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'A great defender of liberty': World leaders mourn Sen. John McCain

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks during a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 30, 2017. McCain died after a year-long battle with brain cancer on Aug. 25, 2018. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

BERLIN - If anyone ever doubted John McCain's global stature, the outpouring of condolences from across the world proved the very opposite on Sunday.

To world leaders, the 81-year-old Arizona Republican who lost his year-long battle with brain cancer this weekend was a "hero," an "inspiration to millions," and a man "of great courage." To democratically elected politicians across the globe, McCain embodied a U.S. role model they were able to rally behind without hesitations. But McCain wasn't afraid of confronting illiberal regimes with facts and criticism - be it allies or foes - earning him respect in some places but tense relationships in others.

"Senator John McCain was an American patriot and hero whose sacrifices for his country, and lifetime of public service, were an inspiration to millions," said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In Australia, new Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who only assumed office on Friday, honored "a true friend of Australia who was committed to strengthening the alliance between our two nations. He was a man of great courage and conviction."

Video: The Arizona Republican spent decades in the Senate. He endured more than five years of imprisonment and torture by the North Vietnamese as a young Navy pilot. (Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Calling McCain a friend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the senator's support for Israel "sprang from his belief in democracy and freedom."

In Europe, some condolences also hinted at McCain's role as a vocal critic of the current administration.

"Senator John McCain stood for an America that was a reliable and close partner that - because of its strength - shouldered responsibility for others and stood by its values and principles even in difficult moments," wrote Germany's foreign minister Heiko Maas. "We will remember his voice."

Britain's former Prime Minister David Cameron bid farewell to a "brave, principled and inspiring leader."

"The world has lost a great defender of liberty. RIP Senator John McCain. Prayers and love to your family," wrote Cameron, who led Britain between 2010 and 2016. Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, echoed those remarks, writing on Sunday that McCain was a "hero and exemplary public servant. His legacy of moral courage will make his loved ones proud and should inspire all of us."

In their condolences, European politicians cited McCain's support for stronger trans-Atlantic ties, especially as President Donald Trump is raising questions over the future of U.S.-European economic and defense ties. After Trump's inauguration, McCain had embarked on a trip to over a dozen countries to reassure allies around the world. The Arizona Republican's vocal criticism of the Trump administration's more isolationist foreign policy approach echoed many of the concerns raised in capitals around the world.

But McCain's legacy goes far beyond his outspokenness on the current administration. There was an outpouring of tributes and condolences from Ukraine on Sunday, a country that saw McCain as one of its strongest American supporters in its ongoing conflict with adversary Russia. McCain's tough criticism of Russia over the 2014 annexation of Crimea made the senator a key Western ally for Kiev.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called McCain's death "sad news for all Ukrainian people" on Twitter on Sunday. "We will never forget his invaluable contribution to the development of democracy and freedom in Ukraine and the support of our state ... The memory of John McCain will remain in our hearts forever." Poroshenko posted photos of McCain's 2016 visit to Ukrainian soldiers in war-torn eastern Ukraine. The senator spent New Year's Eve with the soldiers, telling them, "Your struggle is our struggle."

Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak recalled the same visit to the frontline, tweeting it and offering condolences "for all American and Ukrainian people who knew Senator McCain." Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman called McCain "an example of a principled politician."

Russia's response was far more mixed. Senior Russian lawmaker Lenoid Slutsky, who was sanctioned by the U.S. over Crimea, said "He was neither a friend nor ally of Russia, on the contrary, he was our ardent opponent. McCain was an outstanding American hawk," Interfax cited him as saying on Sunday. "However, it has to be said that he was a brave man, a man of principle, a patriot of his country who had many trials in his life," said Slutsky, who chairs Russian parliament's international affairs committee.

Prominent Russian Sen. Alexei Pushkov put out a statement laced with schadenfreude. "McCain's plans to rebuild the world under total U.S. hegemony are not going to come true," he tweeted on Sunday. McCain's 2011 prediction that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, whom Russia backs militarily, would not survive long has proven untrue, Pushkov noted, adding that "Assad's overthrow and death did not wait for McCain."

As with Russia, McCain wasn't afraid to confront China during his trips to Asia. Last year, the senator accused Beijing of acting like a "bully" in the region, referencing the country's territorial claims in the South China Sea.

U.S. partners in the region stressed McCain's long-time commitment in their responses Sunday. "We deeply mourn the death of Sen. John McCain, a true friend of the Philippines and one of our champions in the United States Congress," said the Philippines' foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.

What Cayetano didn't mention in his statement was that McCain was also a fierce critic of the Philippines' government over its human rights record. Even as a politician unafraid of confronting official allies with unwelcome criticism, McCain appears to have earned their respect - in the United States and beyond.

This article was written by Rick Noack and Amie Ferris-Rotman, reporters for The Washington Post.

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