For two centuries Great Britain and the United States have been slowly reversing roles, and today the transmutation is almost complete. They are but a tiny outpost of a civilization dominated by the colossus across the water, and we have grown so cosmically potent that we barely give them a serious thought.

Except in the one area over which the Brits maintain a persistent, galling sway: the publishing industry. They seem to be running every other important American magazine, from the New Yorker to Vogue, the National Review to Harper's Bazaar, the New Republic to TV Guide, plus two giant American book publishers, Knopf and Random House.

Now, just as we were losing hope, along comes Anne Applebaum, rising star of British journalism. Foreign affairs columnist for the Daily Telegraph, Britain's largest quality newspaper. Deputy editor of the Spectator magazine, the house organ of Tory politicians and media types. Author of a new book, on her travels around what she calls the "borderlands" of Eastern Europe. And an American, born and raised in the District of Columbia.

Though not exactly the kind of American you'd associate with the word "Yank."

Back home recently to flack her book, "Between East and West," Applebaum moved around town in her sleek way -- black dresses and simple shoes, the anti-style style -- calling to mind Evelyn Waugh's formidable Mrs. Rattery as she first appears in the novel "A Handful of Dust": "She was a little over thirty. Somewhere in the Cottesmore country there lived a long-legged, slightly discredited Major Rattery, to whom she once had been married. She was American by origin, now totally denationalized, rich, without property or possessions, except those that would pack in five vast trunks."

Applebaum is just 30, actually, and by all accounts happily married to her own slightly rumor-tinged husband, Radek Sikorski, whose adventures include serving as deputy defense minister of Poland a few years ago, at age 29.

And unlike Mrs. Rattery, who vanishes from the novel as suddenly as she appears, Applebaum seems unlikely to go away anytime soon. She has lots and lots -- or, as she would say in the faintly posh accent she has acquired, "lawts and lawts" -- of mordant ideas about politics and other subjects, and you get the distinct feeling that she has only just begun to share them.

Like the English, she often makes her conversational points sideways -- by tone of voice, by leaning on certain words or syllables. Upon learning that her interviewer would like to tape the dinner conversation, for instance, she is momentarily nonplused.

"If I'm interviewing Gorbachev, I tape it," she says.

And in seven words, tidily makes a number of points: 1. I am modest enough to know I am not as important as Gorbachev. 2. I am important enough to have interviewed Gorbachev. 3. Unlike my interviewer, whose judgment is now rather in doubt, I would never bother to tape anyone who matters less than Gorbachev.

"I am a British writer," she says. "I write in the British style. My ideas are part of the British political debate."

In Britain, and particularly in Applebaum's new weekly column in the Telegraph, the pro-Tory newspaper, she says it works like this: "You have an idea about something, and you riff."

The Telegraph has been promoting her new column by running a photo of her (hand on forehead, cerebrating) on its front page. In the column, and in the Spectator, she riffs and riffs and riffs. On British foreign policy ("What ... would appear on {Labor Party leader} Mr. Blair's map of the world? To begin with, Continental Europe would appear not as a solid continent, but as a more mythical, floating land mass, an Atlantis seen through a glaze of fog"); on O.J. Simpson ("If an incident in any way out of the ordinary has occurred, a special form of national paralysis sets in. It is as if we have all experienced a trauma, and must be placed on the psychiatrist's sofa in order to think out loud until we have recovered"); on Bosnia, the Middle East and the better beverages ("to order a champagne aperitif raises eyebrows in New York").

On this trip she followed Oliver North on the campaign trail, and says she came away concluding that his election would be a good thing for the Senate, on the theory every institution needs a gadfly. Her Spectator piece on the campaign did not express this opinion, however, but offered an unmistakably British interpretation of North as a walking symbol of class warfare: "Driving back to Washington from Richmond, we heard the North advertisement on the radio again. Rural darkness was already giving way to the lights of shopping malls: the class divides in the United States have less to do with money and breeding, more to do with taste and education, attitude and geography, and crossing from Virginia into Washington, you cross them too."

Yet she says she hasn't lost her identity. "I'm a British journalist, but I'm completely" -- her left arm severs the air and lands on the table -- "American."

Turning Tory

So how did the "complete" American achieve, so early in life, such an exalted position in London's clubby political-media establishment? And how did a daughter of upper-middle-class, liberal, Jewish, Northwest Washington come to hold such fierce Tory opinions?

First of all, she says, she had to get far away from Washington.

"I really had no political opinions at all until I went abroad," she says.

She pauses. "Actually, you know what, I don't want you to write that."

The interviewer insists that it sounds too important to leave out. But what does it mean?

It means she grew up painlessly, idyllically, as the eldest of three daughters of Harvey and Elizabeth Applebaum. Her father is a longtime partner in the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling, and her mother is program coordinator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. They were the kind of family that travels often, reads a lot, discusses ideas over dinner.

It was a wonderful, sophisticated milieu for a child, she says. "But it was politically homogeneous as well."

She was "a lifer," as she puts it, at Sidwell Friends, "which is the sort of capital of liberal Washington. And it's a great school. But to have your eyes opened, to be made aware of something, you really have to go out. I suppose you either go across the river to Anacostia, and that's very different and that changes your politics, or you go abroad."

She was an academic star at Sidwell, and likewise at Yale, where she was managing editor of the New Journal, and graduated summa cum laude with a double major in literature and history.

She blew the interview for a Rhodes scholarship, she says, and somehow one can imagine that. The classic Rhodes scholar is a master of subtle toadying. People who have known Applebaum for years call her a born provocateur, a "controversialist."

She did manage to win a Marshall scholarship, another study-in-England deal, and spent a year at the London School of Economics, then went on to Oxford.

While there, she started sending freelance pieces to the Economist. The editors liked her, she enjoyed writing, and when a chance arose to become a stringer for the magazine in Poland, where the struggle between Solidarity and the government was heating up, she packed her bags.

Jacob Weisberg, a contemporary of hers at both Yale and Oxford, and now a political columnist for New York magazine, recalls that in New Haven "her politics were more au courant Yale politics, which is, to the extent that it has anything at all to do with the real world, left-wing. And that's certainly not her politics now. She's evolved in a conservative direction. The big thing there is living in Poland."

When Applebaum arrived in Warsaw, the political community broke down neatly, for the Western observer, into heroes (dissidents) and villains (Communists). The dissidents, who lionized Western anti-communists like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, became her friends and sources. She started taking Polish language lessons, and wrote her first piece about a dissident group called the Orange Alternative, which sent its message by taking Communist orthodoxy to its extreme -- issuing absurdly hard-line statements and staging super-patriotic demonstrations. In subsequent pieces, she chronicled the Polish revolution.

"She stood out from the crowd from the word go," recalls Daniel Franklin, who edited that first article and is now the Economist's Washington bureau chief.

Asked about the evolution of Applebaum's politics, he makes an observation common among her friends: "She has married someone who is really conservative. ... That's clearly been an influence too."

"I think deep down he's a monarchist," Weisberg says of Sikorski, and other friends concur.

"He's not from one of the big famous aristocratic families," Applebaum says at one point, in answer to a question about her husband's roots in Europe. "He's not a Zamoyski or a Radziwill. In Poland there's a word called szlachta, which means sort of minor gentry, and there were lots and lots of those. He has a coat of arms, and in fact this is it, on my ring."

She holds up her right pinkie. The restaurant is dark, and it's hard to make out the escutcheon.

"It's got a pheasant on it," she says.

Applebaum and Sikorski met and became friends in Warsaw, and in November 1989 drove together to Berlin to watch the Wall come down. As communism fell, they fell for each other. He'd grown up in Poland, and then in England as a political refugee, studied at Oxford and afterward gone off to write dispatches on the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan and Jonas Savimbi's rebels in Angola. Well-connected in political circles in the new Poland, he was named deputy defense minister in February 1992, but his dual citizenship and business connections with media mogul Rupert Murdoch made the appointment controversial. Applebaum recalls that his political enemies spread stories suggesting Murdoch or the CIA had put him through Oxford. All false, she says. In any event, the government collapsed within a few months. They were married that summer, in the yard of the Applebaum house on Albemarle Street NW.

Today Sikorski writes for British and American magazines and papers, and has a monthly show on Polish television interviewing the likes of Thatcher and Henry Kissinger. He works mainly out of Warsaw, and she out of London, but they move back and forth between the two. They're also solidly plugged into a transatlantic power grid of conservative editors, writers and politicians, and have a reputation for politically incorrect social mischief. "They have this little ironic shtick that they do," says a friend. "And people are often misinterpreting them, which is what gives them great amusement."

"Together we successfully wrecked a dinner party in London," says Applebaum. "Totally. Everybody had to go home." She had proposed that if Britain had been conquered by Germany in World War II, a lot of British people would have collaborated with the Nazis, as many French did. The Tories at the party went nuts. She goes on to describe a liberal dinner party she ended by noting that she liked Pope John Paul II, and how her husband ruined another one in New York by commenting, "Well I don't see what's wrong with Bob Dole."

Career Moves

After Poland, and a brief stint as an editor in the Economist's London office, Applebaum was hired by the 166-year-old Spectator to serve as foreign editor under Dominic Lawson. It meant the opportunity to write under a byline -- the Economist runs its articles anonymously -- and thus raise her profile. When the deputy editor moved over to the Telegraph, she took his spot, and secured a place in the inner circle of British media.

"The Spectator just embodies a special British point of view -- that you're allowed to write about serious things in a funny way," she says. "You know, high irony is permissible."

Unlike her punditry, which strives for Attitude, "Between East and West" is cool and uninflected, a study in subtle observation. Applebaum's goal, she says, was to "get under the skin of this question of nationalism" by traveling around and meeting ordinary people. In Lithuania she finds nationalists who profess spiritual ties to the ancient pagan denizens who worshiped trees, and others who are fiercely loyal to Poland. In one town, Perloja, the residents recall nothing so fondly as the time in 1918 when they declared themselves the independent Republic of Perloja -- a town as a country. And so it goes, on into various cities and towns of Belarus and Ukraine, where national identities seem to be as various as individual personalities.

"In the high Carpathians," she writes, "each valley speaks a different dialect, and each village has its own architecture. We passed through a region where the inhabitants paint pictures on their walls. At every turning, a girl and a boy, or a boy and a cow, or a farmer, presumably the owner, was depicted on a barn or a shed in flat, primary colors. A few miles later, the villagers stopped painting pictures, but instead built all their houses with high, pointed roofs designed to keep off snow in winter. A few miles after that came a village in which every inch of wooden space on every inch of house was covered with carvings -- leaves and snowflakes and geometric designs. Each house seemed to compete with the next, each seemed to want to be more elaborate than its neighbor. One house stood alone on a hill above a village and was completely covered in tiny mirrors that picked up sparks of sunlight, glittering and shimmering like a jewel cut to exotic proportions."

Her point, which she makes obliquely, is that ethnic nationalism is not always the evil force that outside observers -- Americans, for example -- make it out to be.

"Americans," she says, "have a lot of trouble sympathizing with what they perceive as peculiar and bizarre Ukrainian nationalism, because to them it looks like, it sounds, fascist. These people, they wear uniforms and they talk about things that happened a thousand years ago, and who cares?"

She says nationalist impulses can have wonderful results, as in the return of democracy to Poland, and writes that one of the things she was looking for in her travels was "proof that difference and variety can outlast an imposed homogeneity; testimony, in fact, that people can survive any attempt to uproot them."

There are more books to come, she expects. "I want to write nonfiction again. I have a novel too" -- she points to her brain -- "but nobody's going to give me a million-dollar advance to do that."

The Economist's Franklin assesses her career prospects as decidedly sunny: "I assume that if Dominic fell under a bus tomorrow, she would stand a good chance of being an American Tina Brown."

Applebaum wonders aloud, toward the end of dinner, if her ascension to the editorship would matter on this side of the Atlantic -- if the media here would take notice of an American doing over there what the Brits do here.

The interviewer says he's fairly sure the American media would make noise about such a development. And will she stay in London a while longer, to see if such glory awaits?

"I think Britain is endlessly fascinating," she says. "I didn't used to think that. I certainly didn't think it when I first went there. But I think so now."

CAPTION: Washington native Anne Applebaum has risen to near the top of British punditry.

CAPTION: Writer Anne Applebaum, a former Washington resident who has taken over prestigious duties in two of Britain's top conservative publications.