TORONTO, ONTARIO - American diplomat Richard Holbrooke died yesterday at the age of 69. I never met Holbrooke; I may have never even met anyone who met Holbrooke. Yet, at more than one juncture in my life, I would have cited him as one of the individuals that I admired most in the world.
I obviously chose not to enter diplomacy, or even public service of any kind, in my life. Fundamentally, I considered my own personality to be ill-suited to diplomacy--I'd much rather express my opinion than try to convince a foreign entity to get in line with a policy with which I might not fully agree. Based on all accounts (especially good ones have come from Fouad Ajami and HDS Greenway), Holbrooke may have had a similar personality--he was certainly known for forcefully expressing his opinion, in particular to people above him like a series of presidents.
What Holbrooke often accomplished, though, was saving lives. Obviously, his work in Bosnia in brokering the Dayton peace accords may have been his best moment, but it was more typical than atypical of his career, being exceptional perhaps only in its scope and visibility. To me, there are few higher callings than bringing peace to the world, and Holbrooke has done more in my lifetime toward that end than almost any other single individual.
While there has been plenty of praise of Holbrooke in the United States after his death, there has probably been more from the rest of the world. The news of his death led both the BBC and the CBC this morning, and one CBC reporter probably put it best: "There aren't a lot of American diplomats respected by the world, but Richard Holbrooke was almost universally respected across the world."
Holbrooke never served as the nation's chief diplomat, the Secretary of State (though Greenway notes that Al Gore and Hillary Clinton probably each intended to place him in that role), but that very fact was one of the things that made him so admirable--he found ways to make the most of whatever position he was placed in, and better the world from it.
I chose to take a very different path in life than Richard Holbrooke. His passing makes one ponder if it would not have been more meaningful to have tried diplomacy, even if it would have meant only having a small percentage of the impact that Holbrooke had on the world.