What would John McCain do?

What would John McCain do?
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

A year ago, the world lost Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEx-McSally aide pleads guilty to stealing over 0K in campaign funds DOJ: Arizona recount could violate civil rights laws Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women MORE. The global response to his passing — largely grief and appreciation from allies and democratic activists, mostly silence from adversaries and autocrats — said much about the man. John McCain believed in the power of America to act not only on its own behalf but for all of humanity. He was a true idealist, that senator from Arizona, but he was also a realist. And it is to that combination of principles I often turn when thinking about today’s greatest foreign policy challenges.

For five years I had the good fortune to serve as Sen. McCain’s foreign policy advisor, and to keep in touch with him after that. My last meeting with him, in Arizona not long before his passing, reinforced my view that his absence would create a void in America’s national security thinking, and one not easily filled. Since then, when considering issues around the world, many who knew him have wondered what John McCain would do.

Sen. McCain was a believer in freedom and democracy, often stressing the “all” in the claim that all men and women are created equal and entitled to certain rights. I believe he’d look on the protests in Hong Kong today with a mixture of hope and foreboding, wishing that the U.S. government would speak loudly in support while warning Beijing that violence will elicit real consequences. He’d wish to aid or work with fragile democracies like Tunisia and Malaysia, and encourage continued progress in places like Ethiopia and Sudan. And he’d make clear that the great power competition in which America is enmeshed will be contested not only with economic power and military strength, but by force of ideals.


John McCain would, I think, be increasingly concerned about the protectionist wave that continues to build in the administration’s economic approach. Always an ardent free-trader, the senator fused economic logic with a knowledge of history to argue that trade barriers hurt America. I recall accompanying him to the Senate floor years ago to oppose some protectionist measure that had popped up. While he invoked the Great Depression, I raised behind him huge black and white photos of Smoot and Hawley. Today, I suspect, the Senator would look at Chinese economic practices with grave concern, but suggest that the focus on the trade deficit is misplaced and that the indefinite application of high tariffs is misguided.

I’m virtually certain Sen. McCain would be a key voice in the debate today over Afghanistan. As a rumored peace agreement grows nearer, he would likely visit Afghanistan repeatedly, bringing his colleagues along, to understand how the war was going, where the leverage is for talks, and what a residual force there could do. McCain criticized the complete American pullout of Iraq in 2011, a position tragically vindicated when the country descended into ISIS-generated chaos. He would, I suspect, push the current administration not to repeat the error. His friend, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse conservatives take aim at Schumer-led bipartisan China bill There will be no new immigration law under Biden, unless he changes course McConnell safe in power, despite Trump's wrath MORE (R-S.C.), is currently preparing a legislative backstop against the probable downsides of a complete U.S. pullout, and I imagine John McCain would have been right there with him.

Behind his approach to these and other issues would be McCain’s enduring belief in U.S. leadership. A strong defense, vigorous diplomacy, generous foreign aid — these are means, he thought, to making the world a better, safer, and more prosperous place. The alternative to American leadership, he held, was not a group of friendly locals that steps up in our absence, but more likely the empowering of adversaries or the emergence of dangerous vacuums. Neither antagonize allies, nor let them ride free — I suspect he’d say today — but lead them. Neither retreat from global order, nor passively accept its fate, but shape it.

Here I think Sen. McCain would wish discussions with Denmark to focus on allied approaches to Russian predation, rather than the price of Greenland. He’d like Democratic presidential debates to offer more than a handful of minutes about events outside America’s borders. He’d urge the Trump administration and the Congress to engage the world more, travel more, act more confidently abroad, set the global agenda, protect our interests and promote our values. He would argue that such a course is not merely one of many options for the United States, but rather is intrinsic to the exceptional nature of our republic and the ideals on which it was founded.

It almost seems old-fashioned, such sentiments, and yet it’s only been a year.


We would do well to revisit them.

I stress what I think John McCain would do about events today, but of course I cannot know. Even when I served as his aide, he routinely surprised me and others. And such thinking today is merely an act of imagination. Yet as we commemorate a year since John McCain’s passing, perhaps the most — and the best — we can do is to engage that imagination, and use his likely notions to improve our own.

Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. He served as a foreign-policy adviser to Senator John McCain from 2004 to 2009.