Perhaps the words of a political opponent place the life of John McCain in the best perspective.
Barack Obama, who famously beat the Arizona Republican in the 2008 US presidential contest, said this on the passing of the senator: “Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means. And for that, we are all in his debt.”
McCain’s courage was never in doubt. Nor was his status as a genuine American hero, except in the jaundiced eyes of today’s occupant of 1600 Pensylvania Avenue.
The son and grandson of US Navy admirals, McCain suffered for his lineage for more than five years as a prisoner of war in the hands of the Vietnamese communists. Brutally tortured, he refused all offers of early release.
But there was something else about the man that showed an even greater quality. At an address in Sydney last year for the US Studies Centre, McCain dwelt at length on the bravery of his fellow PoWs. It was an unmistakeable sign of humility and generosity, as was his statesmanship in arguing for postwar US recognition of Hanoi.
True, the six-time Republican senator for Arizona was no saint. He had been something of a lad in his younger days and he reminisced whimsically about leave from the Vietnam war in Sydney. His volcanic temper was legendary and would stun all those within hearing at the point of eruption.
But he was a great US senator as both a legislator and leader. His patriotism was part of his DNA. His affection for the American republic did not take him into the ranks of the “America Firsters”.
McCain, like all postwar presidents from Harry Truman to Obama, understood the value of the network of alliances that the US had built during the Cold War and that has sustained the Pax Americana. In particular, McCain had a real liking for Australians, for whom he had an enduring respect.
As former ambassador to the US Kim Beazley observed in a heartfelt tribute, McCain was always available to Australian visitors. At a speech at a Washington dinner for the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue several years ago, McCain was at his witty and erudite best talking about the relationship between our two countries. It was clear the senator knew he was among friends.
This friendship should now underline Australian respect for McCain.
The Australian parliament should consider, in co-operation with the US congress, the establishment of a John S. McCain memorial scholarship, which would enable Australian and American MPs, congressmen and senators, or senior members of policymaking bodies in the arenas of foreign affairs, defence, national security or intelligence, to spend time in Canberra or Washington, DC.
Immersed in the legislative and policymaking bodies of the two capitals, a greater depth of understanding of our common response to strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific should become clearer and more precise.
For reasons that are obvious, given the inconsistency and unpredictability of White House tweets, a strengthening of the relationship with the US congress is of far greater significance now than at any time in living memory. Nor is there any better way to acknowledge McCain’s enormous contribution to making the world a safer and more peaceful place, with a special emphasis on human rights
As Obama’s former vice-president, Joe Biden, said at the McCain memorial service in Phoenix, his old Senate sparing partner hated abuse of power wherever it was to be found. This was regardless of it being in Budapest or Bagram.
In confronting dictators, McCain was utterly fearless and he understood the significance of the US on the global stage by way of setting standards for leadership.
In his most recent memoir, The Restless Wave, McCain took issue with the foreign policy pursued by Obama but expressed serious concern about the drift away from global leadership under Donald Trump: “But I worry that we are at a turning point, a hinge of history, and the decisions made in the last 10 years and the decisions made tomorrow might be closing the door on the era of the American-led world order. I hope not.”
One practical way to strengthen the international rules-based order in which democratic values must play a part is to honour McCain’s memory with an enduring gesture in the form of the scholarship.
Not only would such an initiative receive wide support in the Australian context, it also would be very welcome in Washington, DC, particularly on Capitol Hill, and as a signal to American allies who are uneasy about the inspired unilateralism emanating from the White House.
A powerful US senator such as McCain buddy Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina) will make this idea work. The concept will have electoral appeal stretching far beyond the Republican Party itself, as attested by the fact that two presidents and two vice-presidents, from across the aisle, constituted the invited speakers at the McCain memorials in Phoenix and Washington. McCain had close friends everywhere, including Edward Kennedy (Democrat, Massachusetts) who represented the liberal tradition of American politics.
As to the future of international relations, let McCain’s words, spoken at last year’s Munich Security Conference, offer a useful signpost: “Make no mistake, my friends: These are dangerous times, but you should not count America out, and we should not count each other out.”