Strobe lights up the world stage for his friend Bill: Praise is mixed with some doubt as Mr Clinton promotes an old chum at the State Department, writes Rupert Cornwell from Washington

ON THE FACE of it, the story should give hope to every toiling hack. A year ago, Strobe Talbott was a senior editor at Time magazine. Today he is second-in-command at the State Department, an acclaimed success in a small sea of foreign policy failures - and a man who arguably as much as any other has shaped next week's Nato summit. He also happens to be one of the very closest Friends Of Bill.

Nelson Strobridge Talbott III, scion of old Ohio money and third- generation Yalie, got to know the future President when both were Rhodes Scholars between 1968 and 1970 and shared digs. A quarter- century later that friendship would change his life, when Mr Talbott was named co-ordinator of US policy towards Russia and the former Soviet republics.

Only for a moment did the appointment cause surprise. During 22 years at Time, Mr Talbott had always been more than just a journalist. Author of five books on US-Soviet relations - three of them on arms control which are seminal in their field - he was among the country's leading Sovietologists. Since his high-school days Russia has been his abiding interest.

At Yale he studied Russian literature. Such was his reputation that during his second year at Oxford, Time signed him up to translate and help edit the memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, smuggled out of the Soviet Union and among the critical documents of the Cold War.

But 10 months at the State Department sufficed to prove that ambassador-at-large Talbott was no dilettante academic. When Clifton Wharton resigned as deputy secretary in November, Mr Talbott's appointment met with overwhelming approval.

The promotion has had Washington's self-appointed soothsayers scrambling over each other to read its implications. At the very least it is held to signify a closer Presidential involvement in foreign affairs. But Mr Talbott, accomplished in front of the cameras in a way the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, never will be, is being given a major role in presenting policy, while retaining responsibility for Russia. Does not this reduce Mr Christopher's job, and anoint his deputy as his probable successor?

Such conclusions are premature. Incontrovertibly, Mr Talbott is a class act, the epitomy of Ivy league polish. His culture is massive; so is his drive and perfectionism - and, more surprising, his mastery of bureaucratic infighting, although a private line to the Clintons is no hindrance. Not only is he a 24-carat FOB; his wife Brooke Shearer is as close a friend of Hillary.

Mr Talbott may be depicted as a 'big thinker' who is credited with having swung the administration against the immediate admission of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into Nato. But doubts are already being voiced. Can Mr Talbott broaden his focus to the rest of the world? Or is he too fixated with Russia, subordinating the security of countries which are democracies to a hope that Russia can become one?

And more complaints: that Mr Talbott is too optimistic of Russia's ability to 'Westernise', that he failed to see the nationalist appeal of Vladimir Zhirinovsky to voters last month - and that in his anxiety not to offend Russia, he neglects the legitimate interests of other members of the old Soviet bloc.

If Boris Yeltsin falls, if the caution on Nato enlargement misfires, Mr Talbott will be blamed. And then there is the rest of the world, with which he must now perforce deal as well. As a fast learner, Strobe Talbott rivals Bill Clinton. But he has an awful lot to learn.

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