Speeches

The following is a speech delivered by Senator John McCain at the Alistair Cooke Memorial Lecture in London on July 4th:

Good Evening. I'm honored to be here, and I thank the BBC for inviting me to deliver the Alistair Cooke Memorial Lecture. I have to admit hesitating when I first received this gracious invitation, simply because the name Alistair Cooke suggests an eloquence and wit that surpasses my meager talents. While this lecture is in honor of the man who was named the Best Living Speaker of the English Language, I'm afraid that the man delivering it tonight has been characterized somewhat differently in recent years.

For 58 years, Alistair Cooke used his weekly radio broadcasts to explain the ups, downs, and arounds of the United States and its place in the world. Over the decades his "Letter From America" covered thousands of topics, and in a few broadcasts he even mentioned me. In February 2000, he referred to me as "John McWho?" among other, more charitable names, and he might have been the only commentator, anywhere, to utter the statement "I can foresee a landslide for Governor Bush . . . for Mr. Gore or . . . for John McCain." Mr. Cooke was a wonderful broadcaster and an insightful observer of the human parade, but, I very much regret to say, he was a less successful election forecaster.

I wonder how he might have described events on this day, July 4, the 229th anniversary of America's Declaration of Independence. What might he make of our annual celebratory rituals of the day which he had frequent occasion to experience, and would he find in them some deeper insight into the American character that might render us more comprehensible to other people? Drive the streets of any American town today and you'll see flags waving in front of almost every home; visit a park tonight and you'll be entertained by red, white, and blue firework displays in the night sky; every sporting event will begin with the national anthem; and ask any American on the street what thought accompanies the word "America" and you are likely to hear incantations of liberty, freedom, and the other ideals of our founding fathers. We Americans are fond of celebrating our patriotism, which other cultures might mistake for the sum of our civic virtue. But that is a mistaken impression. And so in my own "Letter From America" tonight, I'd like to offer a few of my own thoughts on American patriotism and its animating influence on our government, and the role America plays in world affairs.

Last December I had the privilege of speaking at the Oxford Union, where I argued that the relationship between the U.S. and Europe is one of the world's most important, built as it is not merely on shared security and economic interests but also on a commonality of political values. While I described these views, I suppose that my amor patria was as evident to the students as my belief in the importance of a strong transatlantic relationship. One young woman expressed surprise at my ardor, saying that causes motivate her, not country. To her, perhaps, and maybe to others as well, the patriotism on display every July 4th in America might seem little more than empty chauvinistic gestures. Well, they mean more than that to Americans, but I think my young inquisitor would be more surprised to know that I share her conviction. For me, and for most Americans, the United States is a cause.

My father was a naval officer and my childhood was an itinerant one as we moved from one base to another more times than I can enumerate. I was nearly forty-five years old before I could claim a hometown. Until I moved to Arizona, whenever I was asked, "where are you from?," I always answered, the United States. I never felt any shame that I couldn't be more specific.

America is an idea as well as a place. We were conceived in liberty, and not in an organic development from ethnic associations or a mystical attachment to the land. Our nationalism is not a celebration of tribal identity nor is it a sentimental attachment to "our amber waves of grain" and "purple mountains majesty." When we celebrate the Fourth, we are instinctually exalting the political values of a nation where the people are sovereign, recognizing not only the inherent justice of self-determination, not only that freedom empowers individuals to decide their destiny for themselves, but that it empowers them to choose a common destiny. And contrary to the suspicions of detractors in other countries, the common destiny many if not most Americans idealize surpasses material gain and self-interest.

Nationalism is not intrinsically good. For it to be so, a nation must transcend attachments to land and folk to champion universal rights of freedom and justice that reflect and animate the virtues of its citizenry. Racism and despotism have perverted many a citizen's love of country into a noxious ideology, Nazism and Stalinism being two of the more malignant examples. National honor, no less than personal honor, has only the worth it derives from its defense of human dignity. Then, and only then, do terms like patriotism and honor and doing one's duty have a moral quality, are they virtues in themselves. Many a patriotic German sought honor in doing one's duty to fuehrer and fatherland. History and humanity, not to mention a just God, scorn them for it. Prosperity, military power, a well-educated society are the attainments of a great nation, but they are not its essence. If they are used only in pursuit of self-interest or to serve unjust ends, they degrade a nation's greatness. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were temporarily powerful nations. They were never great ones.

I would like to say that I have always held this view of American patriotism, but in truth it was one of life's many ironies that led me to a deeper appreciation for my country. I fell in love with my country when I was held a prisoner of war in Vietnam. I had loved her before then, but like most young people, my affection was little more than a simple appreciation for the comforts and privileges most Americans enjoyed and took for granted. It wasn't until I had lost America for a time that I realized how much I loved her and why.

I loved what I missed most from my life at home: my family and friends; the sights and sounds of my country; the hustle and purposefulness of Americans; their fervid independence; sports; music; information - all the attractive qualities of American life. But though I longed for the things at home I cherished the most, I still shared the ideals of America. And since those ideals were all that I possessed of my country, they became all the more important to me.

It was what freedom conferred on America that I loved the most - the distinction of being the last, best hope of humanity; the advocate for all who believed in the Rights of Man. Freedom is America's honor, and all honor comes with obligations. We have the obligation to use our freedom wisely, to select well from all the choices freedom offers.

The 19th century observer of America Tocqueville observed of an earlier generation of Americans that they were "haunted by visions of what will be." No nation complacent in its greatness will long sustain it, and we are not a people of half-measures. Americans instinctually understand that we are an unfinished nation, a great but not a perfect one. To be sure, Americans use our freedom to advance our individual interests, and to help secure for our children more prosperous, safer and gratifying lives than we were blessed to inherit. But most of us also appreciate that it is the responsibility of free people to prove again, as those who came before us proved, that a people free to act in their own interests will perceive their interests in an enlightened way, will live as one nation, in a kinship of ideals, and make of our power and wealth a civilization for the ages, a civilization in which all people share in the promise and obligations of freedom.

The values of freedom inspire our patriotism: government derived from the consent of the governed; equal justice under the law; an economic system that is an open market for our creativity and competition. We have not always lived up to these values. But our history, I stoutly argue, is the history of our progress, with obvious but temporary setbacks, toward living out the authentic meaning of freedom. We know when and where we have failed. But we also know that those values are worth fighting for.

The enemies who attacked us on September 11, 2001, and who still threaten us and our allies, obviously do not share our values. They abhor them. They may not like our foreign policies, but it is our character - and I am including the United Kingdom and all our democratic allies in the pronoun "our" - it is our democratic character that they truly revile. When we fight them we are fighting to protect our security, but we are also fighting to protect the global ascendancy of our ideals.

We must fight them. And our object must be not only the destruction of our foes, but the success of liberty in the very lands in which they wish to establish a political-religious empire based on their perverted interpretation of Islam that substitutes a lust for violence for a love of peace, and fascism for justice. The more countries that are governed by the consent of the governed, the fewer cultures there will be where resentment over injustices inflicted by rulers on their subject peoples can be misdirected toward an irrational hatred of those countries that most sincerely believe in their right to self-determination.

Our enemies regard materialism as the only value of liberty. They believe liberty is corrupting, that the right of individuals to pursue happiness makes them weak. They thought us no match for the violent, cruel struggle they planned for us. They are mistaken.

What ensures our success in this long struggle with Islamic extremism is that our military strength is only surpassed by the strength of our ideals, and our unconquerable love for them. Our enemies are weaker than we are in men and arms, but weaker still in causes. They fight to express hatred for the progress of liberal ideals, a hatred that has fallen time and again to the armies and ideals of the righteous. We fight for love of freedom and justice. We will never surrender. They will.

Many people listening tonight might have disagreed with the decision to topple Saddam Hussein's regime and liberate the people of Iraq. I choose the word "liberate" purposefully, because I firmly that our intervention was a right and just decision. The United States and the United Kingdom, and virtually every country with a substantial intelligence service, believed Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, which he might have shared with those of our enemies who are not constrained by obligations to protect regimes and territory. Evidently, we were mistaken, and we are now seized with investigating why our intelligence failed and how it can be improved. But I have little doubt that had we allowed the status quo in Iraq to persist, with the sanctions regime eroded to the point of utter worthlessness, Saddam would have eventually presented us with the threat we feared we already faced.

But that's a debate for historians in the future. We are in Iraq today, there is no disputing that. Saddam is gone, there is an elected government, and we are obliged to help fight for its success.

As our television screens fill with the carnage wrought by the terrorists and Baathist insurgency, let us not forget what Iraqis are trying to accomplish, and how important it is to us that they succeed. They are putting behind them decades of brutality and building a multireligious, multiethnic, tolerant democracy in the heart of the Middle East. Surely this is something every caring person, no matter their views on the invasion of Iraq, can support.

While the Iraqi people will suffer the most, both America and Europe would suffer severe repercussions should the elected government there fail. Al Qaeda views the West as weak, unable to accept casualties. Its leaders cite American withdrawals from Lebanon in the 1980s and Somalia in the 1990s as predictive of our resolve in this current struggle. If the terrorists prevail in Iraq, exported violence, warlordism and civil war will be their achievements, and all of us - American, European, Asian, and African - will be far less secure. That is why there is a compelling case for all countries to help the Iraqis in any way possible. I am not just referring to troops on the ground. I am speaking of everything from computers to well digging, from doctors and civil engineers to military and police trainers. The scope for help is limited only by the creativity and generosity of the donors.

To speak of Iraq while in London, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention America's deep gratitude to the British people for their support throughout our operations in that country. Our cooperation in Iraq is the latest manifestation of a relationship of extraordinary closeness and historic significance. From 1941, when the Anglo-American alliance kept the world from descending into darkness, through the Cold War, when our countries stood together in opposition to the imperialism and cruel ideology of Soviet Communism, to this very day, when we fight as allies and stand as friends, our relationship has withstood every challenge. I have never doubted for a moment that the world would be incalculably worse off without the strong British-American partnership.

Our partnership would not be as sound as it is today absent the leadership of your Prime Minister Tony Blair. Today, he is placing important challenges at the top of the G8s agenda, climate change and Africa, priorities I concur with. A Kyoto treaty that absolves huge emerging and polluting countries, India and China from their responsibility for reducing emissions, is obviously not viable. But there remains much that the West, including my country of course, can and should do to control the potentially cataclysmic effects of greenhouse gasses. I support a market based cap and trade system to reduce emissions, and the promotion of clean technologies, particularly nuclear, to reduce our need for fossil fuels. And I think the United States needs to address this problem more urgently than we have been inclined to do.

I cannot tell you tonight what precise level of aid to Africa is appropriate, but I hope that all G8 countries will be generous. Europeans have a special historic responsibility, as so many of the endemic problems in Africa date to the colonial era. But Americans should be as generous as befits a prosperous, decent and concerned society.

Both America and Europe have to honestly examine how our farm subsidies not only cost our own taxpayers billions of dollars every year, but also prevent African farmers from selling their produce on the international market. While I am sure Africans appreciate any financial assistance we offer, it is very odd to offer cash for development with one hand, while using the other to close our markets to African goods, helping ensure that these countries can't generate export-led growth.

Beyond development aid to Africa, I believe the world has a first responsibility to save lives when they are being systematically destroyed. Yet despite our despair and shame over the murder of 800,000 Rwandans in 1994, we have done far too little to stop the violence in the Sudanese state of Darfur. Our State Department estimates that between sixty and one-hundred sixty thousand have been killed there; some nongovernmental organizations put the total at 400,000. Refugees have flooded into vulnerable camps in Darfur and across the border into Chad. The United States government has labeled the killing there "genocide." The world has done a little, but not enough. If we do not do more - including putting more international forces on the ground to secure the camps, stop the violence, and ultimately help refugees return home - we will end up saying "never again" one more time. I don't have the strength to bear such shame anymore.

I believe these actions are moral imperatives. Generations of Americans have believed - as I believe - that we are part of something providential; a great experiment to prove that democracy is not only the most effective form of government, but the only moral government. And as the spread of technologies accelerates the flow of information and quickens history's pace, more societies demand their basic democratic rights.

Recent democratic successes in heretofore closed societies are very heartening and put the lie to the notion that only western nations or well developed economies or Judeo-Christian societies are capable of embracing and sustaining liberal political values. The Rose Revolution in Georgia. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine. The Arab Spring. The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Protests in Uzbekistan, Belarus, Azerbaijan and elsewhere; repressed for now but for how much longer? I am in London, speaking of political matters, and I must give in to temptation and quote Winston Churchill. "Dictators," he said, "ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry." That's not just a fact of European political life, but of humanity.

No matter where they live, no matter their history or religious beliefs or the size of their GDP, all people share the desire to be free; to make by their own choices and industry better lives for themselves and their children. To
an American, and I believe to most free people, human rights exist above the state and beyond history. They cannot be rescinded by one government any more than they can be granted by another. They inhabit the human heart, and from there, though they may be abridged, they can never be wrenched.

Furthermore, it is in the security interests of the United States and inseparable from the moral foundation of our national character to do all that is practical to help oppressed people wrest their rights from regimes that govern without their consent. To accept the abridgement of those rights in other societies must be no less false to the American heart than to accept their abridgement in our own society. Injustice and tyranny abroad should be as intolerable to Americans as they are intolerable in our own country.

History shows that there have been many great powers before, and there will undoubtedly be many more in the future. But Americans think we are different, truly unlike past superpowers, countries who sought territorial gain or imperial dominion. We wish to free, not to enslave; to trade, not to steal; to enlighten and learn; not to dominate and convert. We are not a perfect nation. We make mistakes. But we strive to improve. We always strive to improve. Because we are haunted by a vision of what could be not only for us and our friends but for humanity, in all its various distinctions.

The object of American power and wealth is not, as our critics allege, simply to garner more power, grow richer, and eliminate threats that don't exist. We could have bought oil from Saddam Hussein at a much cheaper price than we have paid to return the natural resources of that rich country to the Iraqi people. We have an idea that we cherish, and that we believe - not arrogantly, not ignorantly, not cynically - but confidently and happily believe is universal. We believe that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We will fight for that idea, and we will die for it; not just to preserve those rights for ourselves and our posterity, but to help others claim them for themselves. That is what America, the United Kingdom, and others are doing in Iraq today. I think it is noble work, and history will honor us for it. Because it can be said of us that we lived out the authentic meaning of freedom, as described by the great poet John Donne:

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Thank you for listening, and happy Fourth of July.