There is a man whom we missed terribly at this year’s GLOBSEC conference and who will, indeed, be missed at all future events. His name is John McCain. The Washington Post called him the single greatest political leader of our time. Time called him the best senator America has. We, the people of Central Europe, could hardly be surprised. He symbolises an America that many generations of Slovaks, Poles, Czechs or Bulgarians have yearned for – one which is not only powerful and strong with its tanks, missiles and brave soldiers but most importantly with its rule of law and democratic institutions, respectful of other nations and willing to provide assistance. America as a shining beacon of checks and balances in the tripartite political system.
He began as a valiant soldier. To have a four star general as father and grandfather is a tough act to follow but Mr McCain came to prove he can live up to the family tradition. As a pilot he was shot down over Hanoi and spent six long years in captivity in a Vietnamese jail. He was tortured but never revealed any classified information.
He lived with the incapacity caused by the war for the rest of his life. As a Senator, member of the House of Representatives and presidential candidate he got to know American politics, warts and all – getting to know the taste of victory but also defeat. He was there when crucial decisions were made as regards laws against tortures or the decision to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan. He helped to reform the electoral law.
Mr McCain never followed blindly the party line (he once said: “we are Americans first and partisans second”). As recently as last year he cast decisive votes on Obamacare, positioning himself in between party divisions. He never stopped urging Republicans and Democrats to put aside their differences and work together (“not to seclude ourselves in ideological ghettos”). Alas, this spirit of bipartisanship is evaporating from the political systems of America and Europe. He believed in apolitical, competent institutions that are the backbone of American democracy. He shielded the FBI and federal departments from political pressure.
Mr McCain took issue with Russian meddling into US electoral processes very seriously. He vehemently opposed populism as a way to conduct politics by dealing with unpopular reforms like immigration even if the price to pay can sometimes be losing votes. Above all he was respectful of the dignity of his opponents. Once he took part in a rally where Barack Obama – his fierce political adversary was present. When a person from a crowd called Mr Obama an “Arab”, he famously interrupted: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with.”
He was with us at GLOBSEC back in 2015 when he spoke about the rise of radical Islam and a belligerent Russia. He is one of the biggest friends Central Europe has ever had across the Atlantic. I remember his quiet voice, unassuming demeanor, thoughtful and balanced views. Meeting Mr McCain in person was one of my most important, most touching moments in my career. Mr Senator, rest in peace.