To really understand the impact John McCain had on the world, visit a country like Georgia.
A former Soviet republic, Georgia has persevered under the shadow of the Russian bear to build a vibrant, if fledging, democratic society. August marked 10 years since Russia waged a war of aggression against this country of less than 4 million, occupying 20 percent of its territory. In blatant violation of the most basic principle governing international relations, the Russian occupation line continues to creep forward, swallowing land, displacing farmers, and dividing families.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, McCain developed a keen interest in the newly independent states along Russia’s borders, like Georgia, as well as the formerly communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe that comprised the Warsaw Pact. Liberated from Russian tyranny, they now had the opportunity to forge a Europe “whole, free and at peace.” And McCain grew enamored of Georgia in particular after its November 2003 “Rose Revolution” launched a young, brash, pro-American leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, into power.
When, as the world watched the 2008 Summer Olympics, Russian tanks started making their way for the capital, Tbilisi, and Russian bombs began to strike Georgian hospitals and other civilian targets, McCain—then running for president against Democratic nominee Barack Obama —paused for a moment on the stump to express his solidary with “that brave little nation” defending itself against a mightier, nuclear-armed neighbor. Most observers, McCain said, looked down upon Georgia as a “small, remote and obscure place,” forever condemned to a Russian sphere of influence and therefore not worth the attention of Western powers. But McCain wasn’t one of them. For “history is often made in remote, obscure places,” he reminded his audience. And then came the line that resounds to this day: “Today, we are all Georgians.”
The moment was vintage McCain: a romantic expression of solidarity with a righteous, perhaps even quixotic, cause.
And so it was fitting that the first major public event sponsored by McCain’s eponymous institute since his death, would be a conference in Tbilisi. “World in 2018: Upside Down?” brought together a band of policy experts, academics, journalists, politicos, and activists from both sides of the Atlantic, united by their dedication to one of the noblest aspects of the McCain legacy: steadfast support for beleaguered, scrappy democracies.
Batu Kutelia started his tenure as Georgia’s ambassador to the United States in 2009 just as the Obama administration was preparing its ill-fated “reset” with Moscow. It was not an auspicious time for nations in Russia’s periphery, as Washington was full of “illusions that Russia might be a partner or positive player.” While “most of the doors were shut” to diplomats like Kutelia, he had a reliable friend and partner in Senator McCain, who would not only “meet on every possible occasion,” but then afterward “take me like a small child by the hand down the corridors of Capitol Hill …l iterally introducing me to every senator and Congressman,” telling them, “‘He represents the country [that] fights with Russia and we need to stand with Georgians.’”
Countless individuals around the world—from democratically elected presidents to obscure opposition figures—can relate similar stories about McCain. They were assembled in the back of National Cathedral at his funeral: the freedom fighters, the delegations from countries difficult to find on the map, the representatives of forgotten, stateless peoples. If you were a liberal democrat resisting a despotic ruler, or the leader of small nation confronting a much larger bully, it did not matter how seemingly irrelevant your cause was in the grand scheme of a strictly defined set of American “national interests.” You would always have a tireless advocate in John McCain. If often seemed as if the direr one’s cause, the more enthusiastic was McCain’s support.
According to Dan Twining, a former McCain staffer who now leads the International Republican Institute, (the democracy-promotion outfit that the late senator chaired for a quarter-century), what McCain admired most about Georgia was “Its quality as an underdog.” From his surviving over five years of tortuous, wartime captivity to waging two, unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency, McCain was himself a perennial underdog who “saw the same qualities in this plucky little democracy in Georgia that I think he really valued in his own life and career.”
McCain’s interest in the survival and flourishing of small, beleaguered democracies abroad wasn’t purely romantic. It was also strategic. According to Twining, “Senator McCain understood that the real test of this rules-based order,” the fate of which rightfully concerns so many foreign policy wonks today, was “not simply whether it was good for big, powerful, rich countries like the United States … but whether it protected the safety and security of small countries like Georgia.” A world in which vulnerable democracies are protected against predation by larger authoritarians is one that will be safer for everyone.
With the death of McCain, however, there are precious few people in Washington who care about Georgia, who will literally open the doors of Congress and the State Department and the White House to Georgian officials. The George W. Bush administration supported a path to NATO membership for both Georgia and Ukraine at the alliance’s 2008 Bucharest summit, an effort stymied by France and Germany (accurately sensing Western indifference, Russia launched its war just four months later). Obama came into office the following year viewing the country as a nuisance, a pet project of Bush administration neocons standing in the way of his détente with Moscow. A 2009 diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks revealed the U.S. ambassador explicitly stating that arms sales to the embattled U.S. ally would “imperil our efforts to re-start relations with Russia.”
In the years since Saakashvili left the political scene (a peaceful transition of power all-too-rare in this part of the world), the country has fallen increasingly under the sway of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire oligarch who made his fortune in Russia and whose vast wealth accounts for about a third of Georgia’s GDP. Though Ivanishvili, whose steel and glass palace overlooking Tbilisi resembles the mountaintop hideout of a Bond villain, holds no political office, he still calls the shots, controlling much of the media and having arranged for the resignations of the past two prime ministers. His favored presidential candidate has claimed that Georgia started the 2008 war. Were McCain still with us, he would no doubt be reminding his Georgian friends that their country’s destiny lies with the Euro-Atlantic institutions and values of the West.
McCain’s worldview—marked by an instinctual affection for the democrat over the dictator, and for the weak over the strong— is fundamentally at odds with the reigning “America First” ideology of the current president. True, the Trump administration has taken tough measures against Russia, increased military cooperation with Georgia, and resumed the arms sales delayed by Obama. But the tone out of Washington, exemplified in Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly, ominously foretells of a world in which every nation is out for itself. And that is a world in which small countries like Georgia will suffer.