BERLIN — John McCains passing leaves a void at the heart of the transatlantic partnership.
The long-time Republican senator was a tireless advocate of U.S.-European relations: He strongly believed in the West and the central importance of liberal democracies cooperating to shape a better world. He embodied the belief that the relationship was more than a coincidental result of history, more than an interest-based alliance, more than a temporary coalition. To him, it was the core of the liberal world order, grounded in a firm belief in the universality of democracy and human rights and our responsibility to sustain and strengthen them.
Over the past few years, McCain defended these beliefs more vigorously than ever. He saw that the liberal world order and the ideas he had long fought to strengthen were not only contested by rising authoritarian powers but also challenged from inside Western societies. He warned of a rejection of universal values and a return to tribalism, an inability and unwillingness to distinguish facts from fiction, and increasing resentment, even hatred, toward minorities, immigrants and Muslims in particular. Most importantly, he warned of the risks of abandoning the ideas of the West.
His passing indicates, perhaps, the end of a transatlantic era. But we should continue to heed his warnings and carry forward his ideals.
In recent years the longtime Republican senator was more popular among Democratic voters than among voters of his own party.
Time and again, McCain referred to the generation of Ewald von Kleist, the founder of the Munich Security Conference: After World War II and the Holocausts breach of civilization, von Kleists generation laid the foundation for a new and better world — for an order, as McCain emphasized in one of his last speeches, “based not on blood-and-soil nationalism, or spheres of influence, or conquest of the weak by the strong, but rather on universal values, rule of law, open commerce, and respect for national sovereignty and independence.”
McCain saw this order as seriously threatened, and he called on everyone not to lose faith in the West and to stand up and defend it — “for if we do not, who will?”
To be sure, Europeans did not always agree with McCain. He staunchly believed that military force could change the world for the better — and that it should be used for precisely that purpose — while we Europeans focused on the risks and side effects of the use of force, and often deemed McCains optimism and faith in the malleability of the world to be naive. McCain, for his part, sometimes accused us of shirking difficult moral decisions, and rightly so. But in spite of the contradictions and controversies, McCain was always convinced that America and Europe stood on the same side.
It is true that even after Trumps election, McCain — despite his reputation as a political “maverick” — sided with his party on most decisions. But it is also true that in decisive moments he refused allegiance: He prevented his party from repealing the Obama-era Affordable Care Act because, in his opinion, attempts at forging bipartisan compromises had not been exhausted.
Today, a part of his party seems to have lost the moral compass that McCain always possessed. When he lagged in the polls in the 2008 presidential primaries, McCain nevertheless deviated from the other Republican candidates and insisted that he would limit the types of interrogation methods permissible because the America he stood for did not torture. And despite his position — or perhaps precisely because of his principles — he finally secured his partys nomination.
Hopefully McCain will be proven right, and the crisis of the West will lead to its long-term renewal and revitalization.
Later, McCain campaigned for modern immigration reform and became one of Trumps staunchest critics. And even though he, too, criticized Europeans for spending too little on their own defense, McCain never questioned U.S. security guarantees for Americas allies.
In many ways, McCain was the anti-Trump: a supporter of a values-based West, a defender of democracy and human rights, an advocate of civilized debate and bipartisan cooperation — a true hero, someone who did not put himself first.
This made McCain a target of Trump and his supporters. It reveals a lot about the current state of American society that in recent years the longtime Republican senator was more popular among Democratic voters than among voters of his own party.
For some, his death thus marks the end of an era — a farewell to an America that belongs to the past. But it is not that easy.
At the Munich Security Conference last year, McCain called on Europeans not to turn away from America, saying: “Make no mistake, my friends: These are dangerous times, but you should not count America out, and we should not count each other out.”
McCain embodies an America that is under stress — but an America that still exists and that we should not yet discount, despite the fact that many Germans would like to. Hopefully — for Europe and the world — McCain will be proven right, and the crisis of the West will lead to its long-term renewal and revitalization. We, too, have the responsibility to bring this about.
Wolfgang Ischinger is chairman of the Munich Security Conference and a former German ambassador to the United States.
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