War in the Balkans: Diplomacy - Talbott flies another sortie for peace

IF SQUARING the Russians is the name of the game - and, in the arduous search for a settlement in Kosovo, it very much looks as if it is - then Strobe Talbott is a natural for the job.

Kosovo has exposed the weaknesses of Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State: her impetuosity, her lack of judgement and her over-hasty brandishing of threats. But it could yet be the hour of Talbott, her deputy. Or to give him his full name, Nelson Strobridge Talbott III, Russian expert, keen classical guitarist and close friend of President Bill Clinton.

For the past two weeks he has been shuttling around Europe like a latter- day Kissinger, from Moscow to Helsinki to Bonn, London and Paris. Today he is back to Moscow, for more of the talks that matter most, with the Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin. The process may lead nowhere. But if the two men can strike a deal that satisfies Nato and Moscow and can be presented as a UN resolution to President Slobodan Milosevic, Talbott could yet go down as the man who did for Kosovo what Richard Holbrooke did for Bosnia.

His closeness to Mr Clinton goes back 30 years - proof of the President's legendary ability to draw friends from every layer of society and walk of life. Superficially they could not be more different: the disciplined and cerebral Midwesterner, put down for Yale at birth by his wealthy father, an investment banker, and the pushy, gregarious Clinton, with his louche southern background and gargantuan physical appetites.

Look more closely, however, and they are two of a kind. Both are instinctive insiders - Clinton, the indomitable net-worker within the system and Talbott, who by the end of his long stint as Time's diplomatic editor and chief of the magazine's Washington bureau seemed less a reporter on the establishment than a member of it.

Their friendship was forged as Rhodes Scholars at Oxford, where they shared a house. No 46 Leckford Road deserves a blue plaque of its own, as the place where between 1969 and 1970 the future President agonised and wriggled over the Vietnam draft and where Talbott closeted himself away, editing the historic memoirs of the deposed Nikita Khrushchev, which had just been smuggled out of the Soviet Union.

That top-secret project had sprung directly from Talbott's work as an intern in Time's office in Moscow the previous summer. But it was a reflection of a lifelong passion for Russia, which would make him both a scholar of Russian literature and author of three seminal books on arms control. Then, in 1993, he moved to the State Department to handle relations with Russia and the other countries that sprang from the dissolved Soviet Union.

If there is criticism of Talbott the diplomat, it is that too often he allows his heart to rule his head over Russia.

His early misgivings over Nato enlargement were widely noted, as was his advocacy of US support for Boris Yeltsin, even as the Russian President's behaviour was becoming ever more erratic. Indeed, his perceived dove-like stance was said to have caused him to be banished from the court of Ms Albright, Czech-born and an incorrigible Cold War warrior, after she became Secretary of State in 1997.

No figure in the Clinton administration knows Russia better. And, as the Russians know, no senior American official has a better entree to the White House.

The question is, can even these attributes help to end a decade of Balkan wars?

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