John McCain once remarked that he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw “a K, a G, and a B.”
In the years since that trenchant truism, Putin’s regime has killed or jailed dissidents; invaded Georgia; annexed Crimea; supported Ukrainian separatists; pressured the Baltic states; partnered with Bashar al-Assad in slaughtering Syrian civilians; conducted cyberwarfare against seven European countries; and hacked the Clinton campaign to help elect Donald Trump. So I asked Senator McCain how Putin —and the world — looks to him now.
“The world is in tumult,” he responded flatly, citing Brexit, the fraying of European unity, the humanitarian disaster in Syria, the North Korean nuclear threat, and Chinese expansionism. As for Putin, McCain is clear: Putin means to restore Russian power by weakening Western democracies and loosening their common bonds. Through aggression and calculation, Putin has shadowed Eastern Europe, fortified the murderous Assad, colluded with Iran to insinuate Russia into the Middle East, undermined European electoral institutions, and launched an assault on American democracy “more damaging,” McCain told me, “than any single terrorist attack.”
Far from airbrushing Russia’s subversion of our election, McCain proposes that we impose further sanctions, develop specific strategies for responding to cyberwarfare, and empower a special committee of Congress, working through our intelligence community, to investigate every aspect of Russian interference. The notion of partnering with Putin, he warns, is a dangerous illusion. Russia will ally with us against terrorism only when it serves its interests — which, in Syria, did not involve fighting ISIS but in decimating Assad’s opposition while deliberately slaughtering innocents in hospitals and schools.
Nor should we barter the sanctions we imposed in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, making it a pawn in some cynical swap with Putin. As for blithely conceding Russia a sphere of influence to dominate neighboring counties at will, that would contravene the principles of the post-World War II order — substituting amoral great-power politics for nonaggression and self-determination.
Clearly, Trump has considered none of this — let alone pondered the consequences of acquiescing to Putin’s ambitions. McCain is predisposed to do so. Thus his critics often cast him as a reflexive interventionist prone to confrontation. This misses the point — agree with him or not, the basis of McCain’s worldview is primarily moral and historical.
He concedes America’s indubitable mistakes of commission — epitomized by the tragic consequences of invading Iraq. But he notes other lessons from history, such as the isolationism in Europe and America which precipitated World War II. The question is not what those lessons teach, but when they apply.
McCain cites his recent speech to the Munich Security Conference — his effort to answer this in our current historic moment, for which there is disquieting precedent.
McCain begins his speech by reprising the conditions prevailing before World War II: “beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism and the poverty that imposed”; “a world order [fracturing] into clashing ethnic and nationalist passions”; a failure of deterrence followed by catastrophic conflict. But from the ashes came a “ better world order . . . based not on blood-and-soil nationalism, or spheres of influence, or conquest of the weak by the strong, but rather on universal values, rule of law, open commerce, and respect for national sovereignty and independence.”
Now, he admonishes, a growing tribalism in the West evokes the toxic past: “an increasing turn . . . toward old ties of blood and race and sectarianism”; “the hardening resentment we see toward immigrants and refugees and minority groups — especially Muslims”; “the growing inability — and even unwillingness — to separate truth from lies.” Thus “more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent,” and see committing to preserve a humane world order “as a bad deal that we may be better off without.”
How did the instinct to self-isolate resurface in America and Europe? “All of us,” McCain says bluntly in his speech, “must accept our share of the blame. . . . At times we tried to do too much, at others we failed to do enough. We have lost touch with many of our people. We’ve been too slow to recognize and respond to their hardships. We need to face up those realities. But that does not mean losing hope and retreating. That we must not do.”
Seldom has John McCain been more worth heeding. For whatever our politics, the times demand that Americans uphold the moral difference between the civilization we aspire to, at home and abroad, and the predatory world of narcissists and autocrats.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.