With his passing, Senator John McCain left a giant legacy of service to country in his wake. He demonstrated the art of what is possible when a person possesses character, courage, and commitment. His life’s example offered a powerful repudiation to the emergent line of thought that the pursuit of causes larger than oneself has gone extinct. His drawing tributes from across the political spectrum—Democratic and Republican ex-Presidents and world leaders alike—showed that genuine leaders can still bring people together across partisan and ideological divides.
There is more. Senator McCain left a deep, rich, and robust foreign policy framework to the nation. That framework, not the contemporary divergence into selfish, provincial, and petty ethno-nationalist neo-isolation, would position the nation to seize the vast opportunities that lie ahead, as well as overcome its most pressing foreign policy challenges.
Senator McCain believed that the United States is not a mere prisoner of events. He never latched onto lazy arguments that the United States is a victim of a global conspiracy to engage in “unfair” practices against America. He rejected notions that the United States could only react defensively to the evolution of world events. Instead, he subscribed to the idea that the United States is a great and positive force on the world stage. He argued it possesses both the power and tools to shape world events in a fashion consistent with its own ideals and interests. He understood that choices have consequences and that that U.S. foreign policy choices represented investments in building a more peaceful, prosperous, and secure future.
That thinking hearkened back to the architects of the post-World War II order. George C. Marshall laid out such thinking in a speech he gave at Harvard University on June 5, 1947 (OECD). Marshall explained:
[T] he people of this country are distant from the troubled areas of the earth and it is hard for them to comprehend the plight and consequent reactions of the long-suffering peoples, and the effect of those reactions on their governments in connection with our efforts to promote peace in the world…
Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.
During his candidacy for President, Senator John McCain wrote an article that outlined his foreign policy agenda that was published in the November-December 2007 edition of Foreign Affairs. Among other things, that article articulated the purpose Senator McCain envisioned for the United States, highlighted the importance Senator McCain placed on the Trans-Atlantic alliance, set forth a vision in which the United States and China could enjoy a cooperative bilateral relationship, and called for a continuing pursuit of trade liberalization.
The opening of McCain’s article provided the Senator’s foreign policy philosophy. Senator McCain explained:
Since the dawn of our republic, Americans have believed that our nation was created for a purpose. We are, as Alexander Hamilton said, “a people of great destinies.” From the American Revolution to the Cold War, Americans have understood their duty to serve a cause greater than self-interest and to keep faith with the eternal and universal principles of the Declaration of Independence…
Our next president will need to rally nations across the world around common causes as only America can… The next president must be prepared to lead America and the world to victory—and to seize the opportunities afforded by the unprecedented liberty and prosperity in the world today to build a peace that will last a century.
When it came to NATO, Senator McCain wrote:
The United States did not single-handedly win the Cold War; the transatlantic alliance did, in concert with partners around the world. The bonds we share with Europe in terms of history, values, and interests are unique…
Western nations should make clear that the solidarity of NATO, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is indivisible and that the organization’s doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom.
When has one heard the current Administration share credit?
In terms of the Sino-American relationship, Senator McCain observed:
China and the United States are not destined to be adversaries. We have numerous overlapping interests. U.S.-Chinese relations can benefit both countries and, in turn, the Asia-Pacific region and the world.
Senator McCain saw trade liberalization as a potent tool for advancing security and prosperity, particularly in Asia. In effect, McCain offered a concrete foundation for the “Asia Pivot” before the Obama Administration articulated such a course. He wrote:
The United States should set the standard for trade liberalization in Asia. Completing free-trade agreements with Malaysia and Thailand, realizing the full potential of our new trade agreement with South Korea, and institutionalizing economic partnerships with India and Indonesia so that they build on existing agreements with Australia and Singapore should set the stage for an ambitious Pacific-wide effort to liberalize trade. Such trade liberalization would benefit Americans and Asians alike.
Today, U.S. is engaged in the kind of vast and ongoing retreat from world affairs not seen since the 1920s and 1930s. The U.S. has a President who has publicly assailed NATO’s allies and periodically questioned the Article 5 commitment at the core of the North Atlantic Treaty. He has abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement leaving the Asian economic playing field to other countries and creating a giant vacuum that can be filled by a rising China over time. He has preemptively launched a trade war against China, gradually pushing China onto a path that could lead to confrontation with American interests over the medium- or longer-term. The current foreign policy trajectory is short-sighted, petty, and ill-informed.
More than a decade ago, Senator McCain laid out a coherent, positive, and traditional foreign policy role for the United States. That vision is as compelling today—and maybe more so—as it was when Senator McCain sought the Presidency in the 2008 election. The McCain foreign policy sought to leverage the nation’s global partnerships and reinforce ties among the world’s democratic nations to bring about tangible economic and security benefits to the United States and all of its partners. The McCain foreign policy was drawn from the best of American ideals and firmly rooted in the nation’s interests. It is seemingly light years ahead of the backward-looking, petty, and haphazard approach that prevails today.