Ambassador Richard Holbrooke valued human relationships so deeply that he believed they could change the world.
For Holbrooke, listening was an elevated art. In public, he willingly waded into the planet’s thorniest standoffs. And he solved them. He is best known for his success as chief architect of the Dayton Accords, where he successfully brokered the end of the war in Bosnia in 1995.
Yet Holbrooke had engaged in the daily—largely unseen—heroics of statecraft since the Vietnam War. For more than 40 years, he gave his life to working in faraway places. Long plane rides, deplorable conditions, endless hours with unsavory characters—his was a life of service.
Ambassador Holbrooke constructed his ideal of service with one basic truth at its core: that people and relationships matter deeply. They form the principal building block of any successful peace.
The ambassador’s understanding that relationships were integral to the success of any diplomatic mission drove his work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even before President Obama appointed Holbrooke to the post of special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009, Holbrooke had traveled widely and aggressively in the most dangerous outposts of the region. He had a visceral understanding that real solutions had to be forged in the field. He had quietly established the connections with a host of characters with whom the United States could build a new and more effective policy.
Holbrooke never referred to Afghanistan and Pakistan separately. Instead, he was one of the first diplomats to insist on using the term Af-Pak. Through this, he made clear to everyone involved that the region was part of a unified problem and required a single, integrated solution.
Over decades of public service, he championed the idea that countries—like clans, families, and even wars—boiled down to a series of interlinked relationships.
In private, Richard Holbrooke’s friendships patterned his life. Even at great distances, he was perpetually on call to those who needed him most. His wife, journalist and human rights advocate Kati Marton, was his best friend. He offered the best of his advice and guidance to an endless host of earnest young diplomats and journalists. He cherished the successes of his children, David and Anthony, and his stepchildren, Lizzie and Christopher Jennings.
Ambassador Holbrooke was the most open and generous man imaginable. While on the grand, global scale he gave his life to negotiating complex relationships, he did the same on the smallest and most intimate of settings. Around his and his wife Kati’s dining room table in New York City, or sitting by the ocean on Long Island, he loved to roll up his sleeves and work out the problem of the day. That could mean helping an Afghan village leader avert battle in Kunduz or helping a young friend find a good boyfriend. Always approachable and loyal to a fault, Holbrooke was available to all who needed his uniquely wise counsel.
Beyond the staggering achievements that have led President Obama to call him “a true giant of American foreign policy,” Holbrooke leaves behind a web of connections and relationships that stretch across the world. He will be missed not only by those who relied directly on his warm friendship and wise guidance, but also by the citizens of Vietnam, Bosnia, and Afghanistan-Pakistan—to name just a few—who didn’t know him. Millions of people relied on his ability to make peace without even knowing his name.