Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) arrives on Capitol Hill on July 11, 2017. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Columnist

For the first time in 25 years, the International Republican Institute will have a new leader. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is battling brain cancer, has decided to step down from his role as chairman of the board of the organization, which for decades he has helped to fight for democracy, freedom, civil society, the rule of law and human rights around the world.

McCain’s handoff to IRI’s next chairman, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), is not a signal that McCain’s health is declining. In fact, several McCain associates say his condition hasn’t changed in recent months and he remains actively involved in his Senate work from his home near Sedona, Ariz. But McCain felt an obligation to help usher in an orderly transition at IRI, to ensure the long-term health and strength of the organization.

“In my years as chairman, I have been privileged to watch generations of young IRI foot soldiers serve a cause greater than their self-interest,” McCain said in a letter to the board, of which he will remain a member. “Serving as chairman has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.”

There’s also a sense that McCain is passing a larger leadership torch off to the next generation of national security lawmakers, ensuring the survival of his foreign policy legacy and the continuation of his fight for American values abroad.

McCain recommended Sullivan to succeed him as chairman and his former foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann to replace former congressman Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) as vice chairman in a July 24 letter to the board. New board members will also include Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), who is expected to be elected the next junior senator from Utah in November.

To cement IRI’s ongoing cooperation with the Trump administration, the board will now also include former national security adviser H.R. McMaster. McCain’s close associates David Kramer and Fran Townsend will be added to the board as well. Current board members Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.) will remain.

“John McCain is irreplaceable, so it is humbling to be selected to lead the board and continue IRI’s great work,” Sullivan told me. “At a time when America faces unprecedented global challenges, IRI is advancing American interests by promoting freedom and building a more stable and prosperous world.”

IRI is part of a network of American organizations that promote democracy and other Western values abroad through election monitoring, civil society development and working with local governments and political parties. IRI is partially funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and often works in conjunction with its counterpart, the National Democratic Institute.

When President Ronald Reagan proposed the idea for NED in 1982, he called it “the infrastructure of democracy.” Some inside the Trump administration want to partially defund NED and its partners, but Congress has defended the organizations and their budgets on a bipartisan basis each year, with strong support from McCain.

Despite what is widely seen as a rollback of democracy, rule of law and human rights around the world, the American people still largely support the effort. A June poll released by the George W. Bush Institute, Freedom House and the Penn-Biden Center showed 71 of respondents favor the U.S. government taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries.

McCain “as always understood that the fate of democracy in our land is tied to the fate of democracy in other lands, and that democracies make the best partners in safeguarding peace,” IRI President Dan Twining told me. “In this more competitive world, America’s support for human freedom gives our country a competitive advantage authoritarian rivals cannot offer.”

Well before his illness, McCain was already preparing for a new generation of lawmakers to assume leadership in national security. McCain has insisted on bringing new and younger lawmakers with him on delegations around the world for years. He recruited seven of the 12 GOP senators from the 2014 freshman class to join the Armed Services Committee, including Sullivan.

McCain intends to continue his work as senator and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, several of his associates told me. On Wednesday the Senate passed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which reflects McCain’s policies and priorities and bears his name.

McCain is a fighter, and his battle against cancer isn’t over. But thanks to his foresight and his commitment to service, his international fight for freedom as well as his legacy will survive long after he is gone.

Read more:

Josh Rogin: The Trump administration wants to dismantle Ronald Reagan’s ‘infrastructure of democracy’

Daniel Twining and Kenneth Wollack: Russia’s nefarious meddling is nothing like democracy assistance

David Von Drehle: John McCain isn’t the ideal messenger. He’s the ideal message.

Dana Milbank: John McCain is the single greatest political leader of our time

Fred Hiatt: John McCain unspools a self-help manual for America