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Go in Peace Richard Holbrooke

2010 December 14

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By Susan Koscis

The world has lost a champion for peace with Richard Holbrooke’s premature death at age 69.   At the height of his powers, who knows how many more “Dayton Accords” he might have negotiated.  He was a staunch believer that diplomacy was by far the strongest card to play, even if it meant sitting down with tyrants.  “I make no apologies for negotiating with Milosevic and even worse people, provided one doesn’t lose one’s point of view,” he said.

Richard Holbrooke was known for his tough and somewhat unorthodox negotiating style.  A profile in The New Yorker said “He yelled at Foreign Ministers and cursed at a President.” According to a State Department official quoted in a Washington Post article, “He’s like Muhammad Ali — he’s yakking and talking; he’s jiving. The first time you see it you think it’s just bull; in fact he’s psyching out the other person and reading the reaction.”

Lawrence Summers, a colleague of Holbrooke’s in the Clinton cabinet, said “It is a better world because of what this man has done as a negotiator.” Summers said he learned from Holbrooke that “negotiating may seem obvious and easy but it isn’t. . .you must know what you want to accomplish and why and stay focused. . .and a basic toughness, cynicism and deep distrust need to be harnessed to achieve most idealistic ends.”

Upon receiving The Great Negotiator Award from Harvard, Holbrooke said, “This award honors the art of negotiation. I say ‘art’ intentionally because it is not a science and never will be. Negotiation is like jazz.  It is improvisation on a theme. You know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. It’s not linear.”

That is probably as good a description of conflict resolution as I’ve ever heard.  You do your homework and carry out a conflict mapping; do a country/regional assessment; root the program in local culture; work with local partners; establish yourself as a 3rd party neutral who engages with all stakeholders – and even then, things can and will change.  All you can do is improvise.

No doubt Richard Holbrooke would have been a great jazz musician, had that been his career choice!   RIP.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. December 14, 2010

    Great article. I love reading your blog posts SFCG!

  2. Jennifer Poole permalink
    December 21, 2010

    Thank you. I worked in Bosnia and was one of the first to see the Daytone Accord when it was hand carried in by Ambassador Bob Gallucci who took over from Ambassador Holbrooke. this was a era of great diplomacy for America when they stepped in and solved the turmoil that the EU had been unable to quite put back together. All the American diplomats of that era working in Sarajevo and Zagreb were doing amazing work. It was the era that the Office of transitional Inititiaves was launched…America had so much to offer the world back then…it lead the field of peacemaking. not today though not today. Rest in peace Ambassador. Your legacy stands. Thank you.

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