HARDLY anyone has a bad word to say about James Baker III. As the new United States secretary of state takes the diplomatic helm, Washington seems braced for a period of strong, pragmatic foreign-policy making. Diplomats, lawmakers, and administration officials are all quick to cite Mr. Baker's qualifications: political deftness, vast experience in government, negotiating skill, and closeness to President Bush.
No secretary of state in recent memory begins his leadership in such a favorable environment of respect and admiration.
The generous assessments are not without an underlying concern, however. The unknown question, diplomatic specialists say, is whether Secretary Baker, in addition to his demonstrated capacity for pragmatic problem-solving, has a gift for the creative, innovative initiatives that are seen to be required in today's changing world.
``What is not clear is whether, once he is settled, he will demonstrate a capacity for long-term thinking and conceptualization,'' says one of Washington's most respected foreign diplomats. ``In the coming years there will be fundamental challenges - both in Europe and Asia - and one hopes George Bush, Jim Baker, and [national security adviser Brent] Scowcroft will be up to these fundamental challenges.''
Comments David Newsom, director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy: ``We're headed into a period when developments in the Soviet Union, shifts in economic power, and concerns about the planet will require major rethinking of our national priorities. I don't see many signs of bold new initiatives.''
But, Mr. Newsom adds, the fact that Baker is prone to prob lem-solving and is not burdened by an ideological approach is all to the good.
So far, Baker seems not to have missed a step in his life of public service. As White House chief of staff under President Reagan, he was one of a triumvirate of Reagan aides who helped the President achieve quick political and legislative success in his first term. In addition to his flair for maneuvering Congress, Baker displayed great skill in dealing with the press.
As secretary of the Treasury (1985-88), Baker quickly became a dominant member of the Reagan Cabinet. As Reagan was reeling under the revelations of the Iran-contra scandal, Baker was winning plaudits from European and Japanese leaders for his ambitious plan to lower the value of the dollar and stabilize exchange rates.
A fellow Texan, Baker has ties with George Bush dating back to 1970. He ran Bush's unsuccessful campaign for president in 1980 and took over the faltering presidential campaign in 1988 in time to put Bush over the top by a solid margin. The two are close personally and politically, a fact that gives Baker special entree at the White House and enhances his stature at the State Department, which likes nothing better than an influential secretary of state.
On the face of it, Baker's experience at Treasury should stand him in good stead. International economic problems - the trade deficit, currency stability, world debt, and the coming economic integration of Western Europe - are becoming an integral element of foreign policy. Some diplomatic specialists note that no secretary of state, even when well versed in economics, has proved influential in this field, because the State Department is not the power base for economic policy.
``Like Dean Acheson, George Shultz had a background out of Treasury and everyone had high hopes for him on economic issues,'' says Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. ``Yet the economics department under Shultz was very weak.''
Still, Baker is expected to staff the department with strong economic officials and to play a major role in this area. Among those under consideration for senior positions is Robert D. Hormats, who is vice-chairman of Goldman, Sachs International and has served in the past four administrations.
On general diplomatic issues, Baker is moving very cautiously. Diplomatic experts give him high marks for his smooth performance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing. He paved the way for a good reception by calling on individual members of the committee before the hearings began. Having had thorough briefings that helped educate him in unfamiliar areas, he carefully reiterated State Department policies, reassuring US friends and allies abroad and giving himself room to study issues further.
``Nobody knows how he'll perform in office, but there is a sense of comfortableness in the building,'' a senior State Department official says. ``He seems to be quick, serious, and well balanced. So people are reassured he will not go off half-cocked - as did Al Haig.''
One major area where the new secretary of state has some boning up to do is arms control, and he has already begun the indoctrination process. Administration officials who have been present at arms control briefings for Baker say he is bright and engaged.
``Shultz tended to sit back and absorb everything without reacting,'' comments one US arms control official. ``Baker was more involved. Obviously there are gaps in his knowledge and he'll have to go through a learning process, but I think he'll be a quick study.''
In terms of policy, a major challenge - and question mark - is what the President will do about the all-important US-Soviet relationship. Baker has echoed Bush's caution and determination to review relations. With General Scowcroft heading up the National Security Council staff and former Henry Kissinger aide Lawrence Eagleburger chosen to be deputy secretary of state, diplomatic experts say, there could be a certain toughening of the US line.
``Not necessarily hard-line,'' a US official says, ``but a fairly cautious approach that is not too negative but reassures the conservative right.''
Diplomatic analysts agree that Baker takes over at a time of significant geopolitical changes that call for assertive rather than reactive US policies: the sweeping innovations in the Soviet Union, the rising power of Japan and other countries in East and Southeast Asia (and corresponding relative decline of American power), the growing assertiveness of the European allies, and economic and political turmoil in the Western Hemisphere.
``The question is whether Baker will continue the reactive diplomacy of Shultz, letting Gorbachev set the agenda,'' Mr. Maynes, a former diplomat, says. ``You can argue that with the opportunities that might be there, now is the time for someone who articulates a postwar vision of the future.''
Grave foreign policy issues aside, State Department bureaucrats are impressed with Baker's unpretentiousness - a judgment made by the fact that he is often spotted eating in the communal State Department cafeteria.