By Daniel Twining
I was with Senator John McCain on September 11, 2001. The Capitol Police had an evacuation plan for congressional leadership in the event of catastrophe, but individual senators were on their own. As junior staff members panicked and breathless police officers urged us out, Senator McCain remained calm, his gallows humor in full force. “I’ve crashed three airplanes and been shot out of the sky,” he told nervous advisers. “I survived years of solitary confinement in a Vietnamese prison camp. You think I’m going to die in my office? Stay close to me and we’ll be fine.”
The 9/11 attacks came after a decade in which Senator McCain had warned about the lack of seriousness of American foreign policy and the hollowing out of U.S. military readiness. There was no greater champion of the men and women of our armed forces than Senator McCain. He visited them on deployment all over the world and was a tireless champion for the political and material support they needed to protect America from global threats. Yet his wisdom lay in his firm conviction that the United States should use all elements of its power and influence to help nurture societies abroad so that they would not want to attack us in the first place.
Senator McCain also understood the unique challenges posed by failed states to American interests. In the 2000s, he warned ceaselessly of the dangers posed by the combination of dictatorship and lack of economic opportunity in the Middle East, where misgovernance combined with extremist propaganda radicalized angry young men.
Today, uncontrolled mass migration results from poor governance and the absence of democratic institutions. There are more refugees in the world today than at any time since the World War II. Waves of desperate men, women and children are fleeing gang violence and corrupt autocracies in Central America and Venezuela in hopes of finding safe haven in the United States. Uncontrolled mass migration from wartorn Syria and Iraq have destabilized Europe and weakened NATO, just as migration out of Latin America has put enormous pressure on our southern border.
In keeping with his commitment to advancing freedom, Senator McCain served for 25 years as chairman of the International Republican Institute, which works around the world to strengthen democratic politics. His view was that the quest for freedom is universal and that America has an obligation, based on the ideals of our own republic, to help other people enjoy the rights that so many of us take for granted.
His national security experience infused his belief in the American mission to help democracy take root in other lands. His logic was straightforward in that he saw that the closest allies of the United States are all democracies, free people do not make war on each other, and the prosperity seeded by transparent and accountable politics is far superior to anything autocracies can offer, which is why every high income economy in the world that is not sitting on oil riches is a democracy. As Defense Secretary James Mattis recently observed, no one becomes a refugee to escape a free press, no one embarks on perilous journeys through dangerous waters to flee a democracy, and the U.S. Marines do not need to fight where countries are governed justly.
Senator McCain had a vision of a world order based on human freedom that also reflected a keen sense of American comparative advantage in a world of strategic competition with authoritarian great powers like China and Russia. The leaders of autocracies are threatened by the very notion that their people should be free to choose their own leaders and hold them accountable through regular, free and fair elections. Rather than backing away from our values in favor of realpolitik, Senator McCain believed we should double down on them to be true to our founding principles and to attract allies to our cause around the globe.
Senator McCain embraced the conviction of Ronald Reagan that America won the Cold War thanks to the power of our ideals as much as our military and economic might. For Senator McCain, the attacks of 9/11 were a reminder of how dangers gather when the United States withdraws from global leadership. To honor his legacy, leaders in the United States today would be wise to embrace his central insight that America is more secure in a world that is democratic and free.
Daniel Twining is president of the International Republican Institute. He was foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain from 2001 to 2004.Top