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Helping Moscow do business

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the first Western leader to express the view that Mikhail Gorbachev was a man with whom Britain, the United States and their allies "could do business." Thatcher was speaking figuratively when she predicted several years ago that Gorbachev would become that rare Soviet leader who was prepared to negotiate creatively and in good faith on issues such as arms control. Now, though, the nature of the Soviet Union's relationship with the Western alliance has changed to the point that Thatcher's judgment is beginning to be tested more literally. Business _ not arms control or regional conflict _ may be the business of U.S.-Soviet relations for the rest of this century. And if Gorbachev can't do business with Robert Strauss, he can't do business with anybody.

Strauss, the consummate Texas deal maker, will bring an intriguing combination of skills to the job of U.S. ambassador to Moscow. The almost universal praise that greeted President Bush's surprising nomination is an indication of the extent to which Strauss has built mutually productive relationships across the American political spectrum. He has a proven record of managing to do productive business, political or otherwise, with just about anybody, regardless of race, color, creed or ideology. If anybody is capable of giving Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders a crash course in the nuances of capitalism, Strauss could be the person.

Strauss is no expert on the issues that have dominated U.S.-Soviet relations since World War II, but he doesn't need to be. For example, the bulk of the work on new treaties to reduce conventional and long-range nuclear weapons has been completed, and Strauss' appointment should have no effect on the ultimate ratification of those negotiations. Instead, Strauss can concentrate on the new relationships that are developing as a result of Gorbachev's historic political and economic reforms.

As the Soviet Union struggles with the transition to a decentralized economy, Gorbachev is seeking entree to such capitalist havens as the Group of Seven economic summit. Strauss, a former U.S. trade representative, is the perfect intermediary between Soviet officials looking for assistance and the Western political and business leaders capable of providing it.

Above all, Strauss' nomination has great symbolic significance. The formal, adversarial atmosphere that dominated U.S.-Soviet relations for almost half a century was the almost exclusive province of career diplomats. Now, as the two nuclear superpowers enter a new era of political and economic cooperation, Washington and Moscow are beginning to turn to representatives with very different talents and personalities.

Just as the transition from the stone-faced Andrei Gromyko to the affable Eduard Shevardnadze in the mid-1980s signaled a welcome change in the way the Soviet Union intended to conduct foreign policy, the Bush administration's choice of Strauss sends an encouraging message to Gorbachev at a critical time. If the Soviets really want to begin paying their dues in the Western capitalists' club, Strauss is the perfect person to sponsor their membership.

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