Holbrooke’s heroic efforts at the U.N.
Richard C. Holbrooke, had his share of highlights during his 17-month stint as President Bill Clinton‘s ambassador to the United Nations. He prodded Indonesia into ultimately accepting East Timor’s independence, kept Sudan off the Security Council, got HIV/AIDS designated as an international security threat, and used his exceptional persuasive powers to compel the United Nations ...
Richard C. Holbrooke, had his share of highlights during his 17-month stint as President Bill Clinton‘s ambassador to the United Nations. He prodded Indonesia into ultimately accepting East Timor’s independence, kept Sudan off the Security Council, got HIV/AIDS designated as an international security threat, and used his exceptional persuasive powers to compel the United Nations to issue condoms to its peacekeepers.
His most notable accomplishment, however, was cajoling and bullying diplomats from 188 poorer countries into paying more for running the U.N. so the world’s wealthiest superpower could pay less.
Republicans in Congress had been threatening to hold U.S. payments to the U.N., unless the global balance of payments was radically recalculated. Holbrooke’s convincing them not to do so might seem to pale in comparison to his struggles to end wars in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, but the achievement was, in fact, no small feat.
It was a vital component of a two-pronged U.S. strategy to repair America’s tattered relations with the world, and to bring the U.N.’s most vociferous Republican critics to heel. A measure of the challenge is that his two predecessors, Madeleine K. Albright, and Bill Richardson, tried and failed to accomplish the same task.
That diplomatic campaign displayed Holbrooke’s creativity as a strategist, his energy and his sometimes ruthless negotiating style. It should serve as a case study for students of multilateral diplomacy, or even for his successors, on how uncompromising rivals – in this instance, the conservative wing of the Republic Party and anti-American wing of the U.N. General Assembly — can be lured and pushed to the negotiating table. Or, as Peter Beinart noted, Holbrooke’s muscular diplomatic style at the U.N. and elsewhere may simply represent one of the last vestiges of an era when an American ambassador possessed the power to force the world to bend to his will.
Holbrooke recognized the utility of American power in forging diplomatic compromise. But he also understood the value of soft power, of persuasion and flattery. He lavished attention on journalists, foreign envoys, and American politicians. During Holbrooke’s tenure, an invitation to the Waldorf Astoria, the U.N. ambassador’s official residence, opened the door to a world of glamour and celebrity that has never been recreated by his successors. Holbrooke hosted star-studded dinners that gave reporters, top international ambassadors, including Russia’s then U.N. ambassador Sergei Lavrov, and third-world envoys, an opportunity to mingle with American artists, high power military and civilian politicians, and television and movie stars like Robert de Niro, Sam Waterston and Matt Dillon.
Holbrooke devoted particular attention to Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), the powerful Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations, inviting him to address the U.N. Security Council — an occasion Helms used to scold the foreign dignitaries for aspiring to establish what he believe was a new international order with the U.N. on top — and convinced him to convene a session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on U.N. affairs in New York City. Over time, the strategy softened Helms’ resistance, setting the stage for the curmudgeonly North Carolina politician to end his financial stranglehold on the U.N.
But the effort was anything but smooth. When Holbrooke encountered resistance from U.N. ambassadors, unhappy that their own financial burden would increase, he went over their heads, using his extensive Rolodex of foreign leaders or enlisting President Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, to persuade their political leadership to get them to back down. “I really learned a lesson,” Holbrooke told reporters after the deal was clinched. “We won this by taking it out of the U.N. village.”
When a shortfall in funding nearly unraveled the deal, Holbrooke strayed outside official channels, working with CNN founder and billionaire Ted Turner to arrange a $35 million donation to pay a portion of U.S. dues to the U.N. until a final deal took effect. “He’s rude, he’s arrogant, he shouts at people, his behavior is appalling,” one Asian diplomat told me just hours after the deal was closed. “But you’ve got to give the man his due. He actually got it done. I don’t think there is anyone else who could have done it.”
Holbrooke generally considered himself a friend of the U.N., and he thrived in the company of its foreign dignitaries and envoys, many whom he’d known from his previous foreign assignments. More importantly, he viewed it as institution that could serve American interests, particularly by shouldering the burden of managing conflicts in far-flung regions, principally Africa, which fell outside America’s traditional sphere of influence.
But he was perfectly willing to sideline the U.N., as he had during his negotiations on the Bosnian war at Dayton, Ohio. Holbrooke could be downright nasty with those who got in his way, conjuring up an appallingly obscene nickname for one top U.N. official he disliked. He frequently derided the U.N.’s Department of Public Information for absorbing an excessive share of scarce international funds while the U.N.’s peacekeeping department, which fielded tens of thousands of blue helmets, went understaffed and starved of resources. But he also rallied to the U.N.’s defense in times of crisis.
In December 2004, as then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan faced mounting Congressional criticism over his handling of the Oil for Food scandal, Holbrooke engineered something of a palace coup from his Manhattan apartment. Together with other prominent American friends of the U.N., Holbrooke forced Annan’s loyal chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, to step down. He had him replaced with a powerful ally, Mark Malloch Brown, whose overpowering presence often seemed to diminish Annan. The intent of the meeting, a participant told the New York Times, was “to save Kofi and rescue the U.N.”
“The intention was to keep it confidential,” Holbrooke said of the meeting at the time. “No one wanted to give the impression of a group of outsiders, all of them Americans, dictating what to do to a secretary general.” But he also pointed out that “the U.N., without the U.S. behind it, is a failed institution.”
At the same time, Holbrooke was highly calculating about selecting causes that he would champion, leaving the politically unsavory business of improving ties with Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi to foreign service officers in Washington. He delegated important business that bore little prospect of success, most notably Iraq: During his tenure at the U.N., he scarcely addressed the international effort to contain Saddam Hussein, delegating responsibility to his deputy Peter Burleigh.
Holbrooke surrounded himself with a team of bright young up-and comers and he treated them as part of an extended family. Holbrooke loaned out the official U.S. residence at the Waldorf — which he used only for official functions — to a 27-year-old aide. He would place his former aides in positions of influence. Robert Orr, his former chief of staff, moved on to serve as a senior policy advisor for two U.N. secretary generals. Last year, Holbrooke persuaded Ban Ki-moon to hire another member of Holbrooke’s inner circle, Peter Galbraith, as the second highest-ranking U.N. official in Afghanistan, despite misgivings from his top advisors. The relationship soured after Galbraith clashed with the U.N.’s Norwegian envoy, Kai Eide, who had a rocky relationship with Holbrooke. He was subsequently fired.
Orr told reporters at U.N. headquarters that Holbrooke’s death would represent as much a loss to the media, whom he courted assiduously, as it would to the international diplomatic community.”Ambassador Holbrooke understood probably better than any individual I ever worked with the importance of the media,” said Mr. Orr, who is the U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Planning and Policy Coordination, “So I think it’s not just the United States and the U.N. that has lost an important figure. I think the media has also lost someone who not only gave them a lot of good quotes but someone who really understood the importance of your profession as well.”
Indeed, Holbrooke, who once aspired to be a New York Times reporter, and who went on to edit Foreign Policy magazine, saw the press as an integral part of the diplomacy, a kind of force multiplier that, if handled skillfully, could provide the story line that could galvanize public opinion behind his latest political cause. He could be generous with access, inviting me and an AP reporter, Nicole Winfield, to an exclusive reception at the Metropolitan Club with African leaders, including the late Congolese President Laurent Kabila and Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, who he introduced me to three times at the same event. He could also be overbearing. He once cornered me near the U.N. elevator banks and interrogated me about why I, and more importantly my paper, the Washington Post, had neglected to cover a visit he had arranged and heavily promoted for the former South African leader Nelson Mandela. Concluding that I had been insufficiently persuasive in selling the story to my editors, and reminding me of his extensive list of personal contacts at the paper, he said, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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