Book Review of “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century”
Knopf Publishers

Richard Holbrooke was always in motion. The one occasion I caught a glimpse of him was a panel discussion where he spoke alongside Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft (Henry Kissinger was scheduled to participate but cancelled at the last minute). Sitting shoulder to shoulder with the foreign policy mandarins of the 20th century, Holbrooke was in his element. But as I ducked out of the packed auditorium early, out a few steps ahead of me in the hallway strode the pinstriped man himself. Prematurely departing his own event, he had stepped off the stage as Scowcroft was in mid-sentence.

Our Man is the story of a man who couldn’t sit still; the people, places, ideas, and events he somehow managed to pack into his sixty-nine years spanned half a century of his country’s history at the pinnacle of its power. In capturing the essence of Richard Holbrooke and the era he embodied, George Packer portrays a figure far more fraught than I ever imagined.

Packer reveals, for example, how Holbrooke’s insatiable appetites early on came between him and Anthony Lake as the two men started their careers together in the Foreign Service in Vietnam. They had been best friends, but Holbrooke’s infidelity irreparably damaged their relationship, nurturing an enduring disdain for his brash selfishness. Lake, serving as a chief foreign policy advisor to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama forty years later, would help ensure that Holbrooke was excluded from the senior ranks of the new administration.

As the book delves into the intervening years of Holbrooke’s life, more troubling signs of his character emerge. In Bosnia, he employed his legendary combination of diplomatic skill and sheer force of personality to end the war and secure a peace agreement between the intransigent leaders of the former Yugoslavia. Yet, according to Packer, he distorted facts surrounding the most tragic chapter of the negotiations, the accident on Mount Igman outside Sarajevo that claimed the lives of three members of his delegation. Our Man describes how Holbrooke exaggerated his and Wesley Clark’s role on that fateful day and overlooked that of Lieutenant Colonel Randall Banky, who in fact had been the first to reach the crash site and assist the victims. After Holbrooke wrote Banky’s heroism out of history, the lieutenant colonel was passed over for promotion, ending his military career.

Our man uncovers so many unflattering aspects of Holbrooke’s professional and personal life that in places it is painful to read. He appears as the lunch partner who always managed to pass the tab off to someone else; the banker who, after spending all his years out of government safely ensconced in the world of high finance, was at a loss to manage his own finances; and the grandfather who might not have been able to recognize his grandchildren.  These stories are as abundant as they are uncomfortable, but nonetheless are parts of a vividly detailed non-fiction narrative that aims to capture its subject in full.

Above it all, Holbrooke kept his sights on securing the place in history he always yearned for. After eventually landing a job in the Obama administration as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he told colleagues that “every administration needs a George Ball”, the prescient Under Secretary of State who had been the lone voice of dissent over the escalation of the war in Vietnam during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  With Ball as his lodestar, Holbrooke envisioned playing an analogous role for a new president preparing to grapple with a growing insurgency in South and Central Asia and deliberate over a troop surge.  

But Our Manmakes clear that, despite Holbrooke’s qualifications, events showed him to be ill-suited for the Obama White House. His obsequiousness irritated Obama, as did his histrionics (after Holbrooke dramatically compared Obama’s looming decision over force levels in Afghanistan to Lyndon Johnson’s decision to deploy combat troops to Vietnam, the President asked incredulously, “Richard, do people really talk like that?”). Fearful of losing the support of his last remaining patron, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Holbrooke muted himself and refrained from forcefully highlighting the perils of an open-ended military commitment without a viable political strategy.  

Richard Holbrooke was no George Ball. But he still possessed vastly more experience than anyone else then in the White House Situation Room. The last of his generation, the veteran diplomat had witnessed the limits of American power firsthand decades earlier as a Foreign Service Officer overseeing the American pacification effort in the Mekong Delta.  Holbrooke carried those lessons with him his entire career. Yet they still were fated to culminate in its greatest tragedy when, half a century after Vietnam, he was unable to prevent his country from repeating similar mistakes in Afghanistan. A passionate student of history his entire life, in his twilight hour Holbrooke became a prisoner of it.

History never would yield to Holbrooke’s lifelong ambition of becoming secretary of state.  Some who knew him, such as former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, have held that a Gore administration would have included Holbrooke in the number one job in Foggy Bottom. But according to the then-vice president’s top foreign policy aide, Leon Fuerth, Holbrooke simply had more enemies and brought more drama than Gore had been willing to tolerate. 

In the end, Holbrooke’s immense talents were ultimately undercut by his profound shortcomings; they make the story of his exceptional life as tragic as it is fascinating. “Better to write a novel about Richard Holbrooke than a biography” his best friend, Les Gelb, once said. Packer has proven how right Gelb was.

About the author: Rennie A. Silva is a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. government.

But it’s difficult to think about value when we have no buoy for understanding it outside our traditional lenses: for example, our time, our job, and what others tell us they are worth in cash. This, largely, is the world’s paradigm for value so far. But understanding what value really means changes everything—and will be at the center of the decentralized revolution in global coordination that will unfold over the next decade. So, where do we begin?

Let’s start with gold.

Gold is an inherent value. When backing a market, gold allows us to grow a balanced economy well into the trillions. But why does it allow for massive stable markets to form around it? It is gold's permanence that creates stability. We understand that gold will always have value, because it is inherent in all of us, not just in one part of the world, but everywhere, not just today, but tomorrow and for the long haul.

In the 1930s when the gold standard was removed, we learned that the U.S. dollar didn’t need gold to back its economy to flourish. We learned that it was just a symbol for U.S. citizens to decentralize their coordination around the United States economy.

It turns out, common agreement is a philosophy for building shared economy.

And so it seems inherent value is a marker for us to begin exploring what the future could look like—a future beyond gold and the existing realm of credit. And so what else has inherent value? Is education as valuable as gold? What about healthcare? What about a vote that can’t be tampered with? What about an ID that can’t be stolen or erased? What about access to nutrition or clean water? You will find value everywhere you look.

It turns out, we’ve already done the legwork necessary to uncover the most elemental inherent values: The Sustainable Development Goals are commitments grown out of the drive to bring to life basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the closest possible social contract we have to a global, common agreement.

We’ve already agreed, as a global community, to ensure inclusive and equitable access to quality education. We’ve already agreed to empower all women and girls, to ensure pure and clean water access for all, to promote health at all stages of life, and to end hunger.

We’ve already agreed.

Our agreements are grounded in deep value centers that are globally shared, but undervalued and unfulfilled. The reason for this is our inability to quantify intangible value. All of these rich, inherent values are still nebulous and fragmented in implementation—largely existing as ideals and blueprints for deep, globally shared common agreement. That is, we all agree education, health, and equality have value, but we lack common units for understanding who and who is not contributing value—leaving us to fumble in our own, uncoordinated siloes as we chase the phantoms of impact. In essence, we lack common currencies for our common agreements.

Now we find ourselves at the nexus of the real paradigm of Blockchain, allowing us to fuse economics with inherent value by proving the participation of some great human effort, then quantifying the impact of that effort in unforgeable and decentralized ledgers. It allows us to build economic models for tomorrow, that create wholly new markets and economies for and around each of the richest of human endeavors.

In late 2017 at the height of the Bitcoin bubble, without individual coordination, planning, or the help of institutions, almost $1 trillion was infused into blockchain markets. This is remarkable, and the revolution has only just begun. When you realize that Blockchain is in a similar stage of development as the internet pre-AOL, you will see a glimpse of the global transformation to come.

Only twice in the information age have we had such a paradigm shift in global infrastructure reform—the computer and the internet. While the computer taught us how to store and process data, the Internet built off that ability and furthered the conversation by teaching us how to transfer that information. Blockchain takes another massive step forward—it builds off the internet, adding to the story of information storage and transfer—but, it teaches us a new, priceless and not yet understood skill: how to transfer value.

This third wave kicked off with a rough start—as happens with the birth of new technologies and their corresponding liberties. Blockchain has, thus far, been totally unregulated. Many, doubtless, have taken advantage. A young child, stretching their arms for the first couple times might knock over a cookie jar or two. Eventually, however, they learn to use their faculties—for evil or for good. As such, while it’s wise to be skeptical at this phase in blockchain’s evolution, it’s important not to be blind to its remarkable implications in a post-regulated world, so that we may wield its faculties like a surgeon’s scalpel—not for evil or snake-oil sales, but for the creation of more good, for the flourishing of commonwealth.

But what of the volatility in blockchain markets? People agree Bitcoin has value, but they don’t understand why they are in agreement, and so cryptomarkets fluctuate violently.  Stable blockchain economies will require new symbolic gold standards that clearly articulate why someone would agree to support each market, to anchor common agreement with stability. The more globally shared these new value standards, the better.

Is education more valuable than gold? What about healthcare or nutrition or clean water?

We set out in 2018 to prove a hypothesis—we believe that if you back a cryptocurrency economy with a globally agreed upon inherent value like education, you can solve for volatility and stabilize a mature long lasting cryptomarket that awards everyone who adds value to that market in a decentralized way without the friction of individual partnerships.

What if education was a new gold standard?

And what if this new Learning Economy had protocols to award everyone who is helping to steward the growth of global education?

Education is a mountain. Everyone takes a different path to the top. Blockchain allows us to measure all of those unique learning pathways, online and in classrooms, into immutable blockchain Learning Ledgers.

By quantifying the true value of education, a whole economy can be built around it to pay students to learn, educators to create substantive courses, and stewards to help the Learning Economy grow. It was designed to provide a decentralized way for everyone adding value to global education to coordinate around the commonwealth without the friction of individual partnerships. Imagine the same for healthcare, nutrition, and our environment?

Imagine a world where we can pay refugees to learn languages as they find themselves in foreign lands, a world where we can pay those laid off by the tide of automation to retrain themselves for the new economy, a world where we can pay the next generation to prepare themselves for the unsolved problems of tomorrow.

Imagine new commonwealth economies that alleviate the global burdens of poverty, disease, hunger, inequality, ignorance, toxic water, and joblessness. Commonwealths that orbit inherent values, upheld by immutable blockchain protocols that reward anyone in the ecosystem stewarding the economy—whether that means feeding the hungry, providing aid for the global poor, delivering mosquito nets in malaria-ridden areas, or developing transformative technologies that can provide a Harvard-class education to anyone in the world willing to learn.

These worlds are not out of reach—we are only now opening our eyes to the horizons of blockchain, decentralized coordination, and new gold standards. Even though coordination is the last of the seventeen sustainable development goals, when solved, its tide will lift for the rest—a much-needed rocket fuel for global prosperity.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.”  —George Washington
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.