Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century
by George Packer
Knopf, 2019, 608 pages
In the summer of 2010, the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke attended a revival performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Set on a tropical island during World War II, the play depicts U.S. soldiers girding for a fateful battle against the Japanese enemy. “Men were crying, myself included,” Holbrooke wrote in his diary. “I kept thinking of where we were today, our nation, our lack of confidence in our own ability to lead compared to where we were in 1949 when [South Pacific] came out, evoking an era only five years or seven years earlier, when we had gone to the most distant corners of the globe and saved civilization.”
This vignette is presented in the recent book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, by George Packer, a staff writer at The Atlantic. The scene is a representative one for Packer, for this is a work about loss, and the ache felt by the author, too, for the seemingly gone. Holbrooke died from a massive tear in his aorta, suffered four months after he went to see South Pacific. At the time he was laboring, without much progress, to achieve a diplomatic solution to America’s long-running (and still ongoing) war in Afghanistan. It was the sudden end of a career that began in the rice paddies of Vietnam in the early 1960s, when Holbrooke was a young foreign service officer stationed there, and which attained a peak in the mid-1990s, when Holbrooke led negotiations for the Dayton Accords, bringing an end to the Bosnian war.
“I still can’t get his voice out of my head,” Packer, who knew Holbrooke personally, writes in the book’s final paragraph:
One day I know it will start to fade, along with his memory, along with the idea of a life lived as if the world needed an American hand to help set things right. . . . But now that Holbrooke is gone, and we’re getting to know the alternatives, don’t you, too, feel some regret?
America’s Two Nostalgias
The tone of Packer’s book exemplifies a distinctive mood that colors the country at this moment. America is saturated in nostalgia. One type of this sentiment, reflected in the slogan “Make America Great Again,” popularized by Donald Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign (with origins dating back to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign), gets a lot of commentary. This is the longing to make the Rust Belt gleam once more, to bring back the nation that, a half century ago, employed 36 percent of all male workers in the manufacturing sector of the economy—in the business of making things. Trump’s siren call was music to the ears of the white working‑class voters that helped put him over the top in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, producing his triumph in the Electoral College. His message also seemed to reflect and in turn amplify a pining for the bygone days of a whiter America.
Yet this is not the only variety of nostalgia at work in our politics, for there is also a strain, the “regret” sighed at in the conclusion of Packer’s book, that is distinctly different from, and in important ways—though not in all ways—at odds with the yearnings of the “deplorables” of Trump-land. What might be called “Indispensable Nation Nostalgia” represents a misty remembrance of things past by a certain stratum of elite Americans. These pangs tend to afflict a fairly narrow group of people who run, or used to run, foreign policy, along with the coterie of folks that think and write about foreign policy at think tanks and ideas-oriented publications.
Such people, regardless of political party, were educated at many of the same schools, are concentrated in the Washington and New York metro areas, come across each other frequently at social gatherings, read a lot of the same articles and books, and frequent a lot of the same places for both work and pleasure. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton (Yale, Yale Law), is a member of this club, as is Jake Sullivan (Yale, Yale Law, Oxford), a foreign policy advisor to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden during the Obama years. For shorthand, this group can simply be called the American foreign policy establishment, such as it is today.
These individuals certainly don’t all think alike on the issues of the moment: the unilateralist Bolton cheered the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal that the multilateralist Sullivan helped negotiate. But they are united in their longings. Indispensable Nation Nostalgia takes its name from a phrase uttered by then secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 1998, during the second Clinton administration. The context is instructive. At the time, President Clinton and his foreign policy team were engaged in a high-stakes showdown with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, aimed at forcing Saddam to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction, in compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions. Albright was traveling around America to make the case for possible military strikes against Saddam’s regime, to bring him to heel. Matt Lauer, host of NBC’s Today show, caught up with her in Columbus, Ohio, and the two had this exchange:
Mr. Lauer: Will you speak for me, Madame Secretary, to the parents of American men and women who may soon be asked to go into harm’s way, and who get the feeling that many countries in the rest of the world are standing by silently while their children are once again being asked to clean up a mess for the rest of the world?
Secretary Albright: Let me say that we are doing everything possible so that American men and women in uniform do not have to go out there again. It is the threat of the use of force and our line-up there that is going to put force behind the diplomacy. But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.
“We stand tall and we see further. . . .” Albright had a talent for pithy phrases, and this one became an article of faith for the foreign policy establishment. It was an avowal that could unite nearly everyone engaged in foreign policy (including the multilateralists so long as the U.S. was the lead dog in the team). Holbrooke, a perpetual contender for the secretary of state job, though never to win the prize, subscribed to this thinking. Throughout his career, he was a firm believer in leveraging America’s unrivaled military might to achieve diplomatic results that lesser military powers, like the European nations, could not obtain—and to use that might if diplomacy failed. In fact, he clung to that belief even after coming to see America’s war in Vietnam as a “poison through our nation which will take years to neutralize,” as he wrote to a colleague in 1969. Decades later, he urged Democrats in Congress to vote in favor of the resolution that authorized George W. Bush to go to war against Saddam’s Iraq.
Today’s tears are for the rueful recognition that this gospel increasingly rings hollow—even to many of its adherents—which is not to say that this elite has altogether renounced it. Few things are as stubbornly clung to as the past. But as can be seen with Trump’s refrain, nostalgias of any variety tend to make for bumptious politics.
The Indispensable Nation’s Indispensable Men
Was America really ever an indispensable nation—or is this just a myth? The American Century takes its name from an editorial by the media baron Henry Robinson Luce in the pages of Life in 1941. He called America “the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world.” Packer dates this period to World War II “and the creative burst that followed—the United Nations, the Atlantic alliance, containment, the free world . . .” and defines the era as a “feeling that we would do anything” to shape the world to our touch. This sentiment was always somewhat overblown. For one thing, Stalin’s Red Army was essential to the victory over Hitler’s Wehrmacht, the turning-point battle at Stalingrad concluding in February 1943, sixteen months before the Allied landing at Normandy in June 1944. Nevertheless, with Europe devastated by the war, America without question was indispensable to the continent’s recovery and security, as accomplished by the Marshall Plan and the establishment of NATO. America recast Japan under Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur, dismantling its military and dictating a new constitution, and it was MacArthur again who fought North Korean and Chinese Communists to a draw on the Korean peninsula.
This was the era of “The Wise Men,” as chronicled in the 1986 book of that title by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. The touchstone figure among these “architects of the American Century,” as the authors called them, was Dean Gooderham Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state. The son of an Episcopal bishop, a graduate of Groton, Yale, and Harvard Law, known for his clipped moustache and urbane style, he was “more responsible for the Truman Doctrine,” to support democratic nations against the threat of communism, “than President Truman and more responsible for the Marshall Plan than General Marshall,” Isaacson and Thomas said.
The narrative of the indispensable nation had found its indispensable personage, not a president or a general but a towering eagle of the diplomatic corps, and it’s not too much to say that several generations of foreign policy figures have longed to be the next Dean Acheson, and maybe they still do. Acheson contributed to this rendering of his times as a Genesis moment in titling his memoir, published in 1969 and the winner of the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for History, Present at the Creation. Holbrooke deeply admired the founders of the American Century, whose ranks also included Averell Harriman, and maneuvered himself into becoming a close foreign-policy advisor to Harriman’s widow, the English-born Pamela Beryl Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, a prominent Washington socialite and a leading bankroller of the Democratic Party.
Of course, a problem for would-be reenactors of the Acheson performance is that there can be only one big bang. Honest recorders of the American Century have understood this, and grasped, too, that “plenty of folly and wrong” attended this era, as Packer rightly notes. In hindsight, it seems amazing that Vietnam did not destroy the foreign policy establishment’s faith in the United States as the sine qua non nation. “The Best and the Brightest,” as David Halberstam ironically labeled the manufacturers of this fiasco in his bracing 1972 book of that title, somehow recovered—or at least their successors did, in shepherding America to victory in the Cold War. It was only after this signal triumph, Packer observes, that a certain ebbing could be detected:
Pax Americana began to decay at its very height. If you ask me when the long decline began, I might point to 1998. We were flabby, smug, and self-absorbed. Imagine a president careless enough to stumble into his enemies’ trap and expend his power on a blue dress.
Reckless enough is more like it, and that graphic example doesn’t quite persuade, even as metaphor. The American Century, after all, managed to survive Jack Kennedy’s far more numerous expenditures while occupying the presidency. Still, “smug” sounds right as a description of the post–Cold War leadership class, seemingly astride the globe. Smugness tends to mask a fragile underlying confidence. Does a truly indispensable nation, per Albright, need to boast of itself as such?
A conversation I had with Holbrooke, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, in 2004, comes to mind. I had recently completed a tour as a foreign correspondent based in Moscow and we were discussing Russia. He chortled over post-Soviet Russia’s “little feet”—its relative powerlessness to influence the course of global events. These were the early Putin years, and it occurred to me that Russia’s feet could grow in size. But Holbrooke, a loud voice in the 1990s for the initial round of NATO expansion in eastern Europe, seemed to believe that America could have its way with Russia, without consequences.
The foreign policy establishment, in this defiant spirit, bridles at declarations that the American Century is gone for good. “Books that suggest American greatness is behind us can serve to sap that will without justification,” James P. Rubin, an assistant secretary for public affairs in Albright’s State Department, wrote in a review of Packer’s book for Politico. He continued, in the vein of Acheson and Albright:
We are still the indispensable nation, for instance, when it comes to leading our hemisphere against a regime in Venezuela that has impoverished its people and caused chaos and instability across the region and leading our European allies to contain Russia’s international aggression and contempt for the Western institutions many thought it wished to join. And in Asia, where China’s new, more aggressive leadership presents clearer dangers to the region, the openness to American leadership shows what distinguishes us from global powers of the past.
Probably, John Bolton would agree with all of that, as an Indispensable America man. Probably, his boss would disagree—while Trump is fond of brandishing America’s military might as a rhetorical trope, he seems generally disinclined to use American power to “set things right” with the world. Many Americans, probably most, share this attitude. There is no demand among the masses for America to take the lead in removing Nicolas Maduro as president of Venezuela or to aggressively intervene in places like Ukraine. Nor are Americans clamoring for another round of NATO enlargement, to frontiers like the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, which is pleading to join the U.S.-led alliance. When Trump, in 2018, pointedly questioned why Americans might be expected to die for the defense of Montenegro (NATO’s newest member, formally admitted in 2017), he was rebuked by establishment types, but few others took issue with that remark.
Back in the mid-1990s, by contrast, there was domestic political support for the initiative launched by Bill Clinton with the backing of Holbrooke and other advisors to bring Poland and other former Soviet-bloc nations into NATO. At that time, the establishment and the public were not as divided as they are now on the question of America’s global leadership obligations. Basking in his Dayton achievement, Holbrooke wrote a book, To End a War, on his starring role in this diplomatic drama, and lobbied friends like Elie Wiesel and the Dalai Lama to support his (unsuccessful) bid for a Nobel Peace Prize.
The Decline of the Pax Americana
Conceivably, this breach could be repaired as the country and its president grapple with the ripe and volatile question of how to deal with China. It is on this matter, and maybe only on this matter, that the twin nostalgias of our times—to make the factories of America hum again, and to restore America’s global primacy—might be in sync.
America feels spurned and taken advantage of by China. At the turn of the century, in a speech at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University, President Clinton declared it “a profound American responsibility” to integrate China into the global market economy. The expectation, at least the hope, of the foreign policy establishment was that Washington could help make China first more economically liberal and then more politically liberal—the end destination, a transformed and peaceful China that was more like America and our democratic allies around the world in character. This was the “China fantasy” prevailing among American elites in the political, financial, and intellectual realms, as the journalist James Mann aptly titled his 2007 book.
Nowadays, that fantasy is gone. In its place is a gathering consensus among elites that China, still firmly in the grip of an authoritarian leadership, still wedded to a mercantile strategy as a path to national wealth, and now the world’s second-largest economy, needs to be confronted. To “stand tall” and “see further than other countries” is to apprehend that China is a rising threat to America’s status as the world’s most powerful nation. Hence a fair degree of establishment support for Trump’s belligerent tack, however crudely stated and implemented, to force China to halt its mercantile commercial practices and intellectual property theft. Trump’s base sounds supportive, too. The idea that China “has been eating our lunch” is a fixture in the heartland. “What I want from a president is the rest of the world to look at him and go, ‘Don’t mess with that guy, he will get even,’” a retired tool and die maker in northeast Ohio told the New York Times for a piece about how “decades of globalization” had ravaged the industrial base in this part of the state and soured voters there on free trade deals.
Yet China’s steady rise as a military power appears irreversible. With the implosion of the British Empire after World War II, the Pacific became an American lake, where the U.S. Navy was unchallenged on the blue waters. No longer: “China’s vast fleet is tipping the balance in the Pacific,” Reuters recently noted in an investigative report that drew on sources in the U.S. and Chinese militaries. “The Chinese navy, which is growing faster than any other fleet, now controls the seas off its coast. Once dominant, the United States and its allies sail warily in these waters.” Reuters also observed that China “intends to challenge the dominance of the U.S. Navy in distant waters, too, in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.” Short of the outright destruction of China’s blue water navy in an all-out shooting war, America is fated to hold onto no more than a memory of what it was like to dictate terms across waters stretching from the Taiwan Strait to the Persian Gulf.
The world is pointing in a decidedly multipolar direction. When the American Century began, China was in the throes of a civil war not conclusively resolved until the victory of the Communist side in 1949. Yet over the last thirty-five years, China’s share of global gross domestic product has increased from 3 percent to 16 percent, while the U.S. share has shrunk from 35 percent to 24 percent. India, which did not gain independence from the British until 1947, is now the world’s fifth largest economy and is also building a blue-water navy. Thus the rise of other nations, more than the waning of America’s South Pacific mindset, stands as the main reason for the end of the Pax Americana. It is a measure of our self-involvement, perhaps, that we have so much difficulty seeing that.
Aging athletes sometimes are said to be able to beat less experienced opponents by taking advantage of muscle memory—the set of motor skills, honed over repetition, that can be a saving instinct at the most stressful moments of a contest. This sort of reflex also appears to be present in America’s foreign policy establishment—only it is no longer playing a useful role, if ever it did. The fixation on Putin’s Russia as a top-tier adversary, notably, seems to be an attempt to return to a comfortable Cold War battle at the cost of dealing with the less familiar threats of the current era. It is time for the establishment, in this sense, to try to forget what it thinks it knows, as the lessons no longer really apply. New wisdom needs to be acquired, by dint of current experience, and the old left to rest in the history books. This is hardly an academic exercise, for the failure to master it could enmesh the nation in still another bloody folly, to add to the chapters in Vietnam and Iraq.
Holbrooke, for all of his canniness, embodied the worst of these egocentric tendencies, and he had a case of Indispensable Nation nostalgia that could lead him to overreach, badly, in his diplomatic exertions. In 2008, he met with Afghan president Hamid Karzai in Kabul and demanded action to eradicate endemic corruption in the country. Karzai, not surprisingly, was offended, and a decade later, under a new president, Afghanistan is as corrupt as ever.
. . . Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past
Let’s not, however, underestimate the tug of the past. A front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination is seventy-six-year-old Joe Biden, the avuncular vice president under Obama and a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden, a man of the American Century, is promising a restoration of sorts. “I get calls from people all over the world—world leaders are calling me—and they’re almost begging me to do this, to save the country, save the world,” Biden told supporters on the eve of his presidential campaign launch. Presumably, those calls were not from Chinese president Xi Jinping, and undoubtedly they reflected a preference in places like Europe for Biden’s well-known multilateralist disposition over Trump’s brash and seemingly impulsive unilateralist temperament.
Yet it seems doubtful that American voters will embrace a renewed mission to “save the world.” One American Century, maybe, was enough. Nevertheless, as this era continues to recede, and indeed because it does, steadily, the future of nostalgia as a shaper of our politics and of our mood, from Washington to Youngstown, appears bright.