Dick Holbrooke’s sudden death is a blow to American diplomacy. His cleverness, his relentlessness, his raw humour, his skilled psychological pressure-plays and sheer bravura all combined with a sense of boldly wielding power to make him a uniquely formidable force.
I have written about my own meetings with on various occasions. See eg here, one of my earliest postings, describing how the Americans flick’d EU diplomacy off the table like an undernourished crumb.
And this one, describing his finely calculated patronising sexism aimed at a top British woman diplomat, and how his own US colleagues were twitching with nerves lest he chewed them out.
Then there was his outlandish attempt to blame anyone other than the Guilty Man for the NATO failure to arrest Radovan Karadzic straight after Dayton back in 1996.
Dick Holbrooke therefore was in a diplomatic category all of his own, leaving a trail of vivid Holbrooke stories in his wake as he pushed tirelessly to get results. But he did get results, where many others had failed.
How do those results stand the test of time?
In 1995 Pauline Neville-Jones and I sat in the US Ambassador’s Residence after dinner in Moscow after the final Contact Group meeting before Dayton, talking about how best to build Bosnia after the war and in particular how to foster some sort of shared national identity.
Pauline produced an English pound coin, to show that money could be used for different symbolic purposes, having a national motif on one side and different regional/ethnic symbols on the other.
Holbrooke rudely brushed that idea aside as a typical example of convoluted, too clever European pointy-headed thinking: "They’re going to have normal money like the US dollar, and that’s it!"
He was wrong. Failure to think creatively before, at and after Dayton about issues like this led to new stalemates and frustrations, with the result today that Bosnia is one of the worst-governed countries on the planet and a dismal return on huge amounts of foreign support.
On the other hand, it’s not at war. It has a chance. Bosnia in a decade has achieved far more than eg Cyprus or Israel/Palestine in terms of property returns and re-establishment of some sort of normal life.
Holbrooke’s style in the Balkans was all about pushing hard, not to get a perfect outcome but at least to shift things along in a broadly better direction when all else seemed stuck.
That’s one of the hardest tasks in diplomacy as in life – to be good at judging when to keep pushing and when to cut a deal. Not letting the Best be the enemy of the Good, or even of the Somewhat Better.
Hence also this recollection of a senior meeting in London about Bosnia in Spring 1996 when the Americans were simply better and firmer and bolder – in short, more convincing than the Brits and assorted Europeans.
Did Holbrooke then ‘cut a deal’ with Karadzic to get him to withdraw from public life? I suspect something of the sort. But we’ll never know what if anything Holbrooke promised, or offered. Maybe he simply left Karadzic with some strong impressions of positive and negative incentives, which in the circumstances were good enough to drive him slowly but surely far away from the Bosnian daily scene.
Richard Holbrooke’s legacy is therefore mixed. He was in the true sense of the word an extraordinary man, who accomplished extraordinary things in diplomacy by whatever means it took to do them.
He’ll be missed. And, more importantly, not easily replaced.