On another occasion, I asked him how our exertions in the Balkans fit into the larger goals of American foreign policy. Again, he was dismissive of the premise. "Forget the sweep-of-history crap," he said. "Our goal is to end a war." Those last four words became the title of his 1998 book on the peace he, more than anyone, made in Bosnia.
In much the same spirit, Richard refused to associate himself with any of the competing schools in academe or opposing camps among the policy wonks. He cared only about the practice of foreign policy. To him, theory was, almost by definition, suspect. Not that he was averse to bold ideas -- he just didn't want to clutter up the discussion of the present and future with anything that smacked of library stacks or, worse, ideological dogma.
I once made the mistake of invoking Immanuel Kant in support of the enlargement of NATO and the European Union -- a big and controversial idea that Richard had long favored, but not because it would have pleased a professor in Königsberg who had been dead for nearly two hundred years. "Save that guy for some seminar in New Haven," he snapped.
He found most doctrines too neat to be useful in the real world. Worse, disputes over them tended to stoke the polarization of the political environment, undercutting bipartisan support for the necessary degree of consistency in foreign policy from one administration to the next.
Richard's long paper trail of muscular, lucid prose is rich in active verbs and notably free of words that end in ism. To his ear, the suffix connoted abstract concepts that provoked pointless bickering and posed policy options in terms of false dichotomies. For him, pragmatism and idealism, exceptionalism and universalism, patriotism and internationalism were not either/or choices. He believed in all six, but also in the need to reconcile them insofar as possible or to apply them in different ratios, depending on the situation at hand.
The same went for Realpolitik and its putative antonym, Moralpolitik, as manifest in humanitarian intervention, notably in the Balkans. Richard saw hard and soft power as the yin and yang of the American brand. He believed that the U.S. had enough of both kinds of power to defend the weak around the world.
He was also wary of grand strategy -- any grand strategy. "Diplomacy is not like chess," he once told Michael Ignatieff. "It's more like jazz -- a constant improvisation on a theme." As both a student and practitioner of statecraft, he saw master plans as tending to blinker policy makers, causing them to miss or misread indications that their theory of the case is faulty or that circumstances have changed in ways that call for new assumptions, goals, and responses.
Richard's career was bookended by two cautionary tales about precisely that danger. In 1962, the year he entered the Foreign Service, the Kennedy administration had already made containing Soviet and Chinese expansion into Indochina an objective vital to the national interest. As a result, there were already more than 3,000 U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam. The consequence was to propel the U.S. into a quagmire, which led to the downfall of JFK's successor, Lyndon Johnson. Almost 40 years later, with the Cold War over, no hostile superpower to contain, and 9/11 confronting the U.S. with a new enemy, George W. Bush declared an open-ended "global war on terror." It began with the deceptively easy eviction of the Taliban regime in Kabul. Seven years and 800 U.S. and coalition casualties later, Richard, as a private citizen, wrote in his column for the Washington Post that the conflict in Afghanistan was likely to exceed the Vietnam misadventure as the longest war in American history.