John McCain reminds us how important—and how tenuous—American leadership is

Having spent 5½ years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is intimately familiar with the price the United States has paid to assert its leadership in the world. Yet he continues to believe that, despite the cost, this leadership is essential, not just to further our own interests but to advance humanity’s.

We’re not always in agreement with McCain on foreign policy issues. He’s more inclined to use military power and to thrust the U.S. into conflagrations overseas than he should be. But in accepting the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Monday, McCain offered a strong reminder to his fellow Americans of the history lessons that seem lost on our current president and his “America First” cabal.

“The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history,” McCain told the assembled crowd. “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain the last best hope of Earth for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”

“We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t,” McCain added. “We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”

Certainly the projection of American power during the last century has had mixed results. Our leaders over the years have made some costly mistakes, have too frequently backed the wrong guys and have occasionally even gone to war wrongly or foolishly. But the answer to that is not disengagement from the world. Rejecting the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear pact and the very notion of multilateral agreements will not help solve the looming problems that face the world today.

It’s beyond sad that the only Republicans willing to push back against President Trump’s evisceration of the United States’ international commitments seem to be the ones who are retiring or, in McCain’s case, battling brain cancer. When asked about McCain’s remarks, Trump said, “People have to be careful because at some point I fight back … and it won’t be pretty.” To which McCain responded, “I’ve faced far greater challenges than this.” And yes, he has. But have the rest of us?

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