In Eastern Europe, few know or care about John McCain’s domestic politics. Here, the late senator is a symbol of all that we thought was good about the U.S.: decency, a belief in liberty, human rights and a liberal world order.
McCain did not subscribe to the “he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard” mantra that often characterizes Western approaches to undemocratic rule. He stood against authoritarianism in all its forms, and shoulder-to-shoulder with the countries that have emerged from communism and its later incarnations.
I first met John in his office in 1993 when, as Estonia’s first post-independence ambassador in Washington, I visited him to ask for his support in the fight for the withdrawal of Russian troops from our territory.
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe had agreed at its 1992 summit on the “speedy, orderly and complete” withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic states. But the Russians were stalling. At the time, the U.S. and most West European leaders had no appetite for dealing with the continued presence of Russian troops in the newly independent countries. Supporting President Boris Yeltsin was paramount, and if that meant international agreements regarding less important states were ignored, so be it.
McCain stood out, resolute in pushing the U.S. to meet its commitments — not just in that meeting, which is easy for a politician to do, but regularly following up with me. For the next quarter of a century, he would seek me out during visiting congressional delegations, at conferences and during his visits to the Continent, pull me aside and ask: “What are the Russians doing?”
When Estonia and other Eastern European countries applied to join NATO, McCain was among our most vocal champions. He was always at the ready to offer advice, to listen to our concerns.
It would be easy to write off McCain’s passionate support of the countries in Europe that freed themselves from communist rule as simply a response to his own nearly six-year ordeal in prisoner of war camps in Vietnam, to the torture inflicted upon him in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
But that was not John.
Knowing him, reading his books, listening to his speeches, it is apparent that McCain held the rarest of commodities in politics: character, decency and principle. Without character, he would not have refused early release from a prisoner of war camp. Without a firm belief in principle and decency, he would not have taken so many unpopular positions throughout his career.
I was deeply saddened when I heard McCain called a “maverick.” The fact that his courage and belief in principle, his refusal to give in to political expediency, should earn him that moniker is an indictment of politics. Except, when it came to humor, John McCain was truly a maverick. He bucked all the rules for how a U.S. senator should behave. There were no stentorian pronouncements or feigned interest, or even the hail-fellow-well-met routines. The dinners we had during my presidency were always a riot, leaving all attending in stitches. Long before he did so in public, he privately called Russia a “gas station” — a simple metaphor, yet so elegant and novel and so true.
When it came to serious issues of human rights and freedom, McCain was the most serious and passionate American in government service whom I’ve met. For John, freedom was never a slogan. He was always intimately aware of what authoritarian regimes were doing and to whom. It was this that left its mark on me.
When a decade ago, Polish President Lech Kaczyński and I decided we should fly to Georgia amidst the Russian invasion of that country, I told my colleague: “We need to do what John McCain in the past has done for our countries.” Kaczyński agreed, “exactly.”
Yes, the greatest transatlanticist of the post-Cold-War era deserves to have the new NATO headquarters named after him. But the world can best honor John McCain by following his example and honoring his legacy: political courage.
Courage to stand up for the weak, the oppressed, when it is easier not to. Courage to defend even political opponents when they are unfairly attacked. Courage not only to take unpopular positions but to act upon them. To go where freedom is threatened. To tell authoritarians they are behaving badly. And to be willing to face the consequences.
A decade ago, McCain wanted to create a “league of democracies,” bringing together the countries built on free and fair elections, rule of law and human rights, “against the evils of despotism, fascism, and totalitarianism.” At the time, his proposal did not go far. Today, electoral democracies are more under threat than they have been in decades, from the same actors. Russian and Iranian military hacking groups and state-funded social media troll farms are actively undermining democracy, disrupting elections and sowing political polarization and chaos.
What better way, then, to honor John McCain than make one of his unfulfilled dreams a reality.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves is the former president of Estonia 2006-2016. He is currently the distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.