12/15/2010 11:44 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Richard Holbrooke: A Self-Described "Idealistic Realist, or Realistic Idealist"

The news of Richard Holbrooke's passing brought me back to when I interviewed him 13 years ago for my senior essay at Yale University. The essay argued that the approach and outcome of the 1995 Dayton Accords reflected a combination of the twin poles of US foreign policy history: the messianic idealism of Wilsonianism and the cynical real power politics of Realpolitik. Holbrooke had been the chief architect of the peace process and final agreement at Dayton.

Historically, lead diplomats have adhered to one school of thought -- I wanted to understand why Holbrooke was different.

The subject of the essay was unusual for a History major: Holbrooke was then still relatively early in his career, the Dayton Accords were less than three years old, and they were his most notable accomplishment to date. But Holbrooke's approach to the Dayton Accords had been unusual in its use of non-traditional diplomacy (e.g., shuttle diplomacy) and, unlike four years of previous attempts by esteemed US and European diplomats, it succeeded at ending a gruesome and seemingly unstoppable war in the former Yugoslavia.

The Richard Holbrooke I researched and interviewed understood both Wilsonianism and Realpolitik clearly. He was adamant that the term Realpolitik didn't apply to him; the use of US power to obtain outcomes at the negotiating table was a tactic, not his mindset. He also was not the idealistic pacificist that Wilsonians tend to be; he understood that humanitarian goals may require the use of military-backed tactics. Instead, he was a self-described pragmatist who consciously digested and applied the lessons of an eclectic group of role models throughout his career.

From Vietnam on, Holbrooke worked with or directly observed some of most dominant figures of US foreign policy of our time, including Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Averell Harriman, Henry Kissinger, and Clark Clifford. In our first interview, he comfortably shared how he was shaped differently by each of them.

Rusk was a Wilsonian upon whom the lessons of WWII weighed heavily, and who Holbrooke regarded as "a kind of portrait of the public servant: the patriot." From Clark Clifford he learned how to emotionally detach himself from issues to analyze them clearly. Averell Harriman had been the rare example of the Cold War diplomat whose motivating force wasn't ideology, and Holbrooke learned the values of tenacity and of knowing one's long-term objectives from him.

Holbrooke held both McNamara and Kissinger as more cautionary influences. Holbrooke perceived McNamara as "a very cautionary model for anybody who is in government" because of his "unwillingness to compromise even in the face of political realities." He disagreed with Kissinger's purist approach to Realpolitik, particularly in the instances of engaging with Pol Pot's Cambodia and Marcos' Phillipines, because it abandoned the traditional American values of the worldwide promotion and maintenance of standards of human rights. He regarded these values as "our nation's ultimate source of strength."

These role models ultimately influenced Holbrooke to become a self-described "idealistic realist, or realistic idealist." He believed very strongly in the importance of Wilsonian ideals to American foreign policy, but also understood that the emotional appeal of Wilsonianism had its practical limitations. He understood the cold rational analysis of policymaking often required by a Great Power, but refused to allow that analysis to trump humanitarian considerations (and vice versa).

The Dayton Accords, both in process and outcome, reflected these lessons. The Accords had been preceded by a frustrating four years of international efforts with little to show for them. Previous attempts at peace by the international community were Wilsonian in nature: the US, the EC (now EU), the UN, and NATO all attempted a collectivist, non-military approach to the war through a series of failed peace agreements. But more importantly, all sides were hesitant to use military power, particularly the Clinton Administration, which was still weighing the legacies of the Vietnam Syndrome and the failed intervention in Somalia.

Holbrooke was comfortable rejecting these fears and failed approaches. During the four months of "shuttle diplomacy" prior to Dayton, he was not afraid to use force to obtain results at the negotiating table. For example, he believed if the Serbs did not agree with conditions of an agreement, they should be bombed by NATO forces, and Bosnian Serb positions around Sarajevo were bombed in August 1995. Holbrooke later admitted in an interview with The New Yorker that "the bombing was not for the negotiations, but if it affects the negotiations, so be it."

In other words, his objective was not a Realpolitik outcome, but rather, to use the tactics of Realpolitik to help ensure the Wilsonian outcomes ultimately accomplished by the Dayton Accords: a comprehensive peace agreement, the end to a humanitarian crisis, and a multiethnic democracy in Bosnia.

For this reason, the Dayton Accords were an uniquely American accomplishment: they reflected the use of the US's then-unparalleled military power for humanitarian goals (a precedent which would be later poorly followed by the second Bush Administration in Iraq). They successfully ended a war and laid the groundwork for peace in a region that had been a source of instability throughout the 20th Century. They also laid the groundwork for future prosecution of war criminals, even though the primary objective had been to end a war (the title of his memoir about the peace process in the former Yugoslavia).

It is perhaps no accident that Holbrooke died less than 24 hours before the 15th anniversary of the signing of The Dayton Accords. For someone who ambitiously touted his intentions to make his mark in US foreign policy history, Richard Holbrooke would be happy to know he left in good company.

Like Founding Father John Adams, he departed on the anniversary of his greatest career accomplishment.