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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Glazier

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist historic buildi...

Recruitment Genius: Office and Customer Services Manager

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small but very busy (and f...

Recruitment Genius: Portfolio Administrator

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has become known a...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer - Midlands

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot