When the news of the death of Talleyrand’s old sparring partner, Prince Metternich, arrived in Paris in XXX XXX, he is said, famously to have asked “Now what can the old fox mean by that?”
The question which will be being asked after the death of one of our own age’s most significant diplomat, Richard Holbrook yesterday, will be “What an earth do we do now”
He was a very big man and not without flaws as diplomat. He had huge and at times even intimidating physical presence which he would often use, quite deliberately to bully others into acquiescence. If you were going to win Richard’s respect you had to show him you could stand up to him. Then he was a most wonderful ally and a most intelligent friend. A fellow diplomat once said to me about his iconic work to bring peace to the Bosnian wars “When Richard was about the sound of breaking bones was not far away”. It worked well in the Balkans – arguably less well in Afghanistan. I remember once having Richard and the recent French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner to dinner at my house in Sarajevo. Both were out of Government at the time and both clearly positioning themselves for a return after the coming election in their country. I asked them both to speculate on what the world might be like of Richard fulfilled his lifetime’s ambition of becoming US Secretary of State, and Bernard his, of becoming President of France. A furious and fascinating pyrotechnic display followed from both sides – though I remember concluding afterwards that it would be a world in which I would take some pains to ensure I was never far from my tin hat.
Richard Holbrook was above all a magnificent public servant for his country, from his very earliest days as a young Foreign Service officer in the Mekong Delta, through his life times triumph at the Dayton Peace Agreement, to serving, often uncomfortably I thought, under Hilary Clinton and President Obama in Afghanistan.
His greatest gifts were his clarity of mind, his sense of grand strategy and his ability to deploy power. I remember him telling me how he had fed false US intelligence to the Bosniaks about the strength of the Serbs at the end of the Bosnian war in order to bring the conflict to an end and create the conditions for peace. Subtlety was not in his armoury. But then, his heyday was during the years when America’s raw power was its most potent diplomatic attribute. This Richard used with huge skill and complete focus. He was a mover of pieces on the chess board when the world was mono-polar and all our compass needles, for or against, pointed at Washington. Palmerston would have understood very well where Richard Holbrook came from.
Richard was the ideal US diplomat when the US proposed and disposed in every corner of the world. Perhaps he found coping with the US’s new position in a multi-polar world, less congenial and less suitable to his skills. He seemed somehow like a great beast confined, in his recent role in Afghanistan, where he had all the right ideas (seeing more clearly and earlier than most the fact that a military solution was not possible and that therefore the military’s job was not to destroy the enemy, but create the conditions for a political peace) but was constantly hampered both by inter-Washington jealousies and by lack of the direct ability to influence things at the top in the way which he was used to.
Bosnia’s peace will be his greatest legacy. His legacy in Afghanistan is not without its critics – especially from those amongst the Afghans who found his forceful ways an assault on their sensitivities and those in the wider world for whom diplomacy in this part of the world is a matter of subtlety and manoeuvre not might. But he was correct about what needed to be done and right where others were wrong. Now everyone understands that a political peace, not a military victory, is the way out. If they had understood that earlier, things would be better.
When in due course the Afghan peace is assembled, based on reconciliation with the Taliban and a wider involvement of the neighbours, it will be the kind of peace Richard worked for.
America has lost a great public servant, albeit one more suited, perhaps to a different age. Those who knew him well, have lost a wonderful, congenial, loyal and intensely engaging friend. And I an age too full of smaller figures, we have all lost a really big one.