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McCain's Empire

I'm not sure the point can be made forcefully enough that John McCain is, among practical politicians, perhaps the single most committed advocate of an imperial vision of American foreign policy out there. This case can (and will!) be made at great length, but one quick way of getting at the point is through Teddy Roosevelt. It's well known that McCain is a huge Roosevelt admirer, and sees himself as a kind of TR for the 21st century. At the same time, TR is a complicated, multi-faceted figure. Among other things, however, he was an arch-imperialist at a time when imperialism was undertaken with much less of a velvet glove. Things like McCain's March 25, 2002 speech at USC make it clear that he doesn't see Roosevelt's imperialism as somehow incidental to his hero's vision:

Theodore Roosevelt is one of my greatest political heroes. The “strenuous life” was T.R.’s definition of Americanism, a celebration of America’s pioneer ethos, the virtues that had won the West and inspired our belief in ourselves as the New Jerusalem, bound by sacred duty to suffer hardship and risk danger to protect the values of our civilization and impart them to humanity. “We cannot sit huddled within our borders,” he warned, “and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond.”

His Americanism was not fidelity to a tribal identity. Nor was it limited to a sentimental attachment to our “amber waves of grain” or “purple mountains majesty.” Roosevelt’s Americanism exalted the political values of a nation where the people were sovereign, recognizing not only the inherent justice of self-determination, not only that freedom empowered individuals to decide their destiny for themselves, but that it empowered them to choose a common destiny. And for Roosevelt that common destiny surpassed material gain and self-interest. Our freedom and our industry must aspire to more than acquisition and luxury. We must live out the true meaning of freedom, and accept “that we have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither.”

Some critics, in his day and ours, saw in Roosevelt’s patriotism only flag-waving chauvinism, not all that dissimilar to Old World ancestral allegiances that incited one people to subjugate another and plunged whole continents into war. But they did not see the universality of the ideals that formed his creed.

There are a couple of things to note about this. The sentiment that American patriotism is a higher calling than some tawdry blood-and-soil nationalism is a fairly banal one in the US and serves as an umbrella under which different kinds of ideas can hide. But McCain brings it up and specifically ascribes this view to Roosevelt, apostle of empire. To McCain, a commitment to universalism requires American expansionism. Indeed, to McCain it is precisely commitment to this imperial vision that makes American patriotism superior to other brands of nationalism. Our own patriotism would become compromised by stinginess and selfishness were we to show more restraint in world affairs.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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