I am often asked these days, what would Richard Holbrooke be doing now? Indeed, as we cast about for the right response to this staggeringly dangerous moment for our country and the world, Richard’s life and diplomacy might offer guideposts as well as sorely needed hope. As his partner during his Balkan diplomacy through his final mission, Afghanistan and Pakistan, I have a notion of how he would approach the new reality. Though Donald Trump’s victory would have dealt Richard a personal blow, one thing he would not be is quiet.
Richard’s sense of America’s role and obligation in the world was visceral, and undergirded by 50 years as diplomat and negotiator. No one else participated in the Paris Peace talks on Vietnam in 1968 and, three decades later, negotiated the end of Europe’s most savage war since World War II (Bosnia). Richard did not need a job or a title to get the world’s attention. In the Age of Trump, he would be in overdrive, using every one of his many platforms.
With Richard’s proven record of achievement – and decades of friendships in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill—even Trump and his partisans would have trouble entirely discrediting him, though they would certainly try. Having bested some of the world’s worst bullies, Richard knew how to give as good as he got. Unlike most members of the derided foreign policy “elite,” his language was direct; he made complex issues understandable and urgent. Richard came across as human, not wonkish.
This would be an asset in the current anti-elitist environment. He would rally dispirited Democrats to formulate fresh answers to the challenges of global populism, xenophobia, a lawless cyber world, a resurgent Russia and - above all - an undisciplined and ignorant new “Leader of the Free World.” He would urge his colleagues to tear up old position papers and appraise the world as it is – not as they imagined it to be.
Richard would be as a one-man demolition crew, pulverizing the fictions spouted by the White House and too often left unchallenged by a still stunned media.
He would also be writing up a storm. Part journalist, part historian, Richard saw how events today relate to prior events. Recently rereading his letters from his very first diplomatic assignment – Vietnam- I was stunned by the speed with which the twenty- something Richard sized up that Vietnam was the wrong war: unwinnable and not worth the sacrifice. His writing now would be replete with allusions to the toxic nationalism that preceded World War I, and the vicious racism of the 1930s, which led straight to World War II. Prior to those catastrophes, America, Richard would remind us, had largely retreated from the world. We cannot do so again.
The idea of America –history’s boldest experiment - cannot be allowed to fail, he would remind us, as he often did in the past. What we stand for, Richard would assert, is as vital to our national interest, to our security and to our future, as a strong military.
The America that is as much about an idea as it is a place, hasn’t vanished. We are not the America that blusters and bullies our southern neighbor about a fence. We do not mutter swampy conspiracy theories about climate change being a Chinese hoax. We are not the America that talks of religious tests for those crossing our borders – nor when a rival power crosses it with cyber attacks, do we respond by belittling our intelligence agencies. We do not demand that our allies pay up or we trim the alliance. America is not a real-estate investor looking for a good deal. This would be his message to the world.
Richard saw no contradiction between hard-nosed strategic calculation and humanitarian values. Swagger and force detached from principles make us no better than any other authoritarian power was his view. How can America lead the world if it does not do so by example? If we condone torture, excuse race baiting, and celebrate sexual aggression - who are we to criticize others? Who are we now?
Refugees - from Vietnam, the Balkans to Afghanistan - were at the core of Richard’s diplomacy. He first encountered their misery at the Thai-Cambodian border in 1979. He responded with his relentless focus, determination and willingness to make an absolute nuisance of himself on their behalf. He persuaded President Jimmy Carter to allow 168,000 Indochinese refugees into the United States annually for an indefinite period. Had he lived, Richard would have spent all his personal capital on behalf of Syrian refugees - the greatest human flood since the World War that made refugees of Richard’s parents. He would now ask how we can we call on others to accept refugees, if we tighten our own quotas against them, as we shamefully did in the 1930s and 40s?
Richard’s signal achievement, the Dayton Accords, holds important lessons for ending the greatest political and humanitarian catastrophe of our time: the destruction of Syria. One of his mantras, gone unheeded amid the current Mideast nightmare, was to engage early when you have options – not late, when you have few or none. Early in the conflict, he would have urged a no- holds -barred U.S. diplomatic initiative, leading to a regional conference including all players, even the repellent Syrian President, Bashar el -Assad. Richard strongly held that you could not end a war without the participation of those who started it. Dayton without Milosevic? The bloodletting would have continued, just as it has in Syria. Frankly, I am at a loss as to what Richard would be advocating at this late and tragic moment for Syria. But then, I am not Richard Holbrooke.
He despised the nationalist grudge matches of the Balkans – now replaying in Eastern and Central Europe. When Milosevic promised to “protect Serb traditions and culture,” Richard saw it as the first step on the road to Muslim ethnic cleansing and, eventually, genocide. He would be dismayed today that my own homeland, Hungary, under Victor Orban, has learned nothing from its own past and is using Milosevic-like language. Countries like Hungary and Russia have a history of demagogues deploying racism and martial thumping to stay in power. Richard would be relentless in calling them out, and alert to any sign of Trump following their shabby lead. It always starts with words, he used to say—hateful words that rapidly become hateful acts.
Richard was a non-ideological thinker, never stuck in the last war, or his last diplomatic triumph. He would fully grasp the danger of Russia’s cyber war as the latest round in a relationship that was never based on friendship or shared values. He would chart a course of intense diplomatic engagement with Moscow. Clearly, unremitting enmity against every Putin move only fuels Russian nationalism – the dictator’s oxygen. But flattering tweets about Putin the manly man do the same. Richard was not an advocate of a quiet conversation in the White House Situation Room as a way to confront aggression. He would urge direct and early response to a Russian threat to the Baltics or any sign of the disruption of upcoming elections in France and Germany. Visibly toughening and strengthening NATO would be his way. Richard saw the Atlantic alliance not as America’s burden, but its strength. He regarded Germany as the lynchpin of our European foreign policy. He would certainly consider Chancellor Angela Merkel –precariously perched between Trump’s America and Putin’ s Russia – as the most important anti-authoritarian leader in the world, the one that most needs and merits the support of the other, non-Trump America.
To survive the Age of Trump, he would urge defiance and tough mindedness. Bureaucrats in Washington, Brussels and at the UN often cautioned Richard, “This is not the way we do business here.” Such reproof would only make him double down, and crash through custom. Obviously this quality did not always endear him to his colleagues. I was there when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan regretfully told Richard the Security Council would not take up the issue of the global scourge of AIDS. “It is a health issue, “ Mr. Annan said. “We deal only with security matters.” Richard persevered and partly as a result of the UN’s attention at the highest level, AIDS is no longer at the same global threat level.
Despair would not be an option for Richard, and cannot be for us now. His focus – and now ours – must be the next mission.
When the Cold War ended and American troops withdrew from Germany, many thought our mission in the thriving Federal Republic was done. Not Richard. Since he so fervently believed in the power of ideas, he conjured into life the American Academy in Berlin. It would be a place where ideas would flow across the breakfast table and into the night, where the best of American thinkers, artists and statesmen would meet their German counterparts, in the most gorgeous setting with the most terrible history.
Thus has the Wannsee has been transformed into a sort of German-American agora for great minds. Given the temper of our times, the Academy’s role is more important in 2017 than even my husband might have imagined in 1994. Indeed, there are many things in the present that Richard could not have imagined. He would be relentless, however, in presenting our country and the world a different vision of America.
Kati Marton’s latest book is True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy (Simon and Schuster).