Two former McCain national security advisors call for a new focus on the threat of authoritarianism
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On the fifth anniversary of Senator John McCain’s passing, Dr. Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, and Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, stated in an opinion piece for The Hill that as authoritarianism continues to challenge democracy globally, the United States should embrace its role as an indispensable power –just as Senator McCain repeatedly spoke of. Both Twining and Fontaine previously served as Senator McCain’s national security advisor.
“It’s become unfashionable these days to observe that the United States remains the world’s indispensable power. John McCain knew it, and he believed we are often stronger and more effective than we give ourselves credit for. His confidence in America, and his conviction that it should pursue a cause greater than self-interest, is a message our political leaders might usefully consider today.”—Daniel Twining and Richard Fontaine in The Hill.
Read the article HERE or below.
Op-Ed: John McCain’s warning of the authoritarian threat should be heeded
By Daniel Twining and Richard Fontaine
August 25, 2023
Five years ago today, the United States — and the world — lost an indispensable advocate for freedom. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was one of those rare figures who fought for the values he held dear in every aspect of life — from his military career and five years as a prisoner of war, to his more than 30 years representing Arizona in the Senate, to his role as one of America’s foremost statesmen.
It is in this latter role that he will be best remembered around the world. Beloved by small “d” democrats and loathed by dictators, a word from John McCain could hearten and inspire activists, protestors and political prisoners. The senator understood the essential connection between dictators’ oppression at home and the threats they pose abroad. Many years before most of Washington, he anticipated the global danger of resurgent authoritarianism.
There is no subject on which John McCain showed greater prescience than the trajectory of Russia under Vladimir Putin. He expressed his distrust of Putin as early as 2000, led the charge for NATO enlargement with an eye on the dangers of Russian revanchism and in 2003 called for “a hard-headed and dispassionate reconsideration of American policy in response to the resurgence of authoritarian forces in Moscow.”
For years, politicians on both sides of the aisle cast such warnings as alarmist or hopelessly retrograde. Yet McCain could see that the inevitable consequence of Putin’s authoritarian streak would be dictatorship at home and aggression abroad. Unfortunately, he was proven right again and again — first in Georgia in 2008, then during the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and most conclusively with Russia’s 2022 gambit to fully colonize Ukraine.
McCain’s foresight was grounded in his fundamental worldview. He recognized the innate connection between the behavior of governments at home and abroad. Whereas democracies tend to seek out relationships that create the conditions for security, stability and prosperity, dictatorships more often foment conflict, export corruption and other forms of authoritarian influence, and undermine the institutions and practices that keep the global economy in good working order.
As a result, the challenge posed by malign actors requires a foreign policy grounded in the values that have enabled America to flourish. This enlightened form of national interest holds that the basic rights Americans enjoy should be the province of everyone, everywhere, and that American power finds its noblest expression in helping to secure the rights and freedoms of others.
Since McCain’s death, competition with authoritarian adversaries — China, in particular— has escalated. The U.S. possesses everything necessary to triumph in it, and redoubling our coordination with democratic allies and partners is crucial. Dictatorships seek a world ordered in accordance with their authoritarian vision. The United States and its allies must instead help create the conditions for democracy to thrive. In so doing, they can build a world favorable to freedom, security and prosperity.
This contest is playing out on the battlefields of Ukraine today. Ukraine’s victory will be a rebuke not only to Russia but to autocrats everywhere with similar designs. Working with our European partners, we must ensure that Russia’s brutal campaign fails, and that post-war Ukraine becomes a model for the free world. John McCain understood the stakes when he stood on the Maidan in 2013, alongside Ukrainians protesting for freedom, and then in 2014, when he led the campaign to arm Ukraine.
Thanks in part to McCain’s leadership, the idea that democratic values should undergird American foreign policy has become a matter of bipartisan consensus in recent decades. Yet it is not without its detractors. A strain of pessimism and self-doubt has taken root on both the right and the left. Some critics argue that America is so flawed at home that it is unable to support the forces of freedom abroad. Others lament the inability to make a difference where it matters most. Still others conflate support for democracy with regime change, or simply dismiss the fundamental rights of others as none of our business.
History refutes such well-trodden arguments. When the United States has pursued policies that accord with our deepest values, we prevail against enemies that fear their own people and lack the dynamism possible in a free society. Where would Ukraine be today without American support? Who would contest Beijing’s autocratic advance if not the United States?
It’s become unfashionable these days to observe that the United States remains the world’s indispensable power. John McCain knew it, and he believed we are often stronger and more effective than we give ourselves credit for. His confidence in America, and his conviction that it should pursue a cause greater than self-interest, is a message our political leaders might usefully consider today.
As the senator put it, “We are blessed, and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn. . . This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another, better world. And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished, and prosperous.” That task remains ongoing.
Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, and Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, served in succession as Sen. John McCain’s national security advisor during the period 2001-10.