Richard Holbrooke, R.I.P.

13 December 2010


Richard Holbrooke, one of the great diplomatic arm-twisters of our time, has passed away at the age of 69. The world will quite literally not be the same without him.

It is often said that the graveyards of the world are filled with irreplaceable men, and it is easy to ridicule the “Great Man” theory of history, and these considerations may lead us to assume that individuals are always both dispensable and fungible. But this is not the case. If a pivotal man goes missing at a pivotal moment, certainly history will continue without missing a beat, but the outcome may be less than optimal. Of course, history almost never produces optimal outcomes, so perhaps we should say that when there is no man to be matched to the hour, the outcome can be worse than we expected, and much worse than we had hoped.

Perhaps Holbrooke would have been the man to force a politically sustainable settlement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, except for the intervention of a weak aorta, in consequence of which (as Pascal observed concerning Cleopatra’s nose), “the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

We can never know what would have been; proof of what would have involved a counter-factual conditional, which is one of the more problematic instruments in the philosopher’s toolkit.

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2 Responses to “Richard Holbrooke, R.I.P.”

  1. Your comments on the “Great Man Theory” of history are to my mind spot on. Yes, there are deep structural factors constantly at play throughout history, especially geography which so dramatically influences culture, but the drama of history is played by specific actors.

    Those that are good (or bad for that matter, but talented), or good for the specific time with which they live, unquestionably influence the course of history.

    This is why history’s tapestry is so complex, much like a spider web glistening in the morning dew. It is an artistic creation that must conform to the established material constraints of the moment, but can be subtly woven in different patterns by those capable of strenuous effort and those with reservoirs of capacity.

    Holbrooke appears such a man. I would rank him behind probably only Kissinger as the greatest American diplomat of the past half century. Indeed, if we were to look at the entire 20th Century I think 4 names stand head and shoulders above the rest: Kennan, Acheson, Kissinger and Holbrooke. Each with their own skills and their own unique perspectives. With Kissinger (my favorite), I have actually read his Harvard undergrad magnum opus on “The Meaning of History” and can attest to his erudition and philosophically inquiring mind (who else would attempt such a feat and then wade through Spengler, Toynbee and Kant?). To have that backdrop guiding American foreign policy at a time of tumult and massive dislocation vis a vis the previous two decades, was an overall positive, though one can always (and will) argue on many of the specifics.

    With Holbrooke, we have a different creature. The moral bull in a China shop who used bluster as a well timed tactic to extract concessions once other variables (like the pressure on the Serbs before the Dayton Peace Accords) are brought to bear. He seemed a man whose personality would not be “diplomatic” in the conventional (perhaps, “Florentine” sense), yet his accomplishments were profound.

    This is a sad moment for those who want to see America embrace a skillful diplomacy that is more than threats and more than words, but what it always should be, an ever changing mixture based upon the contingencies and exigencies of the moment.

    It is an art, not a science, the great practioners understand this.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lawson,

      Thanks for your comment.

      We could analogize between the structural factors of geography that influence history and the personality of specific agents in history: personalities make up the landscape of diplomacy, and this is a “fact on the ground” just as much as a river or a mountain, except that the personalities change more quickly than the courses of rivers or the height of mountains. Because the moral landscape of diplomacy can change suddenly and dangerously, it is like the rapids of a river. In other words, diplomacy is an “extreme sport.”

      And this is more than a mere analogy: individual personalities are shaped by cultures and societies; cultures and societies are shaped in turn by the landscapes from which they emerge, or so I have argued in several posts.

      I was unaware of Kissinger’s undergraduate work you mention, but I am definitely intrigued, as this would have been the ground of what followed.

      Best wishes,


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