Richard Holbrooke: A giant of American foreign policy

Occasionally there are figures in a country's foreign policy establishment whose stature exceeds even that of a foreign minister. Richard Holbrooke, who died unexpectedly on December 13, was such a statesman.

Occasionally there are figures in a country's foreign policy establishment whose stature exceeds even that of a foreign minister. Richard Holbrooke, who died unexpectedly on December 13, was such a statesman.

He was considered for Secretary of State twice, but both times lost the post to women - Madeleine Albright in 1997 and Hillary Clinton in 2008. Holbrooke was a tank, an armored battleship of diplomacy, but also a very harsh person by all accounts. Diplomacy, even in the United States, requires a softer touch.

At the end of his career, he was a Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Obama administration. In this role, Holbrooke essentially stood above the State Department and answered directly to the president. There are few diplomats of this stature in the world. They are like virtuoso violinists: they may not conduct the orchestra, but without them the orchestra would be lost.

Holbrooke died during surgery to repair a tear in his aorta. He was only 69 years old, but his career encompassed a mind-boggling number of accomplishments. He served as an ambassador to Germany and later to the UN and was appointed assistant secretary of state several times, dealing with problems in Europe and Asia. He was a professor and author of books, a columnist for The Washington Post, an editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, and the list goes on...


About a year ago, an article appeared in the very same Foreign Policy questioning the logic behind sending Holbrooke on a mission to Moscow, where he was not liked. Apart from his aggressive negotiating style, Holbrooke was most identified with two Clinton-era foreign policy projects that did not please Russia at all: the partition of Yugoslavia and the eastward expansion of NATO.

Soon after Obama visited Moscow in July 2009, NATO encountered a problem with transporting its military cargo across Russia. Holbrooke was responsible for cargo deliveries and the rest of the civilian side of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. He immediately got down to business, and the result is well known: Russia now allows the transit of U.S. and NATO supplies to Afghanistan through its territory.

Yugoslavia was one of the darkest chapters in his career. In 2008, Serbian authorities arrested Radovan Karadzic, the former president of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and turned him over to the Hague. He was charged with complicity in the murder of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 and the 43-month siege of Sarajevo in which 10,000 people died.

Karadzic insisted that the tribunal declassify his secret written agreements with Holbrooke, who was then the U.S. envoy for the Balkans. Speaking on behalf of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Holbrooke allegedly promised him immunity from prosecution in exchange for his resignation. Karadzic maintains that he accepted the deal.

However, Holbrooke denied making any sort of arrangement with the Karadzic. And it turns out that Holbrooke was not even in Bosnia in an official capacity at the time.


Holbrooke's death could be seen as the symbolic end of an era of aggressive U.S. policy, if not for two things.

The first is Americans' pathological insistence that they are the world's "exceptional nation" - that they are stronger than any other nation and are always right.

Shortly before Holbrooke's death, the Washington Post published an article by E.J. Dionne Jr., in which he wrote, "Obama was elected for many reasons in 2008, but the country's underlying desire to reverse this sense of decline was central to his victory."


But to live up to the people's expectations, America will need more men like Holbrooke, though perhaps a smaller caliber model.

Secondly, there is the question of the roots of Holbrooke's aggressive style, his boundless energy and ability to win even from a losing position.

He began his career in Vietnam and even spoke Vietnamese. He was a character in the Vietnam drama almost from the beginning, in 1962. After the not very successful Paris talks in 1968, he resigned from government service, transitioned to academia and accepted the position of chief editor of Foreign Policy.

Holbrooke said during FP's Global Thinkers Gala on November 30, 2010: "In 1969, [the war in] Vietnam was at its height. Families didn't talk to each other, friendships were destroyed, ... millions of people descended on this city to protest the war."

The United States survived that defeat and even attempted to overcome its "Vietnam syndrome" during the presidency of George W. Bush. It failed, but in this failure there is surely a new lesson for the next generation of Holbrookes. Whether or not the United States ever regains its position as the undisputed leader of the world, it will always have diplomats who can teach the world to respect and emulate the American style of getting things done.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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