Senator John McCain, never one to play it close to the vest, has amped up his criticism of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, calling it a “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”
To fear the world we have organized and led for three quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain “the last best hope of earth” for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.
It is almost impossible to comprehend this speech, delivered by McCain while receiving the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal for bipartisanship on Monday, without understanding his party and its neoconservative vision of American global hegemony.
Those who aren’t of the same persuasion as McCain, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard might be puzzled as to how the senator can get away with attacking American nationalism while at the same time calling for an American imperial mission. Exhorting one’s country to advance its ideals and leadership across the globe, even against the wishes of those who don’t want this guidance, sounds very much like vintage Western imperialism. French and British imperialists in the late nineteenth century were always justifying their imperial rule as a transmission belt for bringing their higher morality to unenlightened peoples and races.
Radical Republicans during the French Third Republic defended their country’s territorial penetration of Africa and Asia as efforts to carry their revolutionary principles across the seas. How does McCain’s vision differ from this imperialist mission proclaimed by Europeans before the First World War? By the late nineteenth century all European nationalists pursued empire in the name of universal egalitarian or progressive ideals—even the Italian fascist press invoked such concepts when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936.
The difference between them and us, at least as understood by McCain and his neoconservative friends, derives from their claim of moral superiority. They didn’t have it, McCain thinks, whereas we do. Unlike those morally defective empire builders of centuries past, McCain wants us to believe that we really do raise up the lowly and confused wherever we exert influence. Besides, we’re only practicing true imperialism, argues Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution, if we directly rule a territory that we intend to control. No other form of control counts as imperialism, according to this fastidious definition. Finally, according to neoconservative teachings, it is only America haters who despise our universal values and propositional nationhood, and who therefore question our duty to civilize the entire planet. All this reminds me of a riddle that we used to pose jokingly when the neocons rose to prominence in the 1980s. “When is an empire not an empire?” The answer: “When neocons say it’s not.”
As a virtuous nation, according to the same authorities, we are not allowed to “refuse the obligation of global leadership,” for if we do, the world becomes a messier place. Supposedly, when we invaded Iraq in 2003, we were helping to make the globe less tumultuous. Moreover, whenever we engage in war, we are always fighting the bad guys because “democracies don’t fight each other.” Of course some liberty must be taken when we depict every country we’ve fought as “anti-democratic.” Was Finland in World War II an enemy of democracy? Or was that country a republican casualty of Soviet expansion that ended up in the Axis camp when we became allies of Stalin? World War I may offer another exception to the neocon rule, since the two sides didn’t look very different politically or culturally. And contrary to what I read in the Weekly Standard and other neoconservative publications, the Germans were not about to invade us when Wilson got Congress to declare war on them. I’m still trying to figure out how that intervention in 1917 and the very one-sided peace that followed made the world less messy.
For the sake of clarification, let me underline that there are situations in which a global power like the U.S. may have to intervene militarily to forestall a preventable catastrophe, two examples of which were the overthrow of the Nazi government and keeping the Soviets from imposing their brutal regime on more Europeans than they were able to occupy by the end of World War II. But even here the interventions did not have to turn into global “crusades for democracy,” and in the case of Germany, it could have ended without a demand for unconditional surrender.
McCain’s remarks are mingled with verbal sloppiness, which either he or his speechwriter should have noticed and addressed. The senator decries “spurious nationalism,” which makes one wonder whether he’s saying that he likes real nationalism but rejects the fake kind. Of course, it’s more likely that he’s saying something else, namely that the current administration is practicing isolationism and therefore we’re shirking our duties by not playing a more interventionist role in world affairs.
Possibly, McCain is also taking revenge on the president, whom he’s been after since Trump insulted him, quite gratuitously, during the Republican presidential primaries. Not surprisingly, the media have interpreted the speech as an unmistakable broadside against Trumpism. But even this is not entirely clear. There is no evidence that Trump has withdrawn his country from world affairs or is about to take that step. In fact, Trump now seems steeped in imbroglios in Asia, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East. McCain’s attack also could have been leveled at Steve Bannon, who has warned the U.S. against becoming entangled in conflicts with Putin’s Russia or Russia’s clients. In any case it would have been nice if McCain had named names in his diatribe against nationalists who balk at his vision of American empire. And it might have been even better if he’d never given his speech.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.