Editor’s note: This is published in conjunction with the release of Race and National Security, edited by Professor Matiangai Sirleaf and containing chapters by leading scholars including Professor Aziz Rana, author of this article. The volume is the first in our partnership with Oxford University Press and builds upon work from the Racing National Security Symposium, also brought to life by Professor Sirleaf.
Commentators and policymakers routinely invoke the framers of the Constitution when critiquing national security excess. They contend that abusive practices violate the country’s founding ideals. In effect, they marshal a narrative of moral and civil libertarian decline – from a high point in the past of republican freedom to a present-day marked by an “imperial presidency.” This approach may not be “originalist” in the technical legal sense. But it certainly swims in common cultural waters. The narrative of decline presents reforms today as part of a project of national restoration, or of returning to the constitutional values of deified framers.
Unfortunately, this originalist cultural myth – premised on civil libertarian and non-imperial beginnings – ignores the extent to which there is no golden age or non-imperial past to revive. Such framings also offer a limited account of the security reforms necessary for genuine anti-imperial change in the present. And they ignore the structuring role of race and colonialism in deep-rooted American ideas of foreign intervention, war-making, and threat.
The originalist myth is framed around a specific understanding of what makes the American presidency “imperial” and, relatedly, what it means to discuss American empire. Institutionally, the argument emphasizes the unilateral and unchecked nature of executive authority. And sociologically, it focuses on global military adventurism in the twentieth century. In other words, under this reading, the U.S. especially during and after the Cold War became consumed with global power. It abandoned George Washington’s famed advice from his 1796 Farewell Address, namely that so long as Americans avoided entanglement in European conflicts, they would be able to limit external threats and avoid military despotism. Thus, returning to origins is both a call for a revived appreciation of checks and balances and for a smaller global footprint in keeping with the framers’ advice.
These critiques both of presidential overreach and global interventionism are very well-taken. It is certainly the case that if the United States had a less aggressive international posture it would be far easier to cabin the power of the national security state, including the president. But what it ignores is how, to a profound extent, twentieth century American global dominance is rooted in a historic expansionist ethic. This ethic – present from the earliest days of colonization – long treated U.S. borders as provisional and continues to mark outsider communities as worthy only of conditional rights and of conditional sovereignty.
In a sense, the exhortation to return to origins offers a vision of American innocence that obscures these central facts. It fails to contend with the role of that earlier expansionist history in the shaping of contemporary practices. No doubt, the originalist myth provides a means for contesting particular security excesses or for calling for global retreat. But in casting a nostalgic lens on the collective past, it avoids offering a clear-eyed basis for challenging an American imperial mindset with far deeper roots than global spread alone in the twentieth century.
If the classic narrative misunderstands the driving dynamics of early American experience, how else should they be described? Simply put, the high-tide of republican checks and balances was at one and the same time a period of sustained settler imperial development. Anglo-European settlers carried to North America a belief that the guiding purpose of the national project was to make widely available to insiders a vision of freedom involving participatory political structures and broad access to land and property.
In the process, their legal and political institutions were meant to do two things simultaneously. First, they were supposed to provide insiders with the liberating conditions of self-government and economic independence. And second, to support this overarching project, these institutions were designed to extract much-needed land and labor from Native and excluded groups, particularly enslaved African persons, and their descendants. This meant that Euro-Americans long presumed that the basic engine of internal republican freedom and economic prosperity was territorial growth and, therefore, Indigenous conquest.
Thus, republican checks and balances were very much only for those included as free citizens and rested on the sustained domination of excluded populations. Framers such as Washington may have wanted to avoid European entanglements, but they nonetheless still saw collective life as fundamentally built on claiming land and projecting power. For much of American history, the result was a constitutional politics organized around two distinct and rigid accounts of sovereign authority – one for insiders of democratic consent and internal checks and another for outsiders of near limitless discretion.
There is no doubt a significant gulf between the world of 1796 and the world of today. Especially given the defining twentieth century national experiences of World War II, the Cold War, and the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, American institutions have clearly been shaped by commitments in favor of legal equality and against accounts of ethno-racial identity. The official American story about the post-World War II international legal order and the country’s role on the world stage also presumes that the United States is legally respectful of state sovereignty, regardless of the underlying racial makeup of the foreign nation.
Nonetheless, this structuring duality between those who enjoy checks and balances and those subject to extreme and discretionary violence continues to shape American national security practices. Indeed, one can see deep resonances in American foreign policy between the logic that structured settler expansion and the logic that undergirds contemporary assertions of power. These include an exceptionalist framework, in which officials still overwhelmingly present the American project as uniquely grounded in ideas of republican freedom – connected to a distinctive heritage of independence and constitutional founding. Such exceptionalism also goes hand in hand with claims regarding a special role on the world stage, where – just as with settler expansion – the United States enjoys a basic authority to step inside and outside of legal arrangements in fulfilling national destiny or security objectives. And, not unlike the past, threats to these objectives primarily come from communities read as less culturally and politically attuned to free institutions. These threats create a Manichaean reality, in which unless the U.S. pacifies sites of disorder, domestic liberty is itself imperiled.
All of this creates a context in which national security abuse is not broadly dispersed across populations, but overwhelmingly falls on the same communities that were historically viewed as racially “unfit” for membership and self-governance. Indeed, this effective replication of the old settler duality persists across key and overlapping domains of contemporary security violence –whether the carceral state, the post-9/11 “War on Terror,” or the militarized border.
Take the state’s discretionary power when it comes to policing and incarceration, which spectacularly and disproportionately falls on poor Black and Brown communities. This power is also exercised in a context in which “law and order” is very much a one-way street. In an obvious echo of the settler framework, while state apparatuses invoke threat as a way to impose coercive authority on marginalized communities, those very same communities enjoy limited capacity to hold police and other security officials accountable through rights rhetoric.
Yet, to the extent that the national security problem is presented as simply geostrategic overreach, this alone has little to say about why time and again the sites and populations viewed as “disordered” are those long associated with ethno-racial exclusion. Similarly, the institutional emphasis on a “unitary executive” ignores how much of the security infrastructure that imposes racialized violence overseas or at home is a product of official consensus across the branches of government – judicial, executive, and congressional.
All of this highlights the fundamental inadequacy of invoking a mythic republican past as a way of constraining contemporary national security violence. This story ignores the intersection of long-standing racial logics with global political realities. Today’s postcolonial and multi-racial world is commonly depicted as marked by threatening and/or disordered Asian, African, and Latin American states and nonwhite populations in movement. This has clear echoes of how the non-European world was conceived of in the nineteenth century past.
The sense of perpetual and racialized threat then creates profound internal incentives to pursue interventionist actions abroad or to impose draconian policing and border policies at home. The result in practice has been an American national security politics that even when retrenchment is pursued (say a shift away from Vietnam or recently from Afghanistan), it is nonetheless combined with a continued marshaling of near-limitless resources to protect the homeland from the next perceived external danger.
The country today is engaged in swirling debates – exemplified by everything from racial justice protests to the New York Times 1619 project – about race, colonialism, and American history. Outside of national security law, academic and popular conversation explicitly discusses whether the framers devised a pro-slavery compact or promoted American growth through sustained violence against Indigenous nations. Yet, within the field’s scholarly and policymaking circles, the primary way that mainstream critiques of security excess relate to the past is through the same story that appeals to a republican golden age. In this way, the field’s dominant conversation about foreign policy, war-making, and threat appears strangely insulated from the broader national confrontation with American history – as if the state’s exercise of coercive power against Black and Indigenous peoples was unrelated to debates about national security law or civil liberties, then or now.
Ultimately, any genuine project of national security reform requires more than reviving a fictive eighteenth century of checks and balances. It instead entails treating foreign interventionism as only one expression of a broader colonial imagination and infrastructure, present since the framing and never adequately uprooted. Alongside challenging the state’s international police power, such a reformist approach includes ending the colonial status of all the existing territorial dependencies – in line with the genuine political desires of local and self-determining communities. It also revolves around everything from sharing sovereignty with Native peoples and land return to reparations, decriminalizing the border, transformative and structural reforms to intelligence and policing apparatuses, and providing judicial avenues for the remedy of past colonial crimes as well as contemporary national security ones.
These suggestions are certainly far afield from the topics that usually consume national security experts, especially when focused on technical legal debates about the means used to project American power: When is targeted killing acceptable? Where and for how long can detainees be held? But, in a sense, that disconnect speaks to the pervasive limitations of the ongoing debate. This debate – still about how to balance liberty and security – even when critical of particular security excesses, rarely confronts what it would mean to properly remove from government officials their continuous capacity to exercise discretionary violence. It often falls back into comforting American narratives about the basic goodness of collective arrangements and past practices, and rarely explores how today’s modes of coercion replicate historic settler and racial assumptions. But, in the end, if scholars and policymakers are truly committed to providing rights, respect, and voice to those who have long been on the receiving end of state violence, such a colonial accounting is the only meaningful path.