Much has been made over the tragic death of one of America’s most accomplished diplomats. It is well known that Holbrooke was a great man, an imposing figure, and an unmatched negotiator. These traits are often used as stand-alone factors to prove his indispensable value to U.S. diplomacy. However, it would not necessarily be true to say that these traits alone made him an irreplaceable figure to United States foreign policy. The real value of Holbrooke’s personality lies in the type of person that his characteristics created, because while others may maintain the same type of demeanor, no one has ever truly embraced those characteristics like Richard Holbrooke.
Known as the “bulldozer” in American politics, Richard Holbrooke was a demanding and sometimes impossible figure, but he understood Washington far less than he understood the world. Far from a character flaw, Holbrooke’s apathy towards American politics allowed him to carry out his duties with an effectiveness that we may never again see. Today, America has a culture of diplomats with a great understanding of Washington but less about the world. Many diplomats come from backgrounds in Washington as opposed to backgrounds in foreign affairs and international relations.
Hillary Clinton is the perfect example. As Secretary of State, she was rewarded not for her expertise in foreign affairs, but for her well connectedness in Washington’s inner circles. It was no secret that Richard Holbrooke had aspirations to be Secretary of State. Had Hillary Clinton won the Presidency, it is expected that she would have granted him his wish. Even so, the man who brokered the Dayton Peace Accords and stood toe-to-toe with Slobodan Milosevic should have achieved that position prior to the 2010 election. However, he stepped on the toes of many power brokers in Washington. He didn’t make friends or play politics, and this apathy towards the the American political machine is what ultimately barred him from achieving this goal.
How did he anger the elites in Washington? Consider the previous example of his participation spearheading a peace agreement with Slobodan Milosevic. The Clinton era saw a common turn in American foreign policy towards a strong sentiment of isolationism. From the onset of the genocide in Eastern Europe, Republicans threw a fit over any American attempt to participate in a resolution of the conflict. Richard Holbrooke is credited with changing the foreign policy of the United States in the 90s. He went up against the Pentagon virtually single-handedly, and he emerged having convinced defense officials to diametrically alter their position on international relations. This less known achievement is perhaps the most impressive of Holbrooke’s storied career, and while his efforts eventually led to an end to the genocide in Czechoslovakia, they granted him no favors in the eyes of the ruffled Washington elite.
Holbrooke represented the best of American politics. He was a man who cared less about his political future than he cared about doing what was right by the American people. In a day and age in which political advancement trumps all else, this characteristic will be sorely missed. His brutal honesty was seen as rude, but this lack of political correctness should be appreciated as a rare expression in today’s political climate. Isolationism is all well and good, but it ignores the realty of an increasingly globalized society. America has never been able to turn its back on the world for long, and our country is a safer place when we allow our government officials to push our agenda abroad. The real idea behind isolationism is a fear of war and a Vietnam-like quagmire, but the best way to avoid this disaster is to maintain a vigorous and proactive dialogue with foreign nations.
Why does Richard Holbrooke’s death really matter? Because in an era when politics rules all, it didn’t rule him. American diplomacy is a perpetual war for perpetual peace. It is the first line of defense in the security of our country. As the leader of a dying breed of American diplomats, the values that Richard Holbrooke brought to the table will be sorely missed.