Yesterday, the mother of one of my great friends died peacefully in north London. Her name was Mirjam. She was born into a loving, comfortable middle class family in Berlin, grew up in Amsterdam, and remembers getting a beautiful blue scooter for her eighth birthday. Two years later, aged ten, she was in Westerbork concentration camp – and the scooter belonged to her neighbour. From there, emaciated and frozen, she was transported like an animal in a cattle truck to Belsen with her mother and her two sisters. One day she stood at the barbed wire fence and saw her sister’s school friend Anne Frank arrive at the camp, never to leave.
She survived in Belsen for two further years. In January 1945, by some miracle, Mirjam was included in a small one-off prisoner exchange. Close to collapse with illness, her mother summoned up all her remaining strength to stay with Mirjam and her sisters as they travelled across war-ravaged Germany. She got her three young daughters across the Swiss border before dying later that day. Travelling on a false Paraguayan passport, Mirjam finally arrived as a refugee at Ellis Island in New York harbour, under the protective gaze of the Statue of Liberty. She was twelve years old.
Years later, she married Ludwik Finkelstein – himself a chance survivor of a childhood spent in Stalin’s gulag. They had both beaten the overwhelming odds stacked against them by the evil of other people. They lived a happy, uneventful together in north London for the next seventy years and raised a family of three quite brilliant children. Last year, Mirjam came to visit me in Downing Street and showed my teenage children the yellow star she had worn on her camp uniform when she was their age. They could see it was not an artefact in a museum. It was a real object that belonged to a real child.
I tell this story not just to honour Mirjam’s memory – and the millions like her who never survived; I tell it because it speaks to the future. It reminds us how precious is the stability and the peace and the democracy we in the west now take for granted – and how devastating its absence can be for people trying simply to live their lives and bring up their children.
That peace and stability doesn’t just happen. It has to be created, defended and – if necessary – fought for. Freedom to live, to speak and to worship may be inalienable rights, but they are rights that are denied to many hundreds of millions of fellow humans today. They are rights that could be taken from us tomorrow. Sitting back and wishing the world would be a better place allows those who would make it a much worse place to succeed.
Two men who not only understand that, but who have done more than almost anyone else in our world to advance the western values we cherish, are Henry Kissinger and John McCain. One has, through his extraordinary accomplishments over nine decades, shaped the western world we live in and opened the door to an age of global prosperity – a scholar and a diplomat who will be mentioned in history alongside Metternich and Talleyrand, Canning and Franklin, but who never lets his agile mind rest on past glories but is instead always restless to engage with the future. The other is one of his country’s greatest war-heroes, who suffered unspeakable suffering in a Hanoi prison, only to emerge as one of his country’s great legislators, who ran for its highest office and who has never compromised his values or been afraid to speak truth to power, whatever the inconvenience and cost. In my time in public office, I tried to listen and learn from both these great men.
That is why I am so honoured to have asked me to become the inaugural Kissinger Fellow at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. The Institute is known for its forthright promotion of character-driven leadership in the face of the many challenges our world faces, and I will strive to live up to the faith the Institute has put in me.
As someone who spent six years helping to lead a western government, I know how hard it is to persuade people to lift their eyes beyond our borders. Financial crisis, communities left behind by globalisation, rapid cultural change and the blistering pace of technological advance have led many to conclude that its time to stop trying to fix the world’s problems and instead focus on putting our own houses in order. Its an alluring message made more potent by the echo chamber of social media.
John McCain and Henry Kissinger remind us that the world’s problems will quickly become our own problems if we leave it to others alone to sort them. Erecting trade barriers with our neighbours, making an enemy of our open societies, demonising those seeking a better life, turning away refugees, unravelling the institutions that sustain the west, are not the answer. If the Statue of Liberty turns its back on the world, if Britain retreats behind its island shores, then it is not just others who depend on us who will pay a price – the heavy cost will fall on our own citizens too.
How do we find the way forward for those who care about freedom, security and democracy in this age of unreason? I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Instead I intend to use the Kissinger Fellowship – and draw upon the resources of the McCain Institute – to find some of them.
When people are asked: what the hell have you got to lose? The answer we should give is: peace, stability and security. Ask Mirjam before she passed away peacefully this weekend, and she would have told you: that’s a hell of a lot.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.