Baker's Record at `State' Strong on Pragmatism Texan Has the Knack for Handling Crises at Hand and Responding to Opportunities for Progress, but Critics Say He Lacks 'Great Vision' Needed to Completely Fulfill Role. AMERICA'S TOP DIPLOMAT

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ASK any 10 experts to comment on the peripatetic Texan now serving as America's top diplomat and nine are likely to give you the same response: James Baker III is a shrewd negotiator who is long on tactical skill and short on strategic vision.

Ask them whether his talents have been an asset or liability during his three eventful years as secretary of state and the consensus weakens.

Mr. Baker's partisans, who seem to far outnumber his detractors, say his tactical flexibility is ideal for an era in which flux has replaced fixity in the international system. 'Vision' questioned

"It's true that he does not have a grand vision of how the world should operate, but the changes have been so rapid that every grand vision has been overtaken by events," says University of Colorado diplomatic historian Robert Schultzinger. "Ironically, there's probably a virtue in being able to react tactically as well as he has."

Baker's critics, however, say his unquestioned political skills have become a substitute for a real foreign policy: While Baker's attention to detail has paid off, for example, in the Middle East, they say it has diverted his attention from other issues - including relations with Japan - that bear more heavily on the establishment of a stable post-cold-war international order.

"It is ... a requirement of statecraft to have a vision of the world," the New Republic wrote in a recent editorial broadside against Baker and President Bush. "It is an administration of fixers, when we need builders."

The man who has presided over the biggest transition in American foreign policy since the early cold-war years has benefited from events breaking right. While his predecessors labored to contain communism, Baker has watched it collapse.

But shaping that transition to American interests and avoiding major mistakes through a period of sweeping and unpredictable change has required "a combination of being lucky and being good at the same time," says a State Department source who has watched Baker up close.

Recognizing that German reunification was inevitable and that a unified Germany inside NATO was far preferable to having a demilitarized Germany outside NATO, Baker became the first alliance leader to throw his weight behind unification. The effect was to help head off a divisive debate that could have weakened both NATO and the European Community (EC).

"No one thought it was possible to get the Sovet Union to agree to a unified Germany in NATO," says the official. "Baker saw the opportunity, jumped on it, and helped manage the transition in Europe to a smooth conclusion. In the process he built credits with Germany that will be good for years to come." Criticism rebuffed

Department officials also chafe at the charge that Baker's foreign policy lacks vision. While a few acknowledge that he did not instantly grasp the historical significance of communism's demise, they say Baker has since laid out a comprehensive vision of the "architecture" of post-cold-war Europe, elaborated in two major speeches given in Berlin.

On a global scale, they add, Baker has defined a "trialogue" - the United States, Japan, and the EC - as the diplomatic focal point of the post-cold-war era.

The region that has showcased Baker's strengths as secretary of state has been the Middle East.

His talent for personal persuasion was crucial in helping round out the coalition that expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

After the Gulf war, it was Baker's persistence and sheer force of character that finally convinced the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict to sit down at the bargaining table.

"Baker would deserve {a Nobel peace prize} for his negotiation skill, sticking power, energy, and so forth - though, in the end, it is the president's commitment to it that has made the peace process credible," says former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. …

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