All Commentary
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

John McCain Fights Nationalism with More Nationalism

Modern American nationalism is exceptionally frightening, but so is perpetual unjust war.

Whenever I find myself agreeing with John McCain I feel the need to step back and reevaluate my life. However, experience has taught me that if I sit and wait, McCain will never fail to disappoint me again, sometimes within the course of a single speech. Senator McCain has become the perfect caricature of an American warmonger.

Last week, Senator McCain received the Liberty Medal at the 2017 Liberty Medal ceremony. In his remarks, he gave a not-so-subtle jab to the era of Donald Trump and its corresponding “America first” rhetoric. McCain even went so far as to refer to this new political trend as “half-baked, spurious nationalism.”

And he is absolutely right. This modern flavor of American nationalism is exceptionally frightening. The sentiment all too present at the Charlottesville rally just a couple of months ago solidified any claims to the contrary: 20th century-nationalism is back in a big way, and it is a threat to individual liberty.

But so is perpetual unjust war.

America’s Foreign Policy: A “Blessing” to Mankind

Every so often a meme of John McCain resurfaces and makes its rounds on social media. “Find a man who looks at you like McCain looks at unnecessary wars,” it reads. The reason this meme is frequently resurrected, and always darkly hilarious, is because Senator McCain has become a perfect caricature of an American warmonger. McCain has proven himself to be an avid supporter of spreading democracy at the point of a gun, or drone as is more apt in modern warfare.  

But unlike many others, McCain makes no attempt to veil his love of war:

We are blessed, and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn. The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history.

And what a blessing America and her foreign policy have truly been. Already in 2017, civilian deaths at the hand of American drone strikes have increased by 60 percent: emphasis on “civilian.” These were not ISIS leaders or even recruits. They were just people who happened to have been born within the “wrong” political borders. Their only real sin was not being born American, on American soil.

Of course, these civilian deaths are disregarded as “collateral damage”: unfortunate, but necessary to protecting America’s foreign interests. But good luck defining what these interests are, because it seems that the term itself has been used more as an excuse for interventionism rather than carry any substantial meaning.

Already in 2017, civilian deaths at the hand of American drone strikes have increased by 60 percent.

Astronomically high death counts aside, the political instability these foreign entanglements have reaped are horrific in and of themselves.

ISIS exists today only because of our “ambitious” efforts abroad. And it is just one of the many radical jihadist groups formed as a response to American foreign policy. You may have also heard of Al Qaeda, one of the other radicalized groups that arose as a direct result of our decades of meddling in the Middle East.

Yet, McCain never fails to support the expansion of our military forces abroad at the expense of foreign human beings. He and Senator Lindsey Graham have become Congress’ loudest cheerleaders for foreign military intervention. This warmongering tag-team never misses an opportunity to propose starting the next world war. And while both have been quick to throw shade at the nationalism associated with Trump’s political brand, all parties are guilty of spreading the belief that American lives matter more than others.  

Each asserts that American supremacy is how we show our strength and might. Each places a different, lower value on those who were not “blessed” to have been born in the freest country in the world: a country where we needn’t fear the buzzing of a drone flying overhead in the middle of the night.

Nationalism of Another Kind

When we assert that we have the right to invade and occupy foreign lands simply because we are Americans, it is nationalism. 

“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil,” McCain proudly declared during his remarks. And again, he is right. Part of the reason America and its emphasis on individual liberty were so important to the course of human history was because it was a revolution of ideas. And while North America just happened to be the place many escaped to, America itself did not make us what we became. It was the individual efforts of many diverse and unique people that made America exceptional.

America was a land where you could escape your past and build a new life. A place where access to opportunity was equal to all those willing to work – with the exception of women and slaves at the time, of course.

Your past or where you were born should not determine your right to self-determination. All you need do to acquire these natural rights is be born, anywhere on this earth. That is the principle on which this country was founded.

However, every time McCain grandstands in front of Congress in an attempt to escalate conflict abroad, he is making the same argument for “blood and soil,” that the new nationalists make.

When Americans assert that we have the right to invade and occupy foreign lands in the name of expanding our own freedom agenda, simply because we are Americans, it is nationalism. Pure and simple.

Our drone policies have sent a clear message across the globe that if you are not American, you are fair game. It doesn’t matter if you are a child playing outside during a US drone strike, or a mother comforting her children. If you are not American, you do not matter.

To make matters worse, this feeling of self-superiority has led America-first supporters to justify these acts as if they are our duty. If we don’t bring the principles of democracy to the uncivilized “savages” in the Middle East, we have not fully reached our potential as Americans, some may claim.

And, of course, if anyone voices opposition to “business as usual” in the foreign policy realm, they are cast off as unpatriotic, unwilling to do what needs to be done to ensure our own safety and the well-being of the world. Unwilling to put America first.

As McCain said:

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.

So while McCain is trying to cast his own prerogatives in a light contradictory to that of the new nationalists, they are both branches of the same tree, acting under the notion that whatever Americans do is justified because they are Americans.

Fearing that this unpredictable administration might lead to a decrease in foreign entanglements, which given our history is unlikely, McCain said:

We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

But the only real moral obligation we have to the rest of the world is to let them be. To not let their fate be determined by the fact that they are not Americans. They do not deserve this.

So while nationalists yielding tiki torches should be concerning to everyone, so should the continuation of a foreign policy that kills in the name of American supremacy.

  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.