“I have long believed that the true worth of a person is measured by how faithfully we serve a cause greater than our self-interest, that encompasses us but is not defined by our existence alone. . .The same holds true for the conduct of nations.” – Senator John McCain Commencement Speech for Northwestern University 2005
Sixteen years ago today, Senator John McCain congratulated Northwestern University graduates and seized the opportunity of the commencement speech to discuss the need for human rights-driven foreign policy for the United States. In 2021, McCain’s commencement address remains a call to action, for not only policymakers and NGOs, but for all people. In such uncertain and unprecedented times, the Senator’s speech remains as relevant and important today as in 2005 and serves as guidance for a path forward after the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 has caused major disruption, isolation and havoc globally. Vulnerable communities face extreme hardship as the vaccine rollout remains unreliable in many areas of the world, due to stark differences in access to resources and information. As the United States reopens, we have a duty to assess our role in overcoming the virus worldwide, as well as protecting and advancing human rights. As Senator McCain stated, “I have long believed that the true worth of a person is measured by how faithfully we serve a cause greater than our self-interest, that encompasses us but is not defined by our existence alone…The same holds true for the conduct of nations.” These wise words not only inspired the graduating class of 2005, but they should serve as a clarion call for all of us as we reflect upon the role of the United States in a post-COVID-19 era.
According to the White House, 52% of American adults are fully vaccinated. With vaccine rates rising in the United States, and with COVID-19 isolation slowly receding, we begin to consider what a post-pandemic world might look like. The past 16 months have been a unique period in American history as our relations have become more isolated both at home and globally. As the world reopens, there is an opportunity to reassess our engagement in the world and to revisit Senator McCain’s remarks:
“We claim [ ] that people no matter where they live, no matter their history or religious beliefs or the size of their GDP, all people share a basic desire to be free; to make their own choices and industry better lives for themselves and their children. And furthermore, that it is in the security interests of the United States and is inseparable from the moral foundation of our national character that we should do all that is practical to help them wrest their rights from regimes that do not govern with their people’s consent.” (NorthwesternU)
Toward the end of his speech, Sen. McCain spoke of the genocidal atrocities that occurred in Rwanda and Bosnia positing the moral basis for American intervention as a force for good. He passionately shared his viewpoint regarding the importance of America in times of international crisis to forestall these types of human catastrophic events. As we regather and reassess in a world still grappling with the effects of a pandemic, we have a duty to remain proactive in our efforts to do good and to mitigate human rights violations globally.
The McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University’s Human Rights and Democracy program – guided by the example and legacy of John McCain – provides opportunities to assess, discuss and formulate the role that the United States can play to improve lives throughout the world. The McCain Institute completed a research project in 2018 to ascertain the public’s opinion on human rights. According to the results of this project, there was a “significant lack of common understanding and support for the need to protect basic human rights and freedoms in the world . . . particularly among younger Americans” (Human Rights and Democracy Programs – McCain Institute). Sen. McCain’s speech to young adults having just completed their Northwestern undergraduate degrees, encouraged a younger demographic to effectuate change concerning human rights issues. Despite political divisiveness at home and constantly shifting geopolitics, the U.S. can and must fulfill its noble calling, and Sen. McCain understood the criticality of educating future generations regarding America’s unique role in defending global human rights.
The co-phenomena of social media and the pandemic have created a virtually unlimited opportunity to engage and educate vast numbers of target demographics. High quality and interesting visuals inform social media users and as a result are consumed and shared by millions of our youth. While technology and social media platforms offer tremendous opportunities for creating awareness and starting conversation, caution is vital as these tools are not without pitfalls. Engaging and educating via these platforms is a complex process that requires thoughtful and compelling content able to compete with a myriad of other sources. The development and implementation of entertaining and informative social media campaigns would serve to reach and educate a young demographic, with the intention of spreading awareness and engaging an audience that would otherwise remain uninformed about important subjects.
McCain’s commencement address from 16 years ago is a valuable guide during this incredibly challenging time. In a post-pandemic world, the leadership role of the United States, regarding human rights is of paramount importance. As we consider the future, the U.S. must heed the words of Sen. McCain and approach foreign affairs morally and ethically. Senator McCain quoted the words of President Jimmy Carter, “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, human rights invented America.” After an extraordinary period of separation, fear, death and political change, we, as a country, must remember the “character of the nation,” and the role of America using Sen. McCain’s words as a guiding principle.