Skip to main content

Remembering Senator John McCain’s Message in Munich


February 10, 2020

“I refuse to accept the demise of our world order. […] I refuse to accept that our values are morally equivalent to those of our adversaries. I am a proud, unapologetic believer in the West.”

These are the words of Senator John McCain from his address at the 2017 Munich Security Conference. It was his last one.

Correctly identifying the lack of confidence in the West to uphold the value and rule-based global system to be the challenge, rather than our ability, Senator McCain sought to deliver a healthy injection of courage by reminding us what is at stake.

In 1963, Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist founded the “Internationale Wehrkunde” conference, the predecessor to the Munich Security Conference. He knew that to face the common challenge of the Cold War, the transatlantic community needed to come together. The foundations of this community lay not in some single country’s imperial project, but rather on a belief in shared values and a system that relies on rules, not force. The seven decades of security and prosperity that followed did not occur by chance.

The genius of this community was that it was open to anybody who was prepared to sign up to principles such as democracy, rule of law, open commerce and respect for national sovereignty and independence. Ideas that are truly universal. This year, the Munich Security Conference asks if the world is becoming less Western and if so, what does it mean for the world if the West leaves the stage to others?

Back in 1963, the main threat was the Soviet Union. When that totalitarian experiment failed in 1991, there was hope that its successor state, Russia, was going to adopt these universal principles. Thirty years later, things are not looking so good. Vladimir Putin’s Russia resents the current rule-based world order and seeks to replace it with a new Yalta Conference where only great power play counts.

It’s important to note that there is nothing about the current order or the values it’s based on that inheritably “un-Russian” or disadvantage Russia. As a large, resource-rich country with an educated population, Russia could thrive. What cannot thrive, though, is the current regime. It has chosen the path of strongman rule, a rigged judicial and economic system and a “might makes right” view of the world. High oil prices were once its main selling point to its people. That has run its course the goal now is simply to keep power and resources concentrated at the top. To quote Boris Nemtsov, the former deputy prime minister and later opposition activist who was assassinated in 2015: “Corruption is not a problem in the system. Corruption is the system.” For that to work, you need a distraction. Hence the desire to restore Russia’s prestige as an empire.

As long as this goal of new international rules is not achieved, Russia sees itself as being in a state of war by all means except conventional with the West. As Oscar Jonsson, one of the recipients of this year’s John McCain Dissertation Award, argues in his excellent book, “The Russian Understanding of War,” any decent Russian military analyst can tell you that NATOs four battalions placed in the Baltic States and Poland pose no threat of invasion to Russia. Instead, Moscow believes it’s under attack by the West through information warfare and color revolutions. Because Russia knows that its power is inferior to that of the West, it has instead sought to subvert it, erode its resolve, and make it passive. The Kremlin’s propaganda offensive and support for extremist voices in Western countries is to be understood in this light. If the West is divided and does not trust in its abilities, Russia will have the upper hand in a confrontation. It’s not hard to win a game of chess against an opponent that does not move his pieces.

Some might argue that the obvious solution is for the West to leave Russia alone and not support any more color revolutions in its neighborhood. This fails to understand that the current Russian system will feel inherently threatened by one based on openness and fair rules, simply because it’s weak. Short of changing itself into a copy of current Russia, an undesired goal to say the least, there is not much the West can do to bury the hatchet with the Kremlin. As for color revolutions, these are not, as Moscow believes, created by the West, but by the people who live in those countries. Even if some Westerners have become disillusioned, there are many who would echo Sen. McCain’s refusal “to accept that our values are morally equivalent to those of our adversaries.” Just ask the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who defied winter and violent riot police for months on the Maidan.

Since Russia is a threat, we need to honest about it – there is no point in trying to sweep it under the rug or talk up the situation. The second receiver of this year’s award, Balazs Martonffy, argues in his dissertation, “Analysis Paralysis,” that unfortunately, NATO, the West’s primary instrument for defense, is too often caught sleeping at the wheel. A resurgent Russia that increased its military capabilities between 2010 and 2014 was met by incoherence within the alliance. It was only with the specific invasion of Crimea that NATO was jolted into action.

Let’s hope a second jolt won’t be necessary. Some count out a Russian invasion of the Baltics, but who can really blame the Kremlin for believing that we lost faith in ourselves if we constantly remind them of it? Russia’s strength lies in quickly creating facts on the ground. In this era of fake news, having some people in a Russian-speaking border town in say, Estonia, complain about being mistreated by the authorities might be enough for the Kremlin to take a chance on critically wounding the credibility of the Western alliance. Especially if it feels itself to be under pressure from dissatisfied Russian people.

What Russia would like to replace the Western system with is nether peaceful, just or even stable. We cannot simply do business as usual but neither should we doubt in the values that made our community successful. Now is the time to stand up for it.

Because, as Sen. McCain concluded back in 2017, “For if we do not, who will?”

(Photo courtesy of Munich Security Conference, 2017)

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization 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.

Publish Date
February 10, 2020