Jürgen Ligi: McCain could’ve said, “I’m an Estonian”

The Estonian member of parliament and a former foreign minister, Jürgen Ligi, writes in his obituary for the late US senator John McCain that he was the type who could have said, “I’m an Estonian”.

John McCain was the American who could have come and shouted, “I’m an Estonian”. Estonia seemed to be in his heart since the Baltic freedom resolution 35 years ago that president Ronald Reagan signed. He was also the initiator of many similar freedom resolutions in the US Congress and Senate, up until our own centenary.

When McCain visited Estonia in 2016, he affirmed our relationship as allies. But he started affirming that in 1993, in the decisive moments for the Baltic states when he supported the exit of the Soviet forces. And he also played an important role for acceptance in NATO; he persuaded the West of its strategic importance and our moral right to join.

I happened to listen to his lecture in 2006, at the Munich security conference, when he, together with Senator Joe Lieberman, had very affirmative and clear messages for the Russian arrogance towards the West. Their response was so refreshing – compared with the regular rhetoric – that I needed to go and thank him. Let me be clear – his messages weren’t mainstream, it was before the wars in Georgia, not to mention Ukraine. At the same time, NATO refused to discuss our defence plans and its members, unlike Estonia, decreased their defence budgets.

I also liked McCain’s independence from the party line, his good relations with the Democrats – and with Hillary Clinton that seemed to have been based on similar views about security.

His lack of heady words and public gestures didn’t seem to be due to his torture by the communists, but his humane self-restraint. Running for president didn’t seem to be his natural state. But who knows which Republican alternative he managed to prevent by doing it – people often agree to run for a higher office to prevent something worse from happening and perhaps he helped keep the world order that was based on rules and cooperation. I can’t imagine John McCain repeating the mantra, “America First” – because even though he always emphasised the importance of serving his country, he did it in the way that the US sounded like “us”, he labelled no one as the second or the last, but he always fought against evil.

I wouldn’t imagine him shouting that war is good because it’s winnable – even if it’s a trade war – nor attacking allies and flirting with dictators, cancelling international treaties and hiding behind ideological or steel fences.

I was just thinking, what would it mean for Estonia if there were no McCain when the feared news of his death broke. Nothing seems to be pointing at the international relations mess that would include us and the US attention to our region seems to be sharper than ever. That was John McCain’s accomplishment – the cementing of his values so that they will remain even after he’s gone.

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Cover: John McCain in Estonia, April 2014 (photo by Tairo Lutter/Postimees).

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About the author: Jürgen Ligi

Jürgen Ligi is an Estonian politician (Reform Party) and a current member of parliament. He has previously held the positions of the minister of foreign affairs, education, finance and defence.