During my time at the U.S. Embassy in Riga, Latvia was preparing itself to join NATO as well as the European Union. The U.S. Congress was interested checking out the Latvians and the other prospective Alliance members, so our embassy experienced a pretty steady procession of senators and congressmen, as well as spouses and aides, especially during the short but pleasant Baltic summers.The embassy managed these CODELs routinely, briefing them, arranging meetings with host nation officials as well as civic leaders and business people, and holding press conferences.
But one set of congressional visitors was different from the others. They came periodically, often in the fall, winter or early spring. There were no spouses. They met with a few Latvian officials from the foreign ministry and the president’s office, but their focus was beyond Latvia and the Baltics.
Senator John McCain, frequently accompanied by fellow senators Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, and perhaps one or two other like-minded members of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, alternated visits to Riga, Vilnius, and elsewhere, simply to meet with and listen to dissidents from Belarus and other countries around the periphery of Russia. McCain explained to me that these people were living in and resisting totalitarian regimes. Had the U.S. senators traveled to those countries and met with these people, it probably would have drawn fatal attention to the underground resistance networks. Better that the dissidents travel to nearby free countries like Latvia for such meetings.
Senator McCain knew first-hand what it means to be imprisoned and denied contact with the free world. He recounted the heartfelt appreciation expressed by the dissidents in Eastern European captive nations for the support their causes received from America, and specifically from the U.S. Congress, during those long Cold War years. McCain told dramatic anecdotes about seemingly small gestures—a Congressional resolution or a meeting with a U.S. Congressman—that lifted the spirits and kept alive the hope of freedom. These gestures were so important to people who had to return to a lonely struggle. “They knew they were not alone,” he said. “They knew we were with them.”
McCain and his group got no press or other attention for these trips. While it was not a secret that McCain and his colleagues were traveling, they and we certainly didn’t seek publicity. The trips and the quiet meetings passed under the radar, so far as I know. He and his colleagues never received nor sought any credit for spending their personal time on long flights, to a cold part of the world, simply to listen to and to encourage individuals struggling for freedom.
Senator John McCain knew, and lived, the meaning of American public diplomacy.
A career public diplomacy officer and former U.S. Ambassador to Latvia, Brian Carlson advises the InterMedia research organization on military and foreign affairs issues and manages communication strategies for private clients. Read More