Senator John McCain spoke at Northwestern’s commencement on June 17, 2005.
Thank you thank you faculty, family and friends, and thank you Northwestern University class of 2005 for your welcome and for your kind invitation to give this year’s commencement address.
This is quite a privilege for someone who graduated from fifth from the bottom in the United States Naval Academy class of 1958. Opportunities like this always affirm my long-held faith that, in America, anything is possible. If my own company officer at the naval academy were here, whose affection for midshipmen was sorely tested by my less-than-exemplary behavior, I fear he wouldn’t appreciate your generosity as much as I do.
I want to join in the chorus of congratulations to the class of 2005. This is a day to bask in congratulations and praise. You’ve earned it. You’ve succeeded in a demanding course of instruction; life seems full of promise, as is always the case when a passage in life is marked by significant accomplishment. Today, it might seem as though the world attends you. But spare a moment for those who have truly attended you for so well and for so long and whose pride in your accomplishments is even greater than your own: your parents. When the world was looking elsewhere, your parents’ attentions was one of life’s certainties. So I commend the class of 2005, I offer equal praise to your parents for the sacrifices they made for you, for their confidence for you, and their love. More than any other influence in your lives, they have helped make you the success you are today and might become tomorrow.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to use this opportunity to talk about an aspect of American foreign policy that, particularly post-September 11, has been a much debated focus of our diplomacy, and in Afghanistan and Iraq, a product of the use of American force. That subject is the promotion abroad of human rights and democratic governance.
Many of those who oppose the war in Iraq in this country and elsewhere, and even some supporters of the use of force, are skeptical about attempts to help Iraqis create the institutions and practices of government in that country. They disagree in general with the idea that a system of government that works in prosperous countries with western traditions can ever function in places that lack our traditions and advantages. They’re reluctant to intervene in the domestic political arrangements of other countries, by force or by diplomacy. They argue that it’s simply American arrogance that a system which works for us can work everywhere.
But advocates of a human-rights-focused foreign policy have never suggested that a country without previous experience with democracy should govern itself in ways identical to our experience — with a bicameral legislature, nationally elected chief executive with a four-year term, a two-party system, et cetera. All we claim is that people, no matter where they live, no matter their history or their religious beliefs or the size of their GDP, all people share a basic desire to be free. To make by their own choices and industry better lives for themselves and for their children. And furthermore, that it’s in the security interests of the United States, and is inseparable from the moral foundation of our national character, that we should do all that is practical to help them wrest their rights from regimes that do not govern with their peoples’ consent.
Concern for the rights of all human beings must be a significant and enduring part of American foreign policy, informing our relations with all countries. While human rights will never constitute the sum total of our foreign policy, which by necessity concerns itself with other issues, from counter terrorism to weapons proliferation to trade policy, we fail ourselves as Americans if we do not consider how our actions, or our failure to act, impact those who are as yet unblessed with our freedoms.
I suppose that if your political science professor were assigning you a paper, he’d suggest that you define your terms up front. The core human rights include the right to life and liberty, protection against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, freedom from terror and oppression, the exercise of basic political rights. The world summarized these and other rights in 1948, when after undergoing the most destructive war in human history, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the universal declaration on human rights. This remarkable document begins simply but powerfully, asserting all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. The first word of the document’s title is important: These human rights are not an invention of America, nor of the western world. Nor do they reflect standards to which particular cultures or religions can opt out. They are universal.
But it’s worth spending a moment to reflect on where these rights came from. I believe that the genesis of these rights lies in the origins of the human spirit. As long as reflective people have lived, they have identified those universal liberties that separate us from the animals. Look at the earliest Greek philosophy, and you will see emerging the concept that all human beings are created equal. The great Judaic and Christian teachers held that certain rights are endowed unto all people by the creator. Jimmy Carter once said, “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, human rights invented America.” Our founding fathers, having felt the weight of colonial oppression, forged a new kind of government. One that existed not to protect a regime, or a class, or a religion, but to protect the people’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The promotion of those rights is the most authentic expression of our national character. To accept the abridgement of those rights for other societies is no less false to the American heart than to accept their abridgement in our own society. Justice and tyranny abroad should be as intolerable to Americans as they are intolerable here. History shows that standing with democrats pays dividends far greater than collaborating with dictators for short-term gain. How many times must we learn that lesson? Time and again, we have embraced dictators who pledged their love of America while oppressing their citizens at home. Batista in Cuba, the Shah in Iran, Somoza in Nicaragua, the house of Saud today: in each case, the repressed people of these countries identified America with their corrupt rulers, and in the end, each case had dire implications for our security and our economic interests. It does not take a revolution to see that promoting human rights serves our interests in other ways. Where there are abuses, despair often grows, sometimes morph into extremism and terror. Countries where the rule of law is arbitrary, corruption and other vices breed. Such is the trafficking of narcotics, weapons and even human beings. Such is the traffic… human destruction prompts refugee flows and instability across borders, and gives rise to disease and criminality.
America truly is not like 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. But however certain we may be about our own motives, the impressions of people abroad are the ones that count. Should they sense a truly imperial impulse, the will speed their efforts to limit America’s reach. But should they detect a truly humanitarian motive behind American action, they are much more likely to welcome a powerful United States, rather than oppose it. Our moral standing is directly tied to our ability to maintain America’s preeminent leadership in the world. Don’t underestimate the influence of this effect. America’s traditional identification with democracy and human rights constitutes a critical element of our soft power. While our military can preempt and prevent threats and our economic power can be used to promote or punish, our soft power is the power of attraction. It was not only the traditional metrics of national might that helped the west win the Cold War. It was also the deeply attractive nature of our way of life. A way of life that included freedom, democracy and prosperity.
Only when credibility accompanies the union of words and actions will the world’s people believe what we believe: that America wishes good for all, not for some, that we seek security, peace and justice, not land and oil, and above all, they must see that we strive to respect human rights at home. This last point is critical because our credibility suffers a grievous blow from human rights abuses by Americans. The disgrace at Abu Ghraib prison set back our national cause and our international ambitions. And similar cases undermine our foreign policy. Because we hold others to a standard, we must be even more scrupulous in our own affairs. This does not mean that America has always been perfect, nor does it mean that we are perfect today — but we must strive for perfection, whether it means treating enemy detainees in accordance with their human rights, or punishing Americans who abridge the rights of minorities. Only by acting in accordance with our values can we further our interests we seek abroad. This is not to say that our interests and our values are always identical. Sometimes, our interests and our values point us in different directions, and balancing these can be the most difficult task policymakers face.
I have long believed that the true worth of a person is measured by how faithfully we serve a cause greater than our self-interest, that encompasses us but is not defined by our existence alone. The same holds true for the conduct of nations, particularly in this unique era, when America stands astride the world with unmatched power. Political scientists refer to this time as a ‘unipolar moment,’ but none of us knows for how long the United States will dominate international affairs. We do know that history has handed us a unique opportunity. The United States could choose to pursue narrowly defined national interests, internal and external security, economic prosperity at the cost of others, perhaps even territorial domination — and yet we must choose a very different path. We must use our power and our influence not only for security and prosperity, but to promote the concepts we hold dear, including democracy and a panoply of human rights. By doing so, we help create a world of recognized norms and rules, and if we are successful, we will have established a set of expectations for domestic behavior that will endure long after the unipolar moment has passed.
And this is where you come in. Who is responsible for monitoring and promoting human rights? Every one of us. Not just policymakers in Washington. Not just Human Rights Watch and Freedom Watch and Amnesty International. But every American citizen. Each of you has the responsibility to promote this cause that is greater than your self-interest. To use your freedom to help ensure the liberty of those who are denied it. The world is about to become your responsibility — even if you’re not elected to any office, never meet a foreign policy professional, never scour the pages of the Economist and Foreign Affairs. A responsibility remains. If the defense of basic human rights abroad is a concern of the American electorate, it will remain the concern of our elected officials. And if it is a concern of our government, the world will take notice. So remember the wise and cautionary words of Elie Wiesel, who survived the holocaust to say that the opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy. Professor Wiesel made this observation in the context of the century’s most terrible genocide. And God knows we saw mass destruction in the 20th century. But as much as I wish it to be so, genocide is not a thing of the past. And I’d like to close with a word on this.
The most fundamental human right of all is the right to life. And genocides constitute the most extreme denial of human rights. Merely listing the places that have suffered — Cambodia, Halubja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Kosovo — suggests immediately the evil that casts its shadow on these tortured lands. As Samantha Powers observes in her powerful book, A Problem from Hell, there are two reasons that the United States should act to halt genocide. One is the notion of enlightened self-interest; allowing genocide creates refugees and undermines stability, it implicitly authorizes the use of widespread murder as a policy instrument. But the more important reason is moral. As Ms. Powers says, when innocent life is being taken on such a scale, and the united States has the power to stop the killing with reasonable risk, it has a duty to act. I believe this duty includes the use of our various forms of influence, including, in the most extreme cases, the selective use of military force.
So, if I have persuaded you, the next time we see a Rwanda-style genocide looming, we will all support action, but we need not wait. Today in Sudan, the government and its allied militias are murdering, raping and looting hundreds of thousands of people in the Western region of Darfur. The State department estimates that between 60 and 160 thousand have been killed. Some non-governmental organizations put the total at 400,000. Refugees have flooded into insecure camps in Darfur and across the western border of Chad. The United States government has labeled the killing there ‘genocide’. Today we know what is happening, and we know what is likely to occur unless we act. The world cannot again stand idle, then apologize later and say “never again.” We said “never again,” after the Holocaust. We said it after Bosnia. And again after Rwanda. And, mark my words, unless we act and act quickly, we will say it again after Sudan.
No truer words have been uttered than those of John Donne, when he said no man is an island. In thinking about the value of human lives in far away places, we just as well might think of our own. With singular elegance, the great poet summed up the intended meaning of this speech today. “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.”