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From Central Europe with love: a tribute to John McCain

Ever since I learnt about the death of Senator John McCain last Sunday, I keep going back to the discussions we had on several occasions about the legacy of his political life. We, citizens of the post-communist countries of Europe, undoubtedly owe him our eternal gratitude for his important contribution to the West’s Cold War victory over the Soviet Union, to the integration of our countries into NATO, and for his relentless effort to advance democracy in the world.

It is true that the symbols of the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe will forever be President Ronald Reagan, along with Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Helmut Kohl, and Francois Mitterrand. But we knew very well that they also include Senator John McCain. Although he did not agree with President Reagan on all foreign policy matters, John McCain was always a staunch and unswerving supporter of President Reagan's stance on the Soviet Union.

The Cold War victory opened the door to the reunification of Europe and the integration of our countries in Euro-Atlantic structures. The enduring dream of people longing for freedom thus started to slowly reach its fulfilment. Hundreds of thousands of Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, as well as the peoples of the Baltic States and those of the Balkans wanted to see their countries in NATO and the EU as soon as possible.

But the road to these structures was neither easy nor smooth. The initial euphoria led to the NATO admission of the first three countries: the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, in 1999. But when, as Slovakia’s Prime Minister, I appealed to President Clinton in the White House in November of the very same year for our country to be given a chance of joining NATO, his reply was: “you missed the train, you failed to meet membership criteria, you stay alone.”

John McCain – or, for that matter, G. W. Bush - never forced democracy on anyone.

When I argued that political conditions were improving not only in Slovakia, but also in Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and that the latter countries also wanted to join NATO, President Clinton replied: “Russia would never allow such an expansion.”

This conversation took place in the White House Oval Office on November 17, 1999. After less than five years, on March 29, 2004, all of these countries, plus Bulgaria and Romania, became NATO members.

What was behind that ‘miracle’? There is no doubt that it was the strong determination of the citizens and of the political leaders of our countries. But it was also the foresight and courage of some US leaders, with John McCain surely being one of the staunchest supporters of NATO’s eastward enlargement. For this, he deserves our unfailing gratitude.

It seems to me that Senator McCain's political engagement had one overarching goal: advancing democracy in the world. John McCain – or, for that matter, G. W. Bush - never forced democracy on anyone. They offered democracy as an alternative to inhuman, tyrannical and dictatorial regimes, such as that of Saddam Hussein.

There are values, precepts and principles whose universal validity cannot be disputed. Senator John McCain was the soldier of such values, precepts and principles.

As Prime Minister of Slovakia I understood very well why it was necessary to send our troops to Iraq to join the ‘coalition of the willing’ in 2003. To this day, I agree with Senator McCain that military intervention in Iraq was not a mistake. The mistake was rather the premature withdrawal of our troops from Iraq ordered by President Obama. Without it, Iraq would be much further today on its road towards plural society.

Senator McCain stood on the side of truth and liberty to the very end. In December 2013, he was among the first who came to support and encourage the protesting Ukrainians at Maidan. Despite serious health problems he traveled to the war-stricken Syria and to other countries ridden with military conflicts and suffering under dictatorships.

Until the very last moment he was striving to encourage and reassure people fighting for freedom and their rights. When, during his last visit to Bratislava in June 2015, I asked for his assessment of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, his answer was straightforward: 'Putin is a bully'.

It is true that neither politics nor life are either black or white. But there are values, precepts and principles whose universal validity cannot be disputed. Senator John McCain was the soldier of such values, precepts and principles. Today’s politics need more such soldiers. It is also thanks to him that we Central Europeans can have a much better life. Senator John McCain will live on not only in our memories, but also in our hearts.