WASHINGTON -- For nearly two years, two achievement-oriented men have worked as partners in shaping a new relationship among nations after the Cold War, uniting their countries against aggression, locking in arms reductions and solving the regional conflicts through which, in a more hostile era, the two superpowers kept each other in check.
That partnership, between James A. Baker III and Eduard A. Shevardnadze, came apart yesterday with the announced resignation of the Soviet foreign minister. Its loss removes what has been a pillar of U.S. foreign policy toward everything from the Persian Gulf to arms control and Eastern Europe.
"He was a professional who, I think, was totally focused on representing his country and its interests as he saw them," Mr. Baker said yesterday. "I certainly think that's what's motivated me in my relationship with the Soviet Union.
"Having said that, however, I am proud to call this man a friend. I think that we achieved some significant things during the 23 months that we were able to work together, and on a purely personal note, I would have to tell you that I'm going to miss him."
Mr. Baker stressed that on key issues, the policies pursued by Mr. Shevardnadze and those of his boss, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, were one and the same.
At the same time, the secretary noted two major areas -- the gulf and the Soviet reaction to last year's revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe -- where Mr. Shevardnadze's influence had been decisive.
"When they told us that they would not use force to hold Central and Eastern Europe, many people did not believe that," Mr. Baker said. "We've seen the reunification of Germany, the ending of the division of Europe, a partnership in terms of our policy on the gulf. . . . I'm not sure that would have happened had he not been the foreign minister of the Soviet Union."
The U.S. relationship with Mr. Shevardnadze, a striking contrast to his dour predecessor, Andrei A. Gromyko, began under Mr. Baker's predecessor, George P. Shultz.
"Shultz had, in some ways, a more emotional relationship with Shevardnadze than Baker," said Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings In
But at a lengthy session in Paris in July 1989, Mr. Baker and Mr. Shevardnadze started to form a bond based on candor and trust that had farther-reaching consequences.
This was cemented during a plane trip two months later to Wyoming, when Mr. Shevardnadze unburdened himself on the subject of his country's deep economic problems and convinced Mr. Baker that he was a committed reformer.
Between March 1989 and last week, the two men held 25 meetings, or more than one a month, in locales ranging from world capitals and the United Nations to Wyoming; Irkutsk, Siberia; and Mr. Baker's hometown, Houston.
Once the pair settled down with interpreters, their aides knew they could be at it for hours, covering the broad spectrum of their two countries' still-knotty relationship.
In the process they cleared away the indirect U.S.-Soviet confrontation in Central America and made strides toward ending two others, in Angola and Afghanistan. A major arms deal -- on conventional forces in Europe -- was nailed down, and another, on strategic nuclear weapons, is now close enough that both sides have agreed to a summit date in February to sign it.
But it was on the Persian Gulf that the two countries' new relationship arguably had its most dramatic impact.
Mr. Shevardnadze had previously dismissed Mr. Baker's fears about Iraqi designs on Kuwait. Immediately after the invasion, the Soviets agreed to halt arms shipments to Iraq. A day later, the two men held a news conference at Moscow Airport to issue a joint statement demanding Iraq's immediate withdrawal.
In the weeks since, threatened ruptures in the U.S.-Soviet cooperation have failed to materialize, despite Soviet unwillingness to send forces to the gulf and a reluctance to see force used.
Their coordinated actions culminated in the days leading up to the Nov. 29 U.N. authorization of force against Iraq, when Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Shevardnadze delivered a blunt warning to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
The Soviets' decision to cast their lot with the West in the gulf crisis had started to bear fruit in a related crisis -- the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Soviets were moving closer to re-establishing relations with Israel, and the Israelis were starting to welcome Soviet efforts at peacemaking.
With Mr. Shevardnadze, "a whole structure" of cooperative discussions developed, said Catherine Kelleher, a University of Maryland professor and a visiting fellow at Brookings.
"Shevardnadze had a vision," shared with Mr. Baker and German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, "about how to manage the new international order, a new way of organizing international relationships between states," she said.
But in working closely with him, she added, "we have really allowed a lot of warning signals [about the Soviet Union] to slip by."
Mr. Baker denied yesterday that he had staked too much on his relationship with Mr. Shevardnadze.
"We have not risked anything because we have developed a good personal relationship with the foreign minister of the Soviet Union," he said. "In fact, I would argue to you that we were able to . . . make some rather significant gains and achievements during that 23 months.
"But . . . our policy toward the Soviet Union does not rest on personalities, never has, still doesn't. It rests on the overriding principle of mutual advantage."
Critics, however, see otherwise.
"This is a major setback for the Bush administration," the conservative Heritage Foundation's Kim Holmes was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying. "They bet everything on Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, trying to prop them up as best they could."