An unquiet American

An unquiet American Richard C. Holbrooke
Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the end of the American century

by George Packer (Jonathan Cape, £25/€30)



Richard C. Holbrooke, the subject of this biography, was a bombastic, egotistical, but immensely talented US diplomat who served at senior levels in the administrations of three Democratic presidents – Carter, Clinton and Obama.

He was earlier a relatively junior State Department official in Vietnam, and the failure of US policy there marked him for the rest of his life.

During the Republican administrations of Reagan and the two Presidents Bush, he decamped to Wall Street – where he used his impressive range of contacts worldwide to open doors for bankers, though he knew nothing about banking and was interested only in public service.

He claimed to have been inspired by Kennedy’s exhortation: “Ask not what your country can do for you…”

Under President Clinton, he was responsible for negotiating the Dayton Accords which ended the genocidal conflict in Bosnia in 1995.

Later, as Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations (UN), he secured the payment to the UN of huge arrears of funding due from the US which had been blocked by a hostile Congress in Washington – thus saving the UN from imminent dissolution.


However, his overbearing manner and personal insecurities made him a difficult colleague, and he never hid his contempt for most of his peers and superiors – and this is partly why he failed to realise his ambition to become US Secretary of State, a job for which he was eminently qualified.

He died in 2010, aged 69, as Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan – trying, without success, to broker a peace deal there as he had done at Dayton.

He was an old-fashioned US diplomat who believed that America had a mission to save the world for democracy. He believed in what he called “the basic moral force that exists in the principles of our system of government” – that is, the US system of government.

This is an utterly brilliant book, written with style and panache”

His heroes were the US diplomats who had “saved” Europe after the Second World War – Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Averell Harriman and others less well known – and he was a protégé of Dean Rusk, Secretary of State under Kennedy and Johnson.

He saw his roles in Bosnia and Afghanistan as messianic, spreading Pax Americana.

Such activist US diplomacy had been discredited by Vietnam, and so Holbrooke was increasingly something of an anomaly – an anachronism – in the corridors of power. That explains the subtitle of this biography – “Richard Holbrooke and the end of the American century”.

The author, George Packer, argues that America largely withdrew from engagement with the wider world in the later 20th Century – and Holbrooke’s career is the prism through which he analyses that withdrawal.

Packer writes that “Pax Americana began to decay at its very height”, but he dates its final demise to 1998 when Clinton’s personal peccadillo with a White House intern completely overshadowed the business of government and pushed international problems off the radar of the American political establishment.

This is an utterly brilliant book, written with style and panache, about a man who, notwithstanding his faults, represented what was best about America in its prime – when, to quote Packer: “America stood for something more than just its own power.”