Recalling diplomatic drama of three eventful years

February 28, 1993|By Timothy J. McNulty | Timothy J. McNulty,Chicago Tribune

AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS. Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott. Little, Brown. 512 pages. $24.95. The world changed at a gallop during the first three years of George Bush's presidency. Only a few months into 1989 and VTC Communist regimes were starting to unravel, first in Poland, later Hungary and Czechoslovakia and throughout Eastern Europe. By autumn, the Berlin Wall was breached, and instead of waiting for protracted negotiations, the reunification of Germany began immediately.

By the end of that momentous year, Mr. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev met at the "seasick summit" off Malta and began a truly extraordinary series of negotiations over the reduction of nuclear and conventional arms. When Iraq invaded Kuwait nine months later, the talks turned from future cooperation to the more immediate and gritty question of whether the United States and the Soviet Union could shape a "new world order."

After the two men and their deputies finally learned to trust each other, however, they saw that other forces were in motion. Mr. Bush barely had left Moscow after a visit when a surprise coup put Mr. Gorbachev under house arrest for four days. During those tense hours before the plot collapsed, Mr. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin suddenly and belatedly found common ground. It was an important discovery, because from then on Mr. Gorbachev would be able only to oversee the dissolution of his Soviet empire. By the end of Christmas Day 1991, Mr. Yeltsin was in charge.

"At the Highest Levels" encompasses those three dramatic years and provides what journalists call a "tick-tock" of the negotiations taking place between the White House and the Kremlin. Co-authored by historian Michael Beschloss and former Time foreign affairs columnist Strobe Talbott (who has been named ambassador-at-large by President Clinton), it is the first long narrative of the relationship that developed between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev and particularly between their powerful seconds in foreign policy, James A. Baker III and Eduard Shevardnadze, two professionals who came to share a mutual )) respect and even gruff affection.

Students of diplomacy and foreign affairs will cherish this book. It conveys in detail the quiet, mano-a-mano drama of international negotiations, the importance of finding the correct words that will not only describe but also guide future negotiations and the thrill of being there as great events unfold.

The best anecdote comes at the very beginning, when Mr. Bush, then vice president, tells Mr. Gorbachev almost a year before his election that he expects to win the presidency and wants to improve relations, and that Mr. Gorbachev should ignore some things Mr. Bush feels he will have to say during the campaign to appease the Republican right wing. That alone provides the correct context for Mr. Bush's often duplicitous attitude toward the American public, whom he told to "stay tuned" or to "watch, listen and learn" while he dealt with foreign leaders.

The authors provide a few physical details to convey the atmosphere that surrounds negotiations. We see Ambassador Jack Matlock writing out a message in longhand at the American Embassy's dacha outside Moscow because security officials assumed that KGB listening devices could decipher the impulses from anything typed on an electric typewriter.

It was prescient of Mr. Beschloss and Mr. Talbott to begin their examination of Soviet-American affairs at the start of the Bush administration. They were doubly fortunate to have as their sources Soviet and U.S. officials who relied heavily on personal diplomacy and on their own personalities and powers of persuasion to carry them forward.

The book's title comes from a remark by Mr. Gorbachev that appeared in Pravda after the Malta summit. His meeting with Mr. Bush, he said, shows the "importance of contacts at the highest level." But the book obviously is based on talks with Mr. Baker, Mr. Shevardnadze and their top aides, who shared their impressions, notes and recollections with the authors soon after each event or after a series of negotiations.

The downside of that kind of special access, of course, is that the recollections of such officials can be extremely self-serving. In "At the Highest Levels," all of Mr. Baker's accomplishments are notable while his missteps seem minor, especially to him. For example, the authors make no complaint that it took six months for him to conclude that the Soviet leaders are "pretty much for real." Sorry, but that seems a bit late.

But when the authors do more than just listen to their sources, they can be quite shrewd and insightful. "If there was a single point at which the Cold War ended," they write, "it was probably . . . the moment when Gorbachev acceded to German unification within NATO." As for Ronald Reagan, they note that the Americans who elected him "had little idea that . . . they were electing a radical, a heretic, an idealist, a romantic, a nuclear abolitionist."

Though it is outside the period covered by the book, the authors note that within a year of Mr. Gorbachev's leave-taking, Mr. Bush, too, passes from the scene. Indeed, while the three years chronicled in "At the Highest Levels" were a marvelous, heady time for citizens throughout the world, and especially in newly free societies, there is a certain melancholy attached to these superpower leaders and their key subordinates. Perhaps it's because we know that for all their personal magnetism and careful diplomacy, they too represented the end of an era.

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