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Sen. John McCain
114th Landon Lecture
March 15, 1999

 

No decade in this century began more auspiciously than the 1990s. That gross impediment to liberty, the Berlin Wall, was breached by the stronger forces of human yearning. The central security problem of our time - the possible clash of East and West on the plains of Germany - was resolved by the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the reunification of Germany. The Soviet Union imploded and ceased its militant hostility to the values of liberal democracies.

The euphoria that accompanied these remarkable events anticipated the arrival of a world of independent democracies engaged only in peaceful commercial competition with one another. But the resurrection of ancient conflicts and hideous barbarism in the Balkans; the reappearance of other incidents of irrational nationalism and tribalism that had been sublimated by the Cold War, the near total collapse of the Russian economy and its implications for economic and political reform there; the accelerated proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the progress toward acquiring such weapons made by rogue states with an implacable hostility for American interests and values; and the dozens of wars that were waged across the globe, dimmed humanity's highest hopes.

Still, our disappointments should not obscure our progress. They should caution us not to overreach, but they should not intimidate us from making the most of this moment, to continue building a safer, more humane world than the one that inaugurated this century. 

I am often identified as a critic of administration policies. But I have just as publicly agreed with administration policies when I have found them to have merit as I have criticized them when they have been feckless, I strongly supported the expansion of NATO, as well as the two great trade successes, NAFTA and the Uruguay Round. But to understand the mistakes of Clinton statecraft, we need to discuss them plainly.

At the core of the problem are two pronounced flaws: strategic incoherence and self-doubt. The first refers to the lack of a conceptual framework -- in other words, what we want the world to be and how we can help make it so. A conceptual framework establishes the relationships among our many interests in the world, provides the basis for prioritizing those interests, and obliges us to integrate policies to serve those priorities.

Early on, the administration had a flight of fancy that posed as the means employed to support a conceptual framework -- "assertive multilateralism." But it fell apart in Somalia and Bosnia, and assertive gave way to passive multilateratism, where we act in concert with other nations when they determine it necessary to safeguard security. In Bosnia, and probably soon in Kosovo, Arnerican troops are deployed not only, but primarily, to ensure stability in Europe. Yet, only two of our NATO allies help us in any meaningful way to contain the threat from Iraq.

The second fault I find with the administration, it's self-doubt, is obviously related and a primary cause of its strategic incoherence. Often evident in administration policies is a mystifying uncertainty about how to act in a world where we are the only superpower. When the administration stands mute and undecided about where and how they want to lead the world, they exhibit, to friend and foe alike, an identity crisis, an image of America an existential crisis, who are we and why are we here?

Nowhere has this confusion been more evident than in our relationship with China. Virtually at the speed of light, tbe President's view of Chinese leaders has changed from the "bloody butchers of Beijing" to our "strategic partners." They are neither. They are determined, indeed, ruthless, defenders of their regime, who will do whatever is necessary, no matter how inhumane or offensive to us, to pursue their own interests. And they lead a nation of extraordinary potential, that is, whether we like it or not, becoming a great power.

I agree that America must engage China if we are to maximize our influence over how that immense nation emerges as a world power. I have opposed efforts to revoke normal trading status between us or to freeze our diplomacy toward China. And in recent months the Chinese have cooperated with us more than usual on matters such as the Asian financial crisis and a little more than usual on proliferation.

But while we should hope for and work toward the best end -- that our relationship will influence China to become an internationally responsible and politically enlightened country, we must also prepare for the other contingency, that China emerges as the primary threat to American interests and values.

Engagement is not surrender. Engagement does not require us to cede to China advantages that come at the expense of our own security. Yet, in their pursuit of a strategic partnership, administration officials have -- I hope unwittingly -- left the United States more vulnerable to a ballistic missile attack. The latest spy incident proves the point beyond dispute, but evidence that China has become a greater threat has been mounting for some time. Not surprisingly, as their strategic power improves, China has played an increasingly aggressive role in the region, and seems less and less concemed with our objections to human rights violations there.

The administration deserves much of the blame for this alarming turn of events. In addition to their strangely relaxed attitude toward what looks to be an extraordinarily damaging espionage incident, they have tolerated, indeed, insisted upon extremely liberal licensing practices for transferring dual use technology to China. It is a sad sign of the times, that the best face that can be put on these lapses in judgment is that they were mistakenly committed for the sake of a stable bilateral relationship,

Far more distressing is the charge that they are, at least in part, a consequence of the President placing his own re-election before the supreme national interest. Sadly, that charge grows more credible every day. And if it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it will bring more of history's shame upon the President than his personal failings will, indeed, greater shame than any President has ever suffered.

The most prevalent symptoms of the administration's self-doubt have been its spasmodic, vacillating and reactive approaches to world problems, and a tendency to put off resolution of the most difficult problems, often substituting photo op diplomacy for meaningful action.

In Iraq, of course, these symptoms have been on full display. But procrastination defined the administration's response to North Korea's nuclear ambitions -- the greatest, most immediate danger to the United States and our closest allies in Asia.

The "Agreed Framework" between North Korea and the United States promised North Korea food and energy support, as well as state-of-the-art nuclear reactors, in exchange for the de facto cessation of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. In essence, the agreement constituted a dangerous gamble that time would inevitably work to our advantage.

Rather than take difficult coercive measures such as sanctions to stop an irrationally hostile North Korean regime from possessing nuclear weapons, we chose a prevent defense. We made concessions to the North Koreans, accepted whatever fissionable material they already possessed, and hoped that they would delay their nuclear advances until their collapsing economy forced them to recognize the necessity of peaceful integration into the world community, and a carefully managed reunification with the South.

Five years later, the North Korean economy has not just collapsed, but practically disappeared. Most North Koreans are starving. The exception, of course, are large elements of the North Korean military, which the regime has managed to sustain -- partly with food and energy it has received from the United States and its allies. Far from delaying its nuclear program, North Korea simply moved the program from the reactor site that they ceased operating as part of the agreement to another facility underground.

Worse, while we have waited for North Korea to recognize the reality of its desperate straits, the regime has managed to greatly improve its missile technology. And to underscore just how aggressive and irrational they remain, they fired a three-stage missile at Japan. 

A firmer response to North Korea might have triggered a war, a war we would win, but not without paying a terfible price. Moreover, refusing to help ease the deprivations in the North, and hastening the collapse of the regime might have also resulted in war as the North's last desperate measure, or at least a very messy reunification with the South. Instead, we have sustained North Korea long enough for it to develop missiles that might be capable of striking the United States, and allowed it to proceed with its program to develop nuclear warheads. North Korea is still inexorably nearing total collapse, and its leaders remain quite capable of launching in their country's death throes one final, glorious war. But now, they are much, much better armed.

Many who aspire to the title of "statesman" and, sadly, I'm not free of that vanity -- like to impose on unsuspecting audiences their original, and indisputably brilliant principles for a great nation's diplomacy. Quite often, those principles can run to a dozen or more. While I ask you to humor me as I offer a few of my own, I will, in gratitude for your patience, keep the number to a manageable five.

First, seek no substitute for American leadership in the defense of American interests and values.

The next President must appreciate more than the current one does, what the distinction "indispensable nation" truly means. It does not mean, as the President seems to believe, that we must become involved in problems whenever we are instructed to do so by other nations.

The United States is the indispensable nation because we have proven to be the greatest force for good in human history. That is not empty chauvinism. Imagine how different the crises of the last half of this century would have ended had the United States been a minor power. We enter the new century a peerless, mature power. And despite the isolationist views of a distinct minority, we have every intention of continuing to use our primacy in world affairs for humanity's benefit. Given that our experiences in this century will inform our leadership in the next century, we should prove to be an even abler champion for mankind.

The President often spends a portion of his overseas visits apologizing for one or another American transgression against the host country. Of course we have made our share of mistakes in the past. But they pale in significance when compared to the good we have done in the world. The memory of our mistakes should never cause an American President to confer on others the primary responsibility for protecting our interests and values.

The United Nations, although many of its founding principles were borrowed from our own, can never be an adequate substitute for American leadership. It has its uses, but to confer on that diverse organization, the leading responsibility for international stability, freedom and justice, will quickly render it incapable of any task whatsoever. 

As we continue to exercise our leadership it is important -- especially in this transitional moment in history -- not to let our past successes blind us to the necessity of adapting the instruments of our leadership to new problems, whether those problems be in the area of international finance or conflict resolution or arms control. A case in point is the greatest security challenge of the day -- the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. 

A massive nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union is no longer our central preoccupation. The threat is much more diverse, and more difficult to deter. We urgently need a practical ballistic missile defense, and the ABM Treaty is for the moment blocking us from obtaining it. Whether the ABM Treaty had a beneficial effect on the Cold War arms race or not is an argument for historians. It is no longer relevant to our security needs, and we should not let sentiment or the status quo mindset of former adversaries prevent us from developing a defense against terrorists and rogue states and potential future enemies that will benefit all nations. Let us praise the good intentions that created the treaty, and tben consign it to the history pages where it belongs. 

Second, we must protect our interests to promote our values and vice versa.

Historically, foreign policy debates in the United States have been preoccupied with a false dichotomy between policies that are intended to protect our security interests and policies intended to promote our political values. In truth, I've never been able to understand what the fuss is all about. I think the debate is a waste of time. For the United States, values and interests are inextricably linked, and traditionally, American leaders have designed policies to serve both ends.

The policy of containment was based first and foremost on our faith in our core values -- individual freedom and rights, democracy, pluralism, free markets, and the rule of law. Core values that are, by the way, universal values -- absurd pretenses like an "Asian way" notwithstanding. 

Soviet communism was a threat not only because of geopolitics and nuclear weapons. It threatened our values as well. Without the dimension of supporting American values, it would not have been possible to sustain containment for over 40 years. By reaffirming and projecting our values we mobilized and sustained public support. We did not just stand against communism. We stood for freedom.

Our close friendship with Israel is another example of the common convergence between our interests and values. Israel is a strong, democratic ally in a region where our political values are generally unwelcome and where our vital interests numerous.

Recognizing this relationship is the most important condition for formulating a strategic vision for the world. It informs both our conception of how we want the world to look and the means we use to realize our vision. Because our values are universal and our interests far reaching, there is often a temptation to inject ourselves into every foreign policy problem that arises. Consequently, we squander resources and public support without advancing our interests and values anywhere. Those issues where our values and interests most closely converge form the basis than for the prioritization of our goals.

Political reforms are the best assurance that China will emerge as a nonthreatening great power. We may argue over whether economic engagement and rising prosperity further or hinder those reforms, but they should be the objective of both camps. We need not shrink from a strong advocacy of religious and political freedom.

Guarding against Chinese threats to our strategic interests in Asia is a sound rationale for helping reduce the growing threat to Taiwan from a mainland missile attack.

When the Secretary of State goes to Beijing to publicly decry human rights violations while privately seeming to be intimidated by Chinese objections to a missile defense for Taiwan, she causes the Chinese to dismiss our commitment to either cause.

As I have noted already, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is the clearest danger we currently confront. Nowhere is the threat more worrisome than in rogue states such as Iraq, North Korea and others. The United States should formulate a policy, in many ways similar to the Reagan Doctrine, of supporting indigenous and outside forces that desire to overthrow the odious regimes that rule these states. Call it rogue state rollback if you will. Such a policy serves both our security and our ideals because, again, they are inseparable from one another,

I offer one caution, however. If you commit to supporting these forces, accept the seriousness of the obligation. Don't abandon them to the mercies of tyrants whenever they meet with reversals as the administration did in the north of Iraq. Character counts, my friends, at home and abroad.

Third, force has a role in but is not a.substitute for diplomacy. In other words, if you perceive a threat to our security and our values that warrants the use of force if necessary, don't forget the "if necessary" part. All means short of force should be employed first. And don't be dragooned by other countries or international organizations into risking American lives in quarrels that are entirely someone else's affair, where no faction is committed to our values, and no vital interest is at stake.

Moreover, when force must be used, have clear rules of engagement, define an achievable mission, know how to recognize when it is accomplished, and bring them home as soon as possible. And never, never, accept foreign or "dual key" authority for the command of an American military operation,

I have seen war. What are today horribly compelling televised images, were once the whole of reality for me. The terrible losses incurred in war were once an experience so intensely personal that I will remember them all my life. There is no decision with greater meaning or that should be made with greater reluctance than the President's decision to send Americans into conflict. Whether their role is peacekeeper or combatant, they are going into harm's way and some of them won't come home.

The anguish the President feels over the loss of American lives won't be alleviated by the recollection that the use of force was an international decision. And should those losses occur unnecessarily, pointing a finger toward the LTN will not shift the blame. Whether others were involved in the decision or not, the President will be a lonely man in a dark room when the casualty reports come in.

Fourth, build coalitions to protect our interests and values, don't neglect our interests and values to build coalitions.

In our pursuit of a strategic partnership with China we have spent more time wondering how to couch our diplomacy in language that won't give offense to Beijing than we have making clear the force of our opposition to China's increasing assertiveness in disputed territorial questions in Asia. Isn't the point of our relationship with China to maintain international stability, protect our security and encourage political reforms? The relationship is not an end in itself

In the interest of limiting Russian complaints over the expansion of NATO and encouraging Russia's cooperation with our peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans, we tolerated the waste of billions in financial assistance, the transfer of weapons technology to our enemies, and some "old thinking" in Moscow about its relations with its nearest neighbors. The President even compared Russian meddling in former Soviet republics to the Monroe Doctrine. Here again, we find means pursued as ends.

Our faith in coalitions as an end in themselves has also restrained us from always acting to defend our vital security interests in the Persian Gulf

Increasingly, that confusion has endangered the most successful security alliance in history -- NATO. I don't wish to be an alarmist, but I feel it necessary to observe as we approach the 50th anniversary of NATO that the Atlantic Alliance is in pretty bad shape, despite the good news that Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have joined our ranks.

The problem is threefold. First, our allies are spending far too little on their own defense to maintain the alliance as an effective military force. The day is fast approaching when each member's forces won't even be able to communicate with each other on the battlefield.

Second, Europe's growing determination to develop a defense identity separate from NATO. Once only the product of French resentments, the idea of a separate defense identity is now even entertained in London. We must be emphatic with our allies. We encourage their efforts to assume more of the burden of their defense, but only within the institutions of NATO. Defense structures accountable to the WEU or any other organization other than the alliance will ultimately kill the alliance.

It is not hard to envision our allies intervening militarily, under the auspices of their new defense organization and without our concurrence, in very difficult problems that they are unprepared to resolve, necessitating an eventual appeal to NATO to bail them out. The American public's support for our membership in NATO would soon evaporate in these circumstances.

That support will also soon disappear if the United States and its NATO allies cannot come to an agreement on when they should act in mutual defense of each other's interests outside Europe. I supported the President's decision to deploy U.S. forces to Bosnia. I will, with several important reservations support our involvement in Kosovo if we reach some agreement to do so. But I am in the minority on that issue. Most Americans cannot see the connection between our security and Mr. Milosevic's crimes.

They can, however, see the impact of Saddam's refusal to honor the terms of the Gulf War ceasefire, and they can't understand why most of our NATO allies refuse to help us enforce those terms. Most Americans recognize the threat of proliferation, and they can't understand why our allies dismiss our efforts to keep rogue states from acquiring these weapons.

I want NATO to endure for another 50 years or another century, for that matter. But if we must bear the greatest share of our mutual defense, then our allies must pay as much attention to our concerns, in and out of Europe, as we must to theirs. If not, the alliance might not last another decade. And that would be a genuine tragedy.

Fifth and last, credibility is a strategic asset. It is an asset the administration has repeatedly squandered in Iraq, when we idly threatened force on at least two occasions, and when we pledged support to Iraqis fighting tyranny in their country, and then abandoned them when things got complicated. And when Saddam renewed his slaughter there, in violation of the terms of the ceasefire, our response was so ineffectual that it guaranteed future challenges from Baghdad on the whole range of issues between us.

Today, negotiations on a Kosovo settlement resume. The matter was to have been settled last month. We twice informed Milosevic that NATO would use force to compel his cooperation in a settlement should he refuse to cooperate voluntarily. Thus far he has so refused, as have the Kosovo Liberation Army. We simply moved the deadlines, and thereby, gave Serbia and the Kosovars good reason to doubt our sincerity.

The world's only superpower should never give its word insincerely. We should never make idle threats. These failings ensure that the price we ultimately pay in blood and treasure to defend our security will be greater than if we had honored our commitments from the beginning.

I have spoken far longer than I usually do, and I fear I have exhausted your patience. So with gratitude, I will finish with one final appeal.

At this moment, America stands unsurpassed in both power and historical reputation. The challenges engendered by the collapse of one pole in a bipolar world should not render us incapable of looking either ahead to the emerging prospects for a new stable intemational system or directly behind us to find in history's counsel a caution not to overreach.

Yet more and more often those of us who proudly accept the distinction, "intemationalist," are obliged to address a peculiar atavistic impulse that has motivated an increasing number of politicians to advance half-baked notions of the public good that history has firmly dismissed as specious. It is a regrettable irony that the destruction of the Berlin Wall as a real and symbolic obstacle to freedom was interpreted by some, on both the right and left, in the very country most responsible for the Wall's demise, as a reason to retum to building walls in America.

In their world view isolationism and protectionism are necessary and practical pursuits that were only suspended to meet the threat posed by the Soviet Union. It is enough to have opposed communism, and once the threat was defeated, they viewed America's international leadership to have become an expensive vanity that deserved to disappear with the Berlin Wall.

But such a cramped view of American purpose is blind to the futility of building walls in a world made remarkably smaller and more interrelated precisely because of the global success of American political and economic ideals. A world where our ideals had a realistic chance of becoming a universal creed was our principle object in this century. In the process, we became inextricably involved in the destiny of other nations.

That is not a cause for concern. It is a cause for hope. Surely, the best guarantee that the new century will not reverse humanity's triumphs in this century is the futility of American attempts to withdraw from a world that is, in large part, the fruit of our labors.

We have not arrived at the end of history. The world still offers abundant challenges to our security and our noble ideals. But it is a world far more hospitable to us and to our founding convictions than it was when America began to lead it. Let us take a moment to congratulate ourselves, and move on to building a better one. Thank you.