UNITED NATIONS — When U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke left his post at the United Nations on Friday, a few trampled diplomats no doubt were relieved to see him go. But even with their bruised egos and twisted arms, most no doubt are grateful for what he left behind: a renewed respect for the United States here and grudging support from Congress for the world body.
Holbrooke, 59, loves a challenge, and the U.N. was full of them. His 17-month tenure started with efforts to reform the organization and ended with spotlighting problems in Africa, especially HIV and AIDS.
He had victories, as well as disappointments--the largest perhaps being that he will be unable to continue working on global issues as secretary of state, his not-so-secret ambition. Instead, as the Bush administration takes office, he will head to the Council on Foreign Relations think tank and work on a book about U.S. diplomacy.
"No one can reform the U.N. in 17 months," he said in an interview this week. "No one can bring peace to Africa in that time. No one can single-handedly halt the spread of HIV/AIDS. But we did leave the U.N. a stronger place, and we're leaving feeling good about what we accomplished."
When Holbrooke arrived at the U.N. headquarters on New York's East River as ambassador in August 1999, the mood was hostile on all sides. His confirmation had been delayed by Congress for 14 months, and Washington was $1.6 billion behind in its contributions to the world body and on the verge of losing its vote in the General Assembly and its influence. There was little goodwill left here toward the world's richest country.
But Holbrooke, the architect of the 1995 peace accord that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, was ready for another fight.
His first mission was to restore U.S. prestige. But to make Congress settle the U.S. debt, he had to persuade countries such as China, South Korea and Russia to contribute more so that the U.S. could pay less.
"He was putting forward what was basically an unacceptable proposal," said British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, "that the world's richest country should not have to pay what it should pay to the U.N."
Holbrooke succeeded through sheer, dogged work. He went to Washington more than 50 times, collaring senators. He visited each of the U.N.'s ambassadors, armed with pie charts and artful arguments about how their countries weren't subsidizing the U.S., they were strengthening the world body. He wheedled. He cajoled. He publicly embarrassed a few diplomats.
And then he held them hostage.
For two straight nights before the deadline last Christmas Eve, diplomats in camel-hair coats and cashmere scarves sacked out on the floors of committee rooms while Holbrooke's team hammered out a last-minute deal. An agreement was made, then lost, then saved by a contribution of $34 million from media mogul Ted Turner.
When Holbrooke presented the U.N.'s revamped budget to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington this month with a reduction in the U.S. share of the general and peacekeeping budgets, U.N. nemesis Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) surprised the ambassador with a standing ovation.
Holbrooke also counts among his successes his quiet campaign to allow Israel to be represented on U.N. bodies in New York for the first time in 50 years and his efforts to bring the issue of AIDS into the Security Council, where health matters are rarely discussed. And most of all, he says he earned respect for the U.S., which had long been considered arrogant here.
"I don't think we were ever arrogant," he said. "We were aggressive and assertive but not arrogant. We dealt with the concerns of every country, no matter how small."
Holbrooke began to develop his diplomatic style in 1962 as a foreign service officer in South Vietnam. He wrote one volume of the Pentagon Papers, attended the Vietnam peace talks in Paris and witnessed the normalization of ties with China. He went on to stints as a diplomat, Peace Corps director and investment banker. In 1995, he gathered Balkan leaders at an Air Force compound in Dayton, Ohio, and over a three-week period coaxed, threatened and manipulated his way to a consensus on peace in Bosnia.
From that experience, he has learned when to pat a back and when to twist an arm. But sometimes, he does both a bit harder than necessary, other diplomats say.
"Holbrooke can be too aggressive," said Yusuf Juwayeyi, the U.N. ambassador from Malawi. "This is a diplomatic institution, and sometimes he can be a little undiplomatic."
Holbrooke acknowledges that egos sometimes get bruised when he is trying to get the job done.
"I don't yell at people, but we do pressure them very hard and we pressure them quite openly, and sometimes the conversation gets very sharp," he said. "I think most of the people we deal with know that our intent is sincere and it is genuinely idealistic, and that is to strengthen the U.N."