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If Teddy Roosevelt is a Nationalist then “Nationalism” has No Meaning

May 25th, 2022 | 2 min read

By Jake Meador

Sen. Hawley in Compact:

Roosevelt advocated a robust, realistic American nationalism. He believed in the nation-state, and in the American nation above all. He didn’t seek to outsource US sovereignty (like the liberals) or make all the world a client of America (like the neocons). Instead, he worked to secure a balance of power among independent nations that kept America safe and prosperous. His aim was to prevent any one nation from becoming so strong that it might dominate the United States, threatening our liberty and prosperity.

To achieve those aims, he advocated American strength: strong industry at home, a strong military able to deter foreign domination, and prudent alliances with other independent nations that preserved America’s freedom of action.

So, look: The Philippines had their own constitution they drafted and ratified after we helped kick Spain out. They elected their own leader, pictured above.

Roosevelt opposed independence for them because he thought them incapable of self-governance. He also opposed independence for Puerto Rico as well for similar reasons. The “independence” granted to Cuba, meanwhile, came with American regulation of their finances and foreign policy.

Three times Roosevelt was given a chance to show his support for independent, self-governing nations. Three times he chose not to. Instead, he advocated for each of these nations (yep, that’s what I mean) to be incorporated into America without being made states and, often, without the benefit of American legal rights and protections.

There is a word for this sort of foreign policy. It is “imperialism.” And if you have followed the nationalism debate for any length of time, you know that until five minutes ago imperialism was one of the common foils set against nationalism.

We need nationalism, they tell us, because imperialism has trampled the lives of local places and national cultures underfoot, denying people their right to order their lives as seems best to them. Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism is framed, starting on page 3!, as a critique of imperialism and proposes nationalism as an alternative. (Brad Littlejohn’s review of the book for the main site highlights the role “imperialism” plays as a foil for Hazony.)

And yet now we see an American senator and national conservative presenting the foremost example of American imperialism in our nation’s history as an example of “nationalism”! If this is the sort of nonsense we are to expect in the future from conservative nationalists, then we truly are at an impasse, for you can’t argue about anything if words have no meaning. And if Teddy Roosevelt is a “nationalist” then the word “nationalist” means nothing.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).