It’s not certain whether Winston Churchill ever actually described his deputy, Clement Attlee, as a modest man “with much to be modest about”—Churchill denied having said it. But it is certain that Churchill underestimated Attlee, who as the Labour Party leader went on to defeat Churchill in the 1945 elections. Rich Williamson, the diplomat who died this month at the much-too-young age of 64, was a modest man with much to be proud of. He didn’t mind being underestimated if it helped him get the job done, which for him was usually about promoting democracy and working to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity.
Although we served together under President Reagan and both Presidents Bush, Rich and I always worked in different parts of the government, so I initially knew him mainly by reputation. My first chance for an extended conversation with him came just a few years ago in Munich, where we were both attending the annual Munich Security Conference. I was deeply impressed by his wisdom and his enormous common sense. But even more impressive was that he made no effort to show off what was obviously a great breadth of knowledge. How uncharacteristic of Washington! Perhaps that’s why Rich always went back to Chicago—where his roots and his home were—whenever he was not engaged in some kind of public service in the capital or abroad.
Over time, I also came to appreciate how strongly Rich believed that the distinction between values and interests in foreign policy is artificial. He believed that supporting democratic values around the world advances American interests, and that we damage those interests if we mistakenly think values don’t matter in international affairs. As Rich liked to express it, “You have to be a realist to take steps day to day, but you have to be an idealist to know where you are going.” In short, he was a true realist, not in the sense that the term is bandied about in academic literature but in the way that Charles Krauthammer importantly defined it as “democratic realism.”
Rich held a number of high-ranking government positions, including as assistant secretary of state for international organizations; ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights; and presidential special envoy to Sudan. Had he lived longer, he probably would have held even more important ones. He served as senior foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and would have made an excellent national security adviser for Romney, or any future Republican president. For that matter, he could have served well for any future Democratic president who would want to follow the great tradition of strong internationalism pursued by such Democratic statesmen as Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington.
Characteristically, Rich was proudest not of the titles he held but what he did to help bring peace and promote democracy in poor and conflict-ridden countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. One of his last important government jobs was to try to end the genocide in Darfur. But he was also extremely active outside government, particularly as vice chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute (IRI), on whose behalf he traveled to difficult and often dangerous places such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, the Congo, Libya and Sudan.
Rich was comfortable dealing with presidents and prime ministers, but he also had a natural political leader’s ability to connect with “ordinary” people. Those who joined him on election-observing missions remember the ever-present yellow pad he carried with him to take notes. Whether in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Liberia or Somaliland, he would dive into a line of voters and start chatting with local men and women about their lives, their hopes and what they wanted to see from the election. These conversations would often show up later in the many articles he wrote; only recently was he persuaded to buy a small laptop, but he still preferred the yellow notepad.
Rich enjoyed telling a marvelous story about how, when he was advising then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign, the candidate taught Rich a lesson about the value of being underestimated. After Rich commented that he and the other advisers could get Reagan “smart” on foreign policy issues for an upcoming debate, Reagan responded, “Young man, when you’re trying to persuade someone, it doesn’t always help to have them think you’re too smart.”
Like the former president he so admired, Rich didn’t mind being underestimated if it produced results—of which he produced so many in his too-short lifetime, and would have produced many more had he lived longer. His death is a great loss—to his family, to his many friends and to our country.
Paul Wolfowitz, formerly president of the World Bank and deputy defense secretary, is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
This is an adaptation of an article that was first published on the AEIdeas blog.