On The Atlantic’s May Cover, George Packer Shares an Elegy for the American Century

Richard Holbrooke, Balkan diplomacy, and the beginning of the end for American influence

April 10, 2019 (Washington, D.C.)— In the 1990s, when the diplomat Richard Holbrooke ended a war in the Balkans with the signing of the Dayton Accords, American influence seemed poised to reach new heights. The superpower had brought peace to Bosnia after years of civil war, and the country was poised to build on that success under President Bill Clinton. But instead of leading the world in the decades since, American influence began to decline.

In “Elegy for the American Century” appearing as the cover of The Atlantic’s May issue, staff writer George Packer reports on the long, slow deterioration of American global influence. He explains how the foreign policy decisions of presidential administrations in the past two decades have led the United State to retreat into “a nationalism whose ugliness more and more reminds me of Balkan politics.” Through the story of Holbrooke’s work to bring peace to Bosnia in 1995, Packer illustrates the power of American muscle at the bargaining table, and looks at what is lost when America decides to leave the world alone. The cover, adapted from his forthcoming book, OUR MAN: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, is published now at TheAtlantic.com, and will be available on newsstands April 23.

Holbrooke was an unemployed diplomat when he decided to spend the week after Christmas of 1992 in the Balkans. He visited Sarajevo to speak with the survivors of the civil war that had divided the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, and determined that genocide required American involvement. George H.W. Bush’s administration had resisted action, leaving the troubles of the Balkans to the Europeans, and President Clinton, newly in office, wasn’t much more interested in intervention. Clinton was haunted by the country’s mistakes in Vietnam, but Holbrooke was convinced that involvement in Bosnia was different, and would be beneficial to American interests. By the summer of 1994, he’d been named assistant secretary of state, with the directive of ending the Balkan catastrophe.

Packer details how Holbrooke painstakingly worked to bring the leaders from the various factions together in Dayton, Ohio, to sign a peace agreement, albeit an uneasy one that created a state led by three presidents (one of each of the main ethnic groups). The agreement was a victory for American influence and saved many lives, though Packer writes, “Dayton did not mark a new path onward and upward in American history. It was closer to the end of something.” He points to 1998 as the true beginning-of-the-end, when the Lewinsky scandal led to legislators spending a full year attacking each other, rather than focus on the national interest. “Did any country ever combine so much power with so little responsibility?” Packer asks. “Slowly, imperceptibly at first, we lost that essential faith in ourselves.”

For Bosnians who survived the civil war and the bitter nationalism that led to it, President Trump’s rhetoric and his ethnic politics feel familiar, and concerning. In their own country, the Serb member of Bosnia’s presidency is advocating secession, and the Dayton peace agreement is at risk as Russia fills the geo-political vacuum left by the United States. “Now that the American century is over, even Bosnia, which would not exist without the United States, is slipping away,” Packer writes. “There’s something else that would trouble Holbrooke’s ghost. Not the end of our global leadership—it was never sustainable and 1995 was unique—but the withering-away of our example.”

The cover story is online today, April 10, 2019, at TheAtlantic.com. The May issue of The Atlantic will be on newsstands April 23, 2019.

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Helen Tobin // The Atlantic