Talbott has recently been in the news with respect to one of the most important issues of our day. In his capacity as director of the Brookings Institute, the leading think tank of the Democratic Party, Talbott was the spokesman for a team of experts which, in early February of 2015, issued a report entitled “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do.” That report urged President Obama to send lethal arms to Ukraine. It touched off the biggest controversy in the United States over its Russia policy since the onset of the great power confrontation over Ukraine in February, 2014. The Russia Hand shows that Talbott has had consistently hard-line views on dealing with Russia going back 25 years, when that country was flat on its back and hard-liners were in the minority.

Thirdly, the book provides invaluable information about how we got ourselves into the New Cold War. Historians and political scientists are actively sifting clues and re-examining the decisions taken in the 1990s on the shape of the new security architecture of Europe, particularly the fateful decisions to expand NATO to the East, ultimately right up to Russia’s borders. Talbott was both participant and fly on the wall when all these decisions were taken.

Now that I have explained how and why Talbott’s book could be valuable if it were truthful and unbiased, qualities which are fairly rare in memoirs generally and in political memoirs in particular, I can confirm that The Russia Hand passes the test of veracity comfortably. The tell-tale sign of doctored memory is absent. This book was patently not self-serving when issued. Talbott gives us too much material putting himself in a poor light in relation to his boss, Bill Clinton, and he puts his entire milieu in poor light in relation to the phenomenal opportunities to change the world for the better that lay before them if they had possessed more imagination and more guts.

Curiously, from among them all, only the boss, Clinton, comes across as having dared to envision what a ‘blue sky’ future might look like and hoped not to build obstacles to its realization, even if he could not find the political strength to facilitate a positive outcome materially. Indeed, part of Clinton’s blue sky was precisely an eventual Russia in NATO scenario. As he told Talbott in his first term: “We’ve got to put this NATO thing in tomorrow terms. The Russians’ getting in someday may or may not happen, but keeping it out there as something we’re not against is a no-brainer.”

Published less than two years after the author left office, this book displays none of the amnesia that typically damages memoirs of elder statesmen. What lacuna there are in the narrative are due to Talbott’s staying close to what he saw on the job and not trying to present a comprehensive account of the age.

The third reason for going back to Talbott’s memoir today is that with the passage of time, wholly new and previously unnoticed causal lines emerge in classics like this. He recorded some remarkably telling observations by the prominent statesmen he met, whether socially or in his official duties, and many of their words have taken on new meaning and profundity.

Now let’s turn to the light which this book sheds on how the present crisis came about. It is common currency on the side of the argument where I stand to put a lot of the blame for bad decisions in the 1990s to the euphoria in the West that followed the end of the Soviet Union and collapse of Communism. ‘We won the Cold War’ was on everyone’s mind. There was now no power on earth to thwart the United States in its mission of making the world safe for democracy. And it would do so to create public goods from which everyone would benefit. This was reflected in Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, which brought Neoconservative and Neoliberal values and ideological points of faith into the mainstream of American political life.

However, in Strobe Talbott’s narrative there is no sign of triumphalism at work informing decisions of the Clinton administration. What we do see is a number of other serious conceptual problems that, to greater or lesser extent, carry over into our own day. This begins with condescension towards what was then the Sick Man of Europe. There was the hubristic assumption that we knew best how to cure the ills of Russia and were there to give them the ‘spinach’ they needed for their transformation from command to market economy, from dictatorship to democracy, from superpower to regional power at peace with its neighbors.

In a way, the physical ills of President Boris Yeltsin were a metaphor for the condition of Russian society and economy in the 1990s. Much of the time, Yeltsin suffered from bouts of drunkenness that made his behavior in public at summits and at joint press conferences, not to mention behind the scenes during state negotiations, volatile and unpredictable. At other times, his heart disease took him out of action for lengthy periods during which speculation was rife over his very survival. Strobe Talbott and other key members of the Clinton staff were permanently in damage control mode when dealing with Yeltsin. This was just a short step away from the desire to stage manage the Russian President to be sure he did the right thing while they cornered him to gain concessions to American interests on all the policy issues under joint review.

Talbott notes several times how the administration’s opponents criticized it for excessively personalizing the relationship with Russia, just as the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations had placed excessive reliance on a special relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. This criticism is justified by everything Talbott tells us about his work.

Of course, it is hard to see how things could have been otherwise because of the second dimension of Yeltsin’s ills – his political weakness. He was under constant attack from a parliament that was controlled by his enemies, whether the Communist majority or the significant nationalist “brown” minority. Yeltsin’s constant refrain, his main point of leverage in negotiations with Americans, was that he alone could deliver the goods, and that they must not undermine his delicate situation by excessive or untimely demands. This was particularly true in all issues relating to NATO, especially before and during 1996, when both Russia and the United States had presidential elections. The corollary to the foregoing is that the other political forces in Russia were much less attractive to the Americans and could not be cultivated. Indeed, meetings with the Communist Party leader Zyuganov were kept in the open and tightly circumscribed, while the LDPR leader Zhirinovsky was excluded altogether from Clinton’s occasional meetings with the Russian political establishment.

It is rather ironic that in the last couple of years of Clinton’s second term, when the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, when the scandal over the President’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky and impeachment proceedings against him undermined his authority both in Washington and in the nation at large, Clinton and his team found themselves using the very same logic of ‘we’re your best and last option’ when negotiating with the Russians. This is what it trotted out when it tried to secure Russian agreement to modifications of the ABM treaty. But by this time an assertive Putin had come to power and was able to muster a patronizing tone in dealing with the lame duck American president.

During the greater part of the Clinton years, the inequality of power between the Russian and American negotiators was such that Talbott and his colleagues were knowingly offering trinkets in exchange for real assets. Hence, the Partnership for Peace and its sequel in the Russia-NATO Council instead of a full treaty bringing Russia into the security architecture of Europe. Hence, the expansion of the G-7 into a G-8 as a sop to cover Russia’s humiliation when its former allies were being welcomed into the North American defense alliance.

The politics were personalized and concessions were wrung out of Boris Yeltsin in the knowledge that the political elites in his country were determinedly opposed to the decisions he took jointly with the Americans. What is curious in all this was the expectation that these decisions could be made to stick.

This happened despite the clear warnings of none other than Yeltsin himself, as we learn from Talbott in an extensive quotation from the Russian president that bears repeating because of what it says about his lucidity then and also about the source of our conflict with his country today:

“I don’t like it when the U.S. flaunts its superiority. Russia’s difficulties are only temporary, and not only because we have nuclear weapons, but also because of our economy, our culture, our spiritual strength. All that amounts to a legitimate, undeniable basis for equal treatment. Russia will rise again!...And when we do, even then I don’t intend to try to compete with the U.S. but to pursue an equal partnership. We’ve got to maintain this basis for our relations. We need to be close to the U.S., but not on the basis of your monopoly in the world – rather, on the basis of equality.”

It emerges from Talbott’s memoir that the very notion of equal treatment for Russia was absurd to him and to those in his circle, just as the idea of Russia rising again seemed to them to be a chimera. They could not see beyond the here and now of their day, when all the statistics spoke against Russia.

We should not be too tough on them for this lack of understanding of the country and its reserves of steely determination to be a great power once again. Even today, in the face of a Russia that has come a long way back from its nadir, some of our most eminent exponents of the Realpolitik school see Russia as an expiring force and concentrate their attention on rising China.

From the evidence Talbott presents, President Clinton seems to have had greater intuitive understanding of Russia than his ‘Russia Hand.’ Here is another very revealing quote that Talbott has served up, this time from Bill Clinton:

“We haven’t played everything brilliantly with these people; we haven’t figured out how to say yes to them in a way that balances off how much and how often we want them to say yes to us. We keep telling Ol’ Boris, ‘Okay, now here’s what you’ve got to do next – here’s some more shit for your face.’ And that makes it real hard for him, given what he’s up against and who he’s dealing with…We’ve got to remember that Yeltsin can’t do more with us than his own traffic will bear.”

Indeed, unlike Talbott and the rest of his staff, Clinton, the politician, knew the dangers of overplaying his hand. In a citation relating to American treatment of Jacques Chirac, we find Clinton remarking what was equally applicable to his Russia policy:

“I’m just saying that you shouldn’t kick a wounded dog because it will get well and bite you.”

There was no issue in American-Russian relations during the Clinton years in which this principle was more relevant than in NATO’s air war on Serbia over Kosovo and the eventual implementation of the KFOR peacekeeping mission in the breakaway republic. Russia was kicking and screaming all the way before accepting the “Bosnian reporting lines” in its relations to the US commander of the mission. And the impotent fury of the Russians in 1998 arguably set the stage for their decisions on the fate of the Crimea in 2014.

Let us return now to the critical years 1996-97, when plans for the expansion of NATO were finalized and made public. Talbott gives us some readings on NATO from his own circle of officials in the State Department, from major political personalities of his time - including Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Henry Kissinger, and George Kennan, as well as from academic institutions representing the foreign policy establishment at the time.

In connection with her famously quoted telephone conversation with American Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt when they conspired as puppet masters directing the forthcoming coup d’etat of 22 February 2014, Victoria Nuland has been very much in the news over the past year. Back in the Clinton administration, she was a key assistant to Strobe Talbott on his missions to Moscow, and it is interesting to see how she, Richard Holbrooke and, of course, his immediate superior, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, all formed a core force behind what was still a minority position among senior officials in favor of a bold and rapid expansion of NATO. For his part, Talbott recruited Alexander Vershbow and Ron Asmus to his immediate team. Asmus, in particular, later exerted a nefarious influence on evolving U.S. policies by pleading the case of a policy that finally crossed Russia’s red lines: inclusion of the Baltic states in NATO. It was not for nothing that these countries later awarded Asmus their sashes of knighthood.

To put it charitably, Talbott and his fellow crusaders saw NATO as a guarantor of democratic government and security throughout Central and Eastern Europe in case of either scenario for evolving Russia: either collapse from its internal weaknesses and contradictions or a return of its imperialist ambitions and might. In this position, they were much closer to prevailing political thinking on Capitol Hill than to the ambivalent President to whom they reported.

Talbott illustrates the correlation of expert opinion at the time when he describes a gathering of Harriman Institute faculty he attended in the fateful year 1996, when determination of the administration’s policy still hung in the balance. He tells us that every faculty member opposed the NATO expansion except for a non-Russian specialist, the historian of Germany and Western Europe, Fritz Stern. Talbott chose to ignore this expert consensus, claiming that public opinion polls showed that NATO expansion had the vote of the American public. This is a curious stance on the value of expertise for the man who today heads a major think tank.

As regards George Kennan, Talbott’s words are even more damning for the memoirist’s personal standing as would-be statesman. Talbott makes a point of telling us that he systematically invited Kennan to State each year for a private meeting, intimating that he valued the insights of the former chief strategist of America’s Cold War diplomacy. However, after Kennan came out publicly against NATO expansion in 1997, denouncing it as a deeply flawed and nearsighted policy which would lead to no good, Talbott had to explain this criticism away to his boss, the ever watchful Bill Clinton. Talbott now reminded Clinton that Kennan had been against the concept of NATO from the time of its creation, thereby disparaging the value of his counsel.

Henry Kissinger, at 92, is today the iconic exponent of Realpolitik and dispenser of masterly wisdom in op-ed articles and occasional television interviews, in which he calls upon the Obama administration to temper its vilification of Vladimir Putin and find a compromising solution to the Ukraine crisis that takes into account Russian interests.

On the basis of Kissinger’s several ‘guest appearances’ on the pages of Talbott’s memoir, we have an instructive reminder that Kissinger himself voted with both hands and feet for policies that have led to the present confrontation that he proposes now to alleviate. In Clinton’s first term, he opposed the Partnership for Peace, because he believed even that fig leaf program gave too much mouth honor to Russia. In 1997 and 1998, he publicly condemned the Clinton administration for making a commitment to the Russians not to move nuclear weapons or troops into the newly admitted Eastern European members of NATO. This is the very issue that the Obama administration is trying to subvert by the tactic of troop rotations and its rapid deployment force. Said Kissinger back then: ‘Whoever heard of a military alliance begging with a weakened adversary? NATO should not be turned into an instrument to conciliate Russia or Russia will undermine it.’”

Finally, it is worth mentioning the curious comments of Helmut Kohl justifying his strong support for eastward expansion of NATO with America forcing the pace:

“In Kohl’s view, in addition to its internal demons, Germany had been cursed in the twentieth century by political geography. Immediately to the east were the Slavic lands, historically regarded more as Eurasian than truly or entirely European. As long as Germany’s border with Poland marked the dividing line between East and West, Germany would be vulnerable to the pathologies of racism and the temptations of militarism that can come with living on an embattled frontier. That frontier would disappear, he said, only if Poland entered the European Union. His country’s future depended not just on deepening its ties within the EU but on expanding the EU eastward so that Germany would be in the middle of a safe, prosperous, integrated and democratic Europe rather than on its edge. ‘That is why Germany is the strongest proponent of enlargement of the EU,’ he said, ‘and it’s why European integration is of existential importance to us.’ Kohl believed that the EU was unlikely to expand unless NATO, nudged by the U.S., led the way. ‘This is not just a moral issue,’ he said, ‘it’s in our self-interest to have this development now and not in the future.’”

It would be hard to imagine, without the help of Strobe Talbott’s memoir, that such mumbo jumbo explanations for the pathologies of his nation, such musings about the Eurasian civilizations could come from one of Europe’s larger-than-life leaders of European politics in the 1990s, from a leader with a rare interest in history. This citation obliges us now to study the thinking behind Angela Merkel and her present advisors, the successors to the CDU leadership and authors of Germany’s new Ostpolitik, and to accept nothing on faith in what our media report.

For all of these reasons, I heartily recommend The Russia Hand as an essential guide to today’s political landscape.

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