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Talbott on Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton

The growing relationship between post-soviet Russia and the United States: Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, Vancouver Summit. Fmr. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in conversation with Walter Isaacson, President & CEO of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson to the Aspen Institute with former Deputy Secretary of State strobe Talbott talking about American diplomacy and the tools that we use after the end of the Cold War in Gorbachev and President George HW Bush help bring it to a close we have a period in which are two other great personalities Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin you served during that administration first tell me about why they were able to get together as personalities and support each other well I had known President Clinton long long long before he was was president we were at Oxford together in our early 20s he had a fascination well with everything I can put it that way he's a polymath but he was particularly interested in Russia and this of course was in the dark days of the of the Cold War so he had always been concerned about the danger of war and the possibility of some day seeing that relationship greatly transformed also he understood that he would never have become president of the United States had it not been for the end of the Cold War there's an irony there of course because he prevented president george herbert walker bush from having a second term and he was able to do that because President Bush had been so successful in ending the Cold War so ponder that for a moment on as a irony of history and by the time President Clinton was in the White House Gorbachev was as the famous phrase has it was on the ash heap of history he was a retiree because he no longer had a country to be president of that had been the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin was the first post Soviet president of the russian federation and clinton was totally into the details of what was going on in Moscow and was very very eager to meet Yeltsin and see if he could basically build on the legacy of President Bush just as Gorbachev had left a legacy of reform to Yeltsin one of the great things about Russian history is the question that Tolstoy and others wrestle with if the wood extent is a great forces and to what extent is a great personalities who can change things Gorbachev you said is a great personality Yeltsin comes in as a larger-than-life personality and seems to bend the flow of history right yeah but he was as you just said he was basically continuing the bending that had started under Gorbachev you have a description in your book the Russia hand of Yeltsin would you talk about him having large appetites being undisciplined and everything else and as you read that description you think you could be describing Bill Clinton do you think that they had a certain bonding because Clinton understood that personality yes absolutely and of course as the world knows Yeltsin had his his foibles as weaknesses and his addictions and he was very often drunk at inopportune times I don't think there's ever an opportune time for a major leader of the world to be drunk but Bill Clinton had some experience growing up with alcoholism in his own family his stepfather yes and he had a an intuitive sense of how to manage Yeltsin even when he was inebriated but he also felt that yeltsin despite his shortcomings was a was a big man that's how and he didn't mean that physically he meant somebody who was determined to accomplish big goals and that was to put russia on the path of becoming and this is a kind of strangely modest sounding phrase a normal modern country one of the tools in diplomacy is the summit and reagan had quite a few of them but Gorbachev describe how a summit works and in particular Vancouver where President Clinton and you and others first really get to sit down with Boris Yeltsin including the fact that you have to deal with him drinking even at one point well summitry is a a sub subject of history particularly to diplomatic history that I've always been fascinated by and I had a chance to watch many summits when I was in government as well as many when I was a journalist a lot of a lot of factors go into even wear a summit is going to take place that says something about the nature of the relationship and the political standing of the two leaders at home one reason that that summit was in Vancouver a Canadian city on the Pacific coast is that yeltsin wanted to create the image a that he wasn't going to the united states because he was already getting a lot of criticism fork out owing to the Americans and be that he could meet President Clinton halfway as it were so that's why we ended up in in Vancouver a lot of preparation goes into the summits and the people who do that preparation are often called Sherpas I was a Sherpa for that somebody helps you climb what's up somebody who helps you climb a summit exactly and I made any number of trips to Moscow to talk to yeltsin's people about what they wanted the agenda to be and to tell them what we wanted the agenda to be I know what you do in the end is you basically make a compromise on what issues both men are willing to talk about what was some of the points you remember about a Vancouver summit well one is the lesson that we should always learn in life but have to keep learning and that is the map is not the territory life is what happens while you're making other plans and stuff happens which is to say we couldn't we didn't script into the program that President Yeltsin would get smashed on vodka while on a boat which was in a rather choppy waters on top of everything else and President Clinton seemed to be getting of a great out of that he wasn't making fun of Yeltsin but he was just sort of being understanding but there were a couple of points where Yeltsin was absolutely determined to get something big out of out of Clinton and what he wanted and this was really significant he wanted financial help in building retirement homes for X Soviet military who had gone into retirement in the Baltic States Lithuania Latvia and Estonia which were now independent countries that wanted to belong to the EU and NATO and didn't want a bunch of Russian officers around and Clinton despite the nervousness of some of his advisers not myself why my dad said I will get you money to do that because he because he Bill Clinton who was a master of retail domestic politics could see that the President of Russia post-soviet Russia was much more concerned with domestic economic issues and domestic political demands then his Soviet predecessors would have been because they were dictators all of which reminds us that these things of real people and real human beings not just in personal history one of the big questions that Bill Clinton was ahead of some of his advisors on was whether or not you just stood fast and close with Yeltsin and he decided early on that the u.s. was going to embrace Yeltsin cast his lot with Yeltsin why was that a controversy well it was a controversy for two reasons one Yeltsin was facing growing and and quite violent opposition and there was a lot of concern that yeltsin might be swept aside in a coup just as Gorbachev was for a few days swept aside and a coup and we would be end up backing a loser as it were Bill Clinton felt that if it looked like the west and the United States were abandoning Yeltsin that we'd get exactly the result that we didn't want also when Yeltsin crushed a armed rebellion that was based in the parliament building where a lot of the parliamentarians were basically holdovers from the Soviet time he had to use violent force and that was a shock to many people Bill Clinton basically said this guy was chosen by the Russian people to be their leader he's standing up to forces for the coming from the old regime and trying to reinstate the old regime and he is my friend and he and I have been able to accomplish a lot together and I'm not going to abandon him thank you