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We Must Confront Our Greatest Challenges

John McCain

(Senator John McCain's Address to the British Conservative Party Annual Conference in Bournemouth, England this week.)

Thank you. This is a rare honor, for which I am very grateful, and one which I will long remember. The privileges of a long public career are many, and not all of them deserved. But few could be more unexpected or more welcome to an American conservative than your invitation to address fellow conservatives in the country which Americans have long regarded, in good times and bad, our greatest and most influential friend.

I am very pleased to observe personally the unity, confidence and principled sense of purpose that distinguishes British conservatives under the leadership of my friend David Cameron. And it seems fitting, somehow, that a party offering its country fresh ideas would have so many fresh faces to articulate them. For it is hard for me not to notice, with wistfulness bordering on melancholy, that there is a bit of an age disparity between me and many of you. As is obvious, I saw the last of my misspent and much cherished youth quite some time ago. While I might prefer that you think of me as not yet inhabiting the age people inexplicably refer to as one's golden years, in the frank and rough assessments of Americans, I am older than dirt and have more scars than Frankenstein. I have, however, learned a thing or two along the way to compensate for the indignities old age assigns to us all. And I want to share a few thoughts with you about the principles we share, and the great and challenging work history has offered us.

As many of you know, I worked for many years in another profession before I entered politics. Ronald Reagan was the person, more than any other, who inspired me to change careers. When I was their involuntary guest, the North Vietnamese went to great lengths to restrict news from home to the statements and activities of prominent opponents of the war. They wanted us to believe that our country had forgotten us. They never mentioned Ronald Reagan to us, or played his speeches over the camp loudspeakers. No matter. We knew about him. New additions to our ranks told us how Governor and Mrs. Reagan were committed to our liberation and our cause.

When we came home we were eager to meet them, and thank them for their concern. But more than gratitude drew us to them. They were among the few prominent Americans who did not subscribe to the then fashionable notion that America and the West had entered our inevitable decline.

We came home to a country that had lost a war and the best sense of itself; a country beset by serious social and economic problems. Assassinations, riots, scandals, contempt for political, religious and educational institutions, gave the appearance that we had become a dysfunctional society. Patriotism was sneered at. The military scorned. And the world anticipated the collapse of our global influence. The great, robust democracy that had given its name to the century appeared exhausted.

Ronald Reagan believed differently. He possessed an unshakeable faith in America's spirit that proved more durable than the prevailing political sentiments of the time. His confidence was a tonic to men who had come home eager to put the war behind us and for our country to do likewise. His was a faith that shouted to tyrants, "tear down this wall." And when walls were all I had for a world, his faith in our country gave me hope in a desolate place. It is the faith he employed to restore America's confidence and repair her fortunes. It is the faith he shared with the world leader whom he counted his great ally and dear friend, Margaret Thatcher, whose judgment he trusted, courage he admired, and resolve he needed.

His critics derided him as a simplistic idealist and little more than a showman. He was, to be sure, an idealist. But his was a clear-eyed idealism. Both he and Lady Thatcher saw the challenges and opportunities of the time far more clearly than did their detractors. They knew the West's stand-off with the Soviet Union, which consigned half of Europe to tyranny, need not be a permanent balance of power in the world, and that the West had a security interest and a moral duty to hasten the Cold War's successful conclusion. They knew, very early on, that the time had come to move beyond a half century of containment, which accepted that much of the world would remain indefinitely captive to Soviet hegemony and that the central strategic threat of our time - the potential for intercontinental nuclear war - would endure for generations. They saw the economic, political and ideological hollowness of the Soviet empire and they resolved to test it. Reagan gave voice to this profound strategic shift very early in his Presidency, at Westminster. "Let us be shy no longer," he argued. "Let us go to our strength. Let us offer hope. Let us tell the world that a new age is not only possible but probable." And he organized American support, diplomacy and defense strategy to advance that cause.

He was an optimistic man, and that was undoubtedly an optimistic vision. It also happened to be an extraordinarily wise and informed judgment because it was based not on a dream, but on a realistic appreciation of the strengths of liberal democracies and the systemic weakness of exhausted communist regimes that no longer had the wherewithal to overcome determined political, economic and military challenges from the West. The Reagan Doctrine to support democratic movements in the Soviet sphere, NATO's response to new Soviet intermediate range missile threats, and the pursuit of strategic defense all hastened the day that he heralded at Westminster. And history, as it often does when driven confidently and resolutely by the values and resources of free people, advanced decisively and quickly toward a new and better world.

He had the gifts of a showman, indeed. But he understood that the most effective public leadership is always that which is firmly rooted in authenticity. His was not a presidency nor was Lady Thatcher's a government that substituted slogans for principles, spin for truth, or window dressing for action. They were not content to leave well enough alone, as long as well enough, however unwell it really was, secured electoral majorities for them. He was a confident and eloquent man because he knew who he was and that what believed was right, and he said so even when ridiculed by much of conventional opinion, which had grown lazy and imperceptive in the comfort that some find in a static world. His patriotism was never affected. He believed every word he spoke. His confidence was not an actor's performance. He lived in a shining city upon a hill, and he never forgot it.

Take on the big problems. Don't hide from hard challenges in the hope that exaggerating small advances or avoiding setbacks will trick the voters into crediting them as major achievements. Act on principle, and trust free people who can, despite all the illusions and prevarications of modern political campaigns, still sniff out a phony. Show them that there are things that matter more to us than holding power. Because when the people see us act on principle, see us tackle the hardest, most consequential problems, and risk our personal ambitions in the process, they will draw the right conclusion: that we are acting on their behalf, not just our own, and in defense of the interests and values that unite free people everywhere, whatever their political persuasion.

Only a few months after Dunkirk, during the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill reported to Commons on the struggle ahead. "Death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey; hardship our garment; constancy and valor our only shield." That was hardly a rosy scenario offered to a people much pressed by misfortune and terror. But it inspired them. Inspirational leadership is never achieved by the platitudes and false promises of a modern advertising campaign, but, principally, by three essential qualities, honesty, courage and resolve. Churchill didn't tell his country that they were over the worst of it. He told them what they could plainly see for themselves: that Britain was up against it, the odds were long, but they were not insurmountable. We will prevail if we, both government and people, have the courage for the long struggle.

Inspirational leadership challenges people. It does not seek to mislead them into a false sense of complacency or hide the realities, no matter how intimidating, of a threat. No solution to any great problem can succeed or even be convincingly proposed if the full dimensions of the problem are obscured from public knowledge. Be honest and brave and determined to place the country's interests before anything else, even our personal interests, and the people will give us our chance.

What are the great challenges today that history calls us to confront forthrightly, bravely and confidently? Obviously, the most dangerous challenge confronting all liberal democracies is the war against the violent expression of Islamic extremism that abhors all our political values and modernity itself. And I will turn to that conflict in a moment. But let me acknowledge the obvious now. Because of the way we choose to live our lives, we are vulnerable to attacks by malevolent people who place no value on life, not even their own, who reject the belief that all lives have inherent dignity and rights. There is no gray here, no question of which side shall determine history. We will. We are stronger than our enemies in men and arms, but stronger still in ideals. We will prevail, but it will be a dangerous, difficult and long fight. We will need our courage and confidence to hasten its end as quickly as possible.

Speaking for my country, we face many other serious challenges that while not life threatening, are certainly threatening to the quality of life we have managed over the years to achieve through our industry, courage and fidelity to our ideals. The world is changing. The immediacy of modern communications, globalization, the ever expanding flow of international commerce in goods and ideas and capital all cause dislocations in the short term even as they promise levels of prosperity for the entire world undreamed of a generation ago. Surely we must make improvements in our industries, educational system, diplomacy and other institutions that not only intend to ameliorate those dislocations but to prosper from this global and inexorable change. It must not be our task to devise policies to arrest the progress of the ever freer flow of commerce, and global exchange of capital, goods, services and ideas. We must expand the progress and ensure that ever greater numbers of people reap the benefits. These changes are driven by competition engendered by free markets that we have, to our enormous credit and benefit, long trusted as the engine of our prosperity. Indeed, the remedy to short term dislocations is a greater application of free market principles to public endeavors.

In American public education, for instance, the best impetus to prod it into making the changes necessary to prepare children to succeed in the modern world is to provide it a little competition, which, at present, only exists for those wealthy enough to afford private schools. The United States does not have an education system that befits the most prosperous society on earth. And it is not because we haven't spent enough money on it. It is because we have allowed it to develop so that it has no impetus to change, but only to guard zealously its own prerogatives. Liberals who reject this notion must sacrifice in their defense of the status quo the very people they intend to protect, the underprivileged, who won't have the opportunity to escape a change resistant institution, and force public education to reform itself.

Another great challenge for my country is our aging population, and the challenge that poses for both public and private pensions, and medical entitlements. We must inform the American people, with unadorned candor, that, for many of them, the entitlements they were promised in old age simply won't exist in present form when they retire. We can either do something about that now or let the problem grow far worse and leave it for our unlucky successors to confront. President Bush attempted to make the case to Congress that the problem should be confronted on our watch by doing the obviously sensible thing of allowing people to reap a better return on their social security taxes by placing part of them in safe, conservative investments. That is a practical, free market, conservative approach to a serious problem. It requires honesty about the problem, courage to risk the attacks our opponents will launch, and the resolve to stick it out by trusting in the people to see the dangers of inaction and the obvious sense in the remedy. When the President in his last State of the Union address regretted that Congress had declined to confront this critical problem, Democrats applauded. What kind of leadership is that? Not our kind.

Conservatives in my country have held congressional majorities for twelve years, and the Presidency for six. A danger to all majority parties, but particularly to conservatives since it is so antithetical to our core philosophy, is the insidious, creeping conceit that to be the governing party we must become the party of government. That's what happens when you come to value your incumbency more than your principles. Conservatives believe in a short list of self-evident truths: love of country; the importance of a strong national defense; steadfast opposition to threats against our security and values that matches resources to ends wisely; the integrity of the rights of individuals and the values of families and local communities; the wonders of free markets; encouraging entrepreneurship and small business; low taxes; fiscal discipline; and generally, the government that governs best governs least. As a governing party we should emphasize that government should only do those things necessary for the well being of the nation - and do them efficiently -- that individuals can't do for themselves. Much rides on that principle: the integrity of the government; our solvency; and every citizen's self-respect, which depends, as it always has, on one's own decisions and actions, and cannot be provided as just another government benefit.

Conservatives came to office to reduce the size of government and enlarge the sphere of free and private initiative. But lately, we have increased government in order to stay in office. And, soon, if we don't remember why we were elected we will have lost our office along with our principles, and leave a mountain of debt that our children's grandchildren will suffer from long after we have departed this earth. Because, my friends, hypocrisy is the most obvious of sins, and the people will punish it.

Free people, even if they are not entirely convinced by your policy arguments, will appreciate that when politicians risk their office for the sake of their convictions, when they seek office to do something rather than to be someone, that we have put the country's interests before our own, and, thus, are worthy objects of their respect, and, for at least a time, their support. We will have to prove the efficacy of our policies over time, but we will have our chance. And we must seize it boldly, to make progress in the tough challenges, and to reaffirm to the public that we are about great things, hard things, that will take time, and that can't be solved without the honesty, courage and resolve we share with them.

Those same virtues are indispensable to confronting problems abroad, and conservatives must just as boldly assert our principles as the best remedy to them. Whether it's the AIDS epidemic, climate change, Third World poverty, endemic government corruption, or any other of the myriad challenges we face in the world, we must realize that the mere transfer of our resources, to whatever extent, won't solve the problems of our time. It is the transfer of our ideas that will make the bigger difference.

I am convinced that global warming is a real and present danger, one that we should no longer wave away as a minor or remote problem or as impossible to remedy by affordable means. Let us take the market based approach that ignites profit driven entrepreneurship and competition to improve available technologies and accelerate progress toward new ones that will substantially lessen our use of fossil fuels, and our dangerous reliance on foreign suppliers of those fuels. Let's not limit our horizons to correcting the problem only in older industrial democracies, but in emerging economic powers who breathe the same air we breathe, wrestle the same nature with which we contend, and have the same responsibilities that we have for protecting their people.

Trade and investment are a more effective remedy to Third World poverty than aid, which has a very short life of usefulness when not effectively combined with commercial opportunities. But let us insist with new trade and investment partners on all the necessary attributes of a free market economy - first and foremost on the rule of law and transparency -- so that the free flow of capital, goods and services can work its magic, and lift all people, not just a privileged few, from hopeless destitution. Let's demand that all have a stake in economies beginning to be liberalized by globalization; that the people of any nation have, as our people have, the opportunity to make by their own industry, imagination and choices better lives for themselves.

Rich countries should be very generous in combating the AIDS epidemic in Africa. But we must also insist that governments of affected countries do all they can, most importantly in changing old cultural prejudices that help foster this epidemic and encourage the well to turn a blind eye and a cold heart to the ill.

All problems, foreign and domestic, are best addressed with the honesty, courage and faith in our principles that remain, I hope, the distinguishing features of conservatives' approach to problem-solving. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher knew that our security was best protected by advancing our values, and they were bold and brave in their defense of that notion. So did Winston Churchill, who came to a small college in Missouri to open America's and the world's eyes to the iron curtain that was descending across the continent of Europe and robbing proud and ancient nations of their independence. We now face challenges that are different and more diffuse than those we faced in the Cold War. Some on both the Left and the Right argue that our advocacy of democratic values in Iraq and elsewhere is reckless and vain; that freedom only works for wealthy nations, and Western cultures. Others argue that we are partially responsible for the jihadists if not the tactics they use, by meddling in the world when we should stay within our own borders, protect our industries from foreign competition and our culture from new immigrants. Some of these critics are of the garden variety Left, as mystified by history's repeated lessons as they always were. But some were once determined cold warriors who believe that it was enough to have opposed communism and that once we had defeated the Soviets, our world leadership became an expensive vanity.

But such a cramped view of our purpose is blind to the futility of building walls in a world made remarkably smaller because of the success of our values. A world where our political and economic values had a realistic chance at becoming a global creed was the principal object of our foreign policy for much of the last century. We conservatives were its most effective and ardent advocates, and it must remain our principal object today. We understood better than others that our security interests and the global advance of our ideals are inextricably linked. And we surely didn't accept the notion that freedom was the product of our wealth and culture. Our wealth and culture are the product of our freedom.

We once thought we could leave Afghanistan to its endless misery once it was no longer a theater of Cold War competition. What interests of ours were affected by the oppression inflicted on an exotic and remote people? We learned the answer to that question on September 11, 2001. We once relied on our friends, the Saudis, a reliable supplier of oil and purported force for moderation in the tumultuous politics of the Middle East. As long as the regime was stable, what difference did it make if it paid a little lip service and bribe money to extremist clerics who preached in their madrasas a toxic brand of anti-West hatred to men who had no other cause to live for? We learned the answer on September 11, 2001. And what of the hate taught in the madrasas of Pakistan? It found its cruel and violent expression here in the hands of British citizens. There is no distinction between our interests and our values. They are the same. What shall we do if not take up the challenge of defending our values from the hateful ideology that abhors them? Shall we withdraw from the world? Pay extortion money to direct their hatred elsewhere? Wall ourselves off from the world? Close our doors to immigrants and deny ourselves the energy and ingenuity that always accompanies new arrivals to our countries? No, of course not. But we can't win with our soldiers alone. We must marshal our ideals into battle, and we must organize our diplomacy, our commerce, our intelligence and our armies behind them.

That doesn't mean that we have to risk lives and resources needlessly, lurching ineffectually from one crisis to another. But it does mean that we should defend our interests and values when they are threatened using soft power when effective and military power when necessary. Strength and courage should be the qualities of our statecraft. We should make our way in this complex and dangerous world as we did in the great challenges of the last century: sure of ourselves, firm in our purpose and proud of our heritage.

As we make our case to our people, tell them plainly we are intent on protecting them with the might of our armed forces, with improvements to our intelligence capabilities and law enforcement, with adept and wise diplomacy, with the hand of friendship to those who wish to help, and the hammer of justice to those who oppose us, and with the power of our ideals, the world transforming power of the notion that self-government, life and liberty, are intended for all societies, all cultures, all people.

To be a good leader in this struggle against the jihadists, and in all our efforts to manage changes in the world so that they benefit mankind, America must be a good ally. We must not shrink from the responsibilities that history has assigned us in world affairs, but we must not make the mistake of assuming that history has granted us exclusive rights to all the insights necessary to succeed. The best leaders are always the best listeners. America has profited greatly over the years by the wise counsel and example of our closest ally. Winston Churchill is as great a hero in my country as he is here. I admire Lady Thatcher as much as I admire any contemporary Western leader. We are in your debt, for whenever we have been up against us it, whenever the odds were long, Britain has stood there with us, and we relied on your courage as well as our own to prevail. And we have prevailed, time and again. And we will prevail in this struggle. We will not be vanquished by forces that scorn the dignity of Man, and the laws and ideals that protect us. We will never surrender. They will.

But let us be clear in our appeals for support in this struggle not to attempt to placate public apprehension with false promises of swift victory and passing dangers. They have seen enough of this war, in Iraq, Afghanistan and on our own streets to know better. We have an advantage over some countries. We serve a practical and stouthearted people. They can take the truth better than they can stand deceit and hypocrisy. We must show them respect by being honest about the problem and its remedies, and they, in turn, will give us their respect. There are people in this world who hate us, not for any valid grievance, but because they have been taught to misdirect their anguish and humiliation over the deprivations imposed on them by their own leaders to an irrational hatred for the people who believe most sincerely that they deserve better. And they wish to hurt us as much as they can. We will never defeat them utterly until we have defeated the noxious ideology that motivates them, and the conditions that made them captive to it.

As we have for many years, Britain and America stand together in this fight, and in the long campaign to make in our time another, better world. America would be much the poorer if we did not have the great blessing of British friendship, leadership and counsel. Were we left to ourselves, we would soldier on. We are a relentless people, with little quit in us. We have that and much else in common with you. Indeed, I expect we can attribute much of our embrace of those qualities to the country we had to fight to win our independence. Yes, we would soldier on, but I would hate to contemplate how much more difficult the march would be without the friend with whom we share so much of history's respect. We are a better country for our friendship with you, and we will be a better country with every year that it endures.

So, my friends, let me close by reiterating how grateful I am for this opportunity, and how greatly encouraged and proud I am to the see my fellow conservatives in Great Britain, under David Cameron's very able and determined leadership, stand up to stake your claim for leadership with honesty, courage and resolve. You claim the future, and you will see more of it than I will. But I am content and inspired in my late years to know still, as I have always known, that there will always be a Britain, and that the future is in the safe hands of the two great peoples who long ago decided to make history together.

Thank you, and God Bless you.

John McCain is a U.S. Senator from Arizona. He is currently the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and serves on the Armed Services, and Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committees.

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