WASHINGTON -- From his seventh-floor suite at the State Department, Strobe Talbott is shaping American policy toward Russia with the steady confidence of a lifelong diplomat.
He had no government experience when his longtime friend Bill Clinton tapped him as ambassador at large. But with astonishing speed, the 47-year-old former columnist at Time magazine has become the unchallenged architect of America's post-Cold War policy toward the former Soviet Union.
And he's using his clout to give unwavering -- some would say unquestioning -- support to Boris N. Yeltsin, persuading Mr. Clinton to back the Russian president at every important turn.
In fluent, paragraph-long sound bites, Mr. Talbott insists that Russia's leadership is committed to democracy, free markets and a good-neighbor foreign policy, and he plays down evidence to the contrary. He dismisses doubts about Mr. Yeltsin's personal stability, signs that he is caving in to military hard-liners and rumblings of imperialism on Russia's border.
Sometimes he's too glib. Just minutes before news flashed around the world Sept. 21 that Mr. Yeltsin had dissolved Parliament, Mr. Talbott was reassuring the House Foreign Affairs Committee about "the beginnings of real politics" in Russia and Ukraine, where "legislators get up and yell and scream at the executive, but they don't have to worry about being taken away in the middle of the night."
If he's right about Russia's course, the United States stands to reap greater security and a rich partnership with a democratic, free-market colossus.
But if he's wrong, the United States may be caught unprepared for a threatening new Russia still armed with a vast nuclear arsenal. And a growing number of skeptics worry that Mr. Talbott might be wrong, or at least that the United States is now too pro-Yeltsin for comfort.
"It's like building the Bridge on the River Kwai," said Marshall I. Goldman, a Russian scholar at Harvard University, referring to the film about a British prisoner of war whose commitment to a project blinds him to its disastrous consequences. "It's almost like he doesn't look back."
None of this second-guessing comes from the president, who has long valued Mr. Talbott's insights on Russia.
Friends since 1968
Although Mr. Talbott stresses that Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher is his immediate boss and checks in with him continually, his aura of power comes from his relationship with the president, with whom he meets as often as several times a week when Russia is on the front burner.
The Clinton-Talbott friendship took root in 1968 on a ship carrying Rhodes scholars to England, pairing ambitious 22-year-olds from markedly different family backgrounds.
Nelson Strobridge Talbott III, born in Dayton, Ohio, is the son of an investment banker-manufacturer -- the third generation of his family to attend the elite Hotchkiss preparatory school in Connecticut and to go on to Yale. Mr. Clinton was raised in Arkansas by a mother who worked nights in a household haunted by his stepfather's alcoholism.
Still, the two young men shared a strong interest in the Soviet Union, where each traveled during breaks from Oxford, and joined in what Mr. Talbott later called "a permanent, floating, teacher-less seminar on Vietnam," a war both opposed.
By then, Mr. Talbott was already a budding Russian expert. He had studied the language since his sophomore year at prep school and won top honors at Yale with a thesis on a 19th-century Russian poet. At Oxford, he earned a degree in Russian literature.
'He was a standout'
"He was a standout among many, many people who were outstanding," said a classmate, Robert D. McCallum Jr. He struck a fellow Rhodes scholar, Douglas Scott Eakeley, as "someone who seemed to have more focus in life" than many of his peers.
While Mr. Clinton pursued law and a political career, Mr. Talbott turned to journalism. Over the next 2 1/2 decades, while reporting for Time and writing eight books, he became a leading chronicler of the Cold War and its aftermath.
His most recent work, "At the Highest Levels," co-written with historian Michael Beschloss, provides a rich inside story of the Bush administration's relations with Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin.
Mr. Talbott's confidence, patrician poise and scholarly delivery sometimes come across as arrogance. But Time staffers recall a squash-playing colleague who helped younger reporters and who rose to become one of the magazine's senior writers and editors based on ability.
"He's not left a lot of footprints up the backsides of people here," said one.
Although their lives took sharply different directions, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Talbott stayed in touch through letters, phone calls and visits.
Mr. Clinton "has always been immensely loyal to his friends and very quick to reach out to them and accessible to them if they want to reach out to him," Mr. Talbott said. "He's a very easy person to keep in touch with."
Mr. Talbott always suspected that his friend would be president one day, but Mr. Clinton's announced candidacy put the high-profile journalist in an ethical bind. When his wife, Brooke Shearer, became a campaign aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Talbott ended his regular television appearances on PBS' "Inside Washington."
He also avoided writing columns about Mr. Clinton -- with one significant exception. Just before the New York primary, when the candidate was being pilloried for having avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, Mr. Talbott wrote a moving first-hand account of the young Mr. Clinton's anguish over the question and the torment of their mutual friend, Frank Aller, a fugitive from the draft who later committed suicide. A knee injury from intramural football allowed Mr. Talbott to avoid the draft.
The column eloquently backed up Mr. Clinton's argument that he withdrew from an officer training program out of principle and did not do so with any assurance that he would avoid the draft.
Despite his display of loyalty, Mr. Talbott said, the post-victory job offer from Mr. Clinton came as a "bolt from the blue."
Mentioned as a strong candidate for ambassador to Moscow, Mr. Talbott ended up being able to remain in Washington with his school-age sons while assuming the newly created ambassador-at-large post. He serves as a top adviser to Mr. Clinton and Mr. Christopher on policy toward all the former Soviet republics except the three Baltic states.
Mr. Talbott's wife and -- briefly -- his brother-in-law also got jobs in the administration.
He and Mr. Clinton fleshed out their approach last winter at a Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, S.C., the annual gathering where hundreds of public-policy enthusiasts exchange ideas.
Mr. Clinton was fascinated by Mr. Talbott's account of the political rough-and-tumble in Russia and Mr. Yeltsin's collision course with "hard-liners and retrogrades," as Mr. Talbott calls them.
The president-elect declared that the reform process in the former Soviet republics was the most important event occurring in the world. At Mr. Talbott's urging, the president managed to put forth a meatier aid package from Congress and Western allies to help Russia.
Though not noted for management skills as Time's Washington bureau chief, Mr. Talbott has demonstrated an amazingly quick grasp of the levers of government.
Took heat off Yeltsin
Outpacing diplomatic veterans, he has helped sway internal debate in Russia's favor in areas stretching beyond his already vast portfolio. In two cases, his actions took the heat off Mr. Yeltsin, allowing him to avoid choosing between siding with the West or his military establishment.
This fall, when Mr. Christopher and Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, W. Anthony Lake, were leaning toward an early embrace of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Mr. Talbott weighed in with a memo that helped kill the idea. He argued that such a new military division of Europe would alarm both Russia and Ukraine.
And last spring, after listening to top Russian officials express opposition to Western military intervention in behalf of Bosnian Muslims, Mr. Talbott fired off a cable from Moscow that helped nix the president's plan to arm the Muslims and launch compensatory air strikes against Serbian positions.
His enthusiasm for the Yeltsin reforms dates from the mid-1980s, when Mr. Yeltsin, then the Communist Party chief of Moscow, allowed a section of the city to blossom as a showcase for politically adventurous artists and poets.
As a result of Mr. Talbott's influence, the United States and Mr. Yeltsin are bound together to a degree that is rare between governments.
This was particularly evident last fall, after Mr. Yeltsin flouted Russia's constitution, disbanded Parliament and later cleared out the Moscow White House. The administration backed the military crackdown and has expressed little criticism since.
In recent congressional testimony prepared for him by Mr. Talbott, Mr. Christopher described a new Russian military doctrine in such benign terms that one Republican aide remarked that the secretary sounded more like a lobbyist than a policy-maker.
That new doctrine drops Russia's earlier pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.
Resurgent military feared
To skeptics here, it represents another sign that a resurgent Russian military is gaining political strength at the expense of democracy, foreign-policy cooperation with the West and the sovereignty of new states on its borders.
Brent Scowcroft, President George Bush's national security adviser, says the United States "ought to be putting out some yellow flags," warning Mr. Yeltsin that displays of military muscle and anti-democratic actions are not doing him any favors with the West. He argues that this could give Mr. Yeltsin needed leverage in keeping the Russian military in check.
Mr. Talbott dismisses the idea that Mr. Yeltsin has sold out to military hard-liners. And he rejects the idea that "either dictatorship or imperialism is somehow genetically coded into Russians."
Russia is now "a country which has pulled itself out from the wreckage of the old Soviet Union, that has a leadership that is committed to democracy, market economics [and a] live-and-let-live or good-neighborly foreign policy," Mr. Talbott said. Its record on its borders is "mixed but encouraging."
With Mr. Yeltsin still firmly in power and his reforms moving unsteadily toward parliamentary elections Dec. 12, Mr. Talbott's stewardship has produced one obvious policy failure: the inability to get a stubborn Ukraine to surrender its nuclear weapons.
After two failed tacks, Mr. Talbott regrets not being able to convince Ukraine of the "many benefits" to come if it cooperates. Some experts fear that Ukraine may escalate the crisis by trying to wrest operational control over the nuclear weapons, inviting military intervention from Moscow.
That scenario could prove the ultimate test of Mr. Talbott's skills of persuasion.