Imperial Politics and the American State of Exception

Owen Schalk


In his 2003 book State of Exception, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben analyzes the origins of the militaristic rhetoric that has engulfed the so-called “Western democratic world,” particularly the United States. This is rhetoric that accepts as fact the premise that the country in question is under constant existential threat from forces that have made the destruction of that society’s social, economic, and political customs their raison d’être. The “state of siege” decree, first used during the French Revolution, lends Agamben an important argumentative foundation. These executive decrees authorized the untrammeled use of force with the justification that the nation as the public knew it would cease to exist if military force was not deployed. They created a “state of exception” by suspending regular legal and legislative processes on the basis that they would encumber the ability of the nation to defend itself against annihilation.

Governments quickly learned the usefulness of these decrees. The state of siege is so useful, in fact, that in America and other Western countries, it has come to engulf almost the entire political discourse. “The declaration of the state of exception,” Agamben writes, “has gradually been replaced by an unprecedented generalization of the paradigm of security as the normal technique of government.” In other words, there is no state but the state of siege.

“Because the sovereign power of the president is essentially grounded in the emergency linked to a state of war,” Agamben explains, “over the course of the twentieth century the metaphor of war becomes an integral part of the presidential political vocabulary.” The post-9/11 U.S. empire represents the current apotheosis of this vocabulary of war and self-defense. But it’s also true that America’s exceptionalist self-image has driven its violent expansionism since the country’s founding. Nevertheless, the state of exception as Agamben conceptualizes it first came into use in the U.S. in 1917 with the passing of the Espionage Act. This act, which provided legal justification for the targeting of socialist, communist, and anarchist activists and writers in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, was implemented under the premise that unsavory left-wing types (potentially serving Bolshevik interests) were threatening the very existence of the republic. More recently, the Espionage Act has been invoked in the prosecutions of Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange.

When the U.S. became the dominant global power after World War II, the American state of exception expanded overseas. In 1947, President Truman requested that Congress provide $400 million in military and economic assistance to Greece and Turkey on the grounds that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures [or] totalitarian regimes”—the lattermost group, of course, meaning the USSR. This 1947 speech is regarded as the declaration of the Truman Doctrine, a bipartisan foreign policy strategy which justified every act of U.S. imperialism as support for “free peoples” defending themselves from the existential threat of Soviet aggression.

This rhetoric once again completely suffused American politics during the War on Terror. Agamben notes that “President Bush [attempted] to produce a situation in which the emergency becomes the rule, and the very distinction between peace and war (and between foreign and civil war) becomes impossible.” Bush achieved this by constantly referring to himself as the “Commander in Chief of the Army” and granting new far-reaching powers to the U.S. military and intelligence agencies while expanding domestic surveillance capabilities through the Patriot Act. All was warranted on the basis that “Islamic fascists” wanted to destroy “those of us who love freedom,” i.e., the American people.

In the post-Obama era, the “threat of China” has become the new hegemonic justification for growing military budgets and continued American involvement in the internal politics of sovereign nations around the globe. A May 21st article published by the Heritage Foundation shows this rhetorical technique in action. The piece has three authors: Kiron Skinner (former Director of Policy Planning in the Trump administration), David R. Shedd (former CIA operative and intelligence official who occupied multiple positions in the Bush and Obama administrations), and James Jay Carafano (national security analyst, adjunct professor at the Institute of World Policies, and member of the Trump transition team). The authors are representative of the bipartisan elite consensus on the usefulness of the “China threat” in defining the post-War on Terror state of exception.

The article’s authors are heavily critical of the Biden administration’s perceived lack of support for the Colombian state’s “egregious” and internationally condemned response to nationwide anti-neoliberal protests (at least 68 deaths have occurred since the beginning of the protests, along with over one thousand injuries; hundreds of persons have gone missing). While it is highly unlikely that Biden—a principal author of Plan Colombia, who once described the country as “the keystone” of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean—will take steps to limit the Colombian government’s oppressive capabilities, it seems that anything other than full-throated support for an ally’s brutality is insufficiently militaristic for many in Washington.

“The Biden administration appears to be taking deliberate steps to weaken the government of President Iván Duque,” the authors write. “This is particularly worrisome because… China poses a serious threat to a free, safe, and prosperous future for the Western Hemisphere.” They later note that Colombia “has been a valuable partner in dealing with the socialist regime in Venezuela [and] Maduro’s nightmarish rule.” They go on to argue (without citing any evidence) that “violent criminal gangs” backed by Cuba and Venezuela as well as “narco-criminal gangs backed by the Maduro regime” are conspiring to overthrow the Duque government, an act which will pave the way for Cuba, Venezuela, and China to gain complete control over the Western Hemisphere and, presumably, the United States of America.

While this is clearly a ridiculous argument designed to justify American imperialism, it is important to note that U.S. policymakers do not solely apply the state of exception to their own government’s actions. They also welcome countries whose economic and security policies are aligned with Washington’s into the state of exception, and the Colombian state has historically been a loyal follower of U.S. diktats.


Prior to 1948, Colombia and the United States were not inseparable allies. However, when the assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán sparked the Bogotazo riots and led to an ongoing civil war (which has seen peasant-led insurgencies develop in opposition to the traditional urban power bases), the U.S. decided to involve itself on behalf of the country’s elite conservative sectors. A peasant-led socialist government in Colombia would have jeopardized America’s free reign over the Panama Canal, and it would have also deprived the empire of a U.S.-aligned military state from which to carry out operations against other leftist movements in the region. To this end, the U.S. sent a Special Survey Team to Colombia in 1959 for the purpose of advising the state in its campaign against the insurgencies. The team consisted of anti-communist Cold Warriors who, among other assignments, had trained South Korean guerilla forces and developed the counterinsurgency strategy that resulted in the successful repression of the Hukbalahap uprising in the Philippines.

In 1962, the U.S. implemented the more comprehensive Plan Lazo. Lazo incorporated the counterinsurgency suggestions of the Special Survey Team along with those of a 1962 study by General William Yarborough, who recommended “paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents… backed by the United States.” A particular area of focus for these counterinsurgency strategies was the Marquetalia Republic, one of several enclaves of communist rebels and a stronghold of guerrilla resistance in the countryside. The Lazo paramilitaries aided the U.S.-trained and -equipped Colombian military in their assault on Marquetalia and other so-called “independent republics.” The peasant leadership fled and quickly formed into two resistance groups: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).  The FARC proved to be the more popular and resilient of the two, and the conflict continued for approximately fifty years until a peace deal was signed with former President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016. President Duque has since violated the ceasefire, and former FARC fighters who laid down their arms are currently being assassinated at an alarming rate (it is estimated that 1,600 will be killed by 2024 if present murder rates continue)—with the full backing of the United States, the Colombian elite’s reliable northern partner.

During the period in which U.S. advisers were executing Plan Lazo, Colombian President Guillermo León Valencia also announced that Colombia was in a “state of siege” and passed Decree 3398, which allowed the creation of private militias. This decree was later institutionalized with Law 48, which “allows the executive office to create civilian patrols by decree and the Defense Ministry to supply them with military-grade weaponry.” Law 48 provides the legal framework for the Colombian state’s support for violent paramilitary forces that terrorize union leaders, social activists, former FARC fighters, and protesters of all stripes—including those who are currently in the streets across the country.

The U.S. state’s approach to Venezuela offers an interesting counterpoint to Colombia. While Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in Latin America, as well as a partner in military cooperation and police training with Israel, Canada, and other U.S.-aligned countries, Venezuela’s recent cooperation with Russia and Iran is deemed unacceptable, an existential threat to freedom in the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela’s recent purchase of military equipment from Iran was described by a senior administration official as “a provocative act and… a threat to our partners in the Western Hemisphere.” (Both Venezuela and Iran have been devastated by U.S. sanctions and regime-change policies.) Venezuela is thus construed as a threat to U.S. security—even though America has been attempting to destroy the socialist-oriented Bolivarian Revolution since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. The U.S. backed a failed coup to overthrow Chávez in April 2002, and, more recently, the Obama administration inaugurated a new strategy of sanctions warfare with its 2015 declaration that Venezuela is a “national security threat” to United States. Obama’s state of siege rhetoric paved the way for the later Guaidó coup, also failed, and Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against the democratically elected Maduro administration.

Largely ignored in mainstream discussions of the Venezuela crisis is the fact that the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have all waged sanctions warfare against the country’s elected government, destroying approximately 99% of its pre-sanctions income and, as of April 2019, causing the preventable deaths of at least 40,000 Venezuelan citizens. In early June, the U.S. government also blocked Venezuela’s attempts to obtain COVID-19 vaccines through the global vaccine-sharing COVAX program. Nevertheless, according to the heuristic of imperial exception, Venezuela is an aggressive rogue state and an outpost for Chinese and Russian power projection, while the U.S. and Colombia are victimized defenders of freedom, peace, and security in the Western Hemisphere.

A quick overview of America’s justifications for its allies’ actions reveals the extent to which the “unprecedented generalization of the paradigm of security” of which Agamben wrote has come to dominate foreign policy discourse—not only in Latin America, but across the world. U.S. support for the Saudi-led genocide in Yemen is justified on the basis that the Saudi state has a right to “defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity” against the “Iran-backed” al-Ansar (or “Houthi”) fighters. Support for the far-right Ukrainian government is justified as a necessary defensive measure against Russian expansionism. Provocative military drills on the Korean Peninsula are justified with references to North Korea’s militaristic ambitions. Imperialist violence against Cuba is justified on the basis that the country is “the true imperialist power” in the region. Israel has a “right to defend itself” from starved and abused Palestinians by whatever brutal means they deem necessary, while Iran, a prime regime-change target since 1979, is regularly referred to as a state sponsor of terrorism and another existential threat to Israel. Finally, the People’s Republic of China is described by both political parties as the greatest threat facing America, jeopardizing American interests in every corner of the world, from Taiwan to El Salvador to the African continent.


The ubiquity and grinding repetitiveness of this rhetoric is designed to wear down critical faculties and force the public to acquiesce to the notion that the most powerful empire in human history is always under existential threat, from all directions, at all times. If one accepts this argument, then any amount of violence by America or its allies is immediately rationalized on the basis of self-defense. The violence of allies is prima facie justified, and the violence of those outside the American empire is prima facie delegitimized. All those excluded from the state of exception become, by the simple fact of their exclusion, the homo sacer.

Homo sacer is Agamben’s term (borrowed from ancient Roman law) for those who are excluded from both the legal system and political representation and can be openly murdered by anybody, without judicial recourse. Palestinians are perhaps the quintessential example of the homo sacer of the American empire.  In the Occupied Territories, they are openly harassed, often killed, and their businesses are regularly targeted for vandalism.  Other Palestinians, starved and besieged in the Gaza Strip, are subjected to regular bombing campaigns by the Israeli apartheid government. Any attempt to fight back is delegitimized by their exclusion from the state of exception. Conversely, due to their inclusion, any violence committed by Israel, no matter how heinous, is definitionally rendered self-defense.

The Israeli state’s place in the state of exception is due to its geopolitical utility to the empires of the Western world. In 1917, the British government’s Balfour Declaration declared its support for a Jewish state in Arab-majority Palestine, and during its period of mandate rule, Britain facilitated the emigration of Zionist settlers to Palestine en masse, leading to the Nakba—the eventual expulsion of 700,000 Arabs from their land. As Edward Said writes, the Balfour Declaration was “made by a European power… about a non-European territory… in a flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory.” Although the Balfour Declaration claimed to support equality between all peoples living in Palestine, the British clearly viewed the violence of the settlers as more legitimate than the self-defense of the Arab population. Therefore, from 1917 onward, the Zionist project was welcomed into the state of exception.

After Israel’s victory over Egypt in the Six-Day War of 1967, the American empire realized the country’s usefulness and began forging deeper ties as a way to gain further influence in the Middle East, as well as a base for staging operations against unfriendly governments in the region. The American state of exception gained a new member, and the Palestinians, Hezbollah, Syria, and anybody else who opposed Israel’s primacy were condemned to the status of the homo sacer.

The homo sacer concept doesn’t solely apply to the Middle East, of course. Agamben defines the homo sacer as someone who is “in a continuous relationship with the power that banished [them] precisely insofar as [they are] at every instant exposed to an unconditional threat of death.” This definition applies to all enemies of the American empire, be they Colombian street protesters or besieged Gazans or Venezuelans or Cubans or starving Yemeni babies or Black social activists within U.S. borders. Life under the American state of exception dictates that all who bow down to the Washington consensus are infinitely blameless, and all who oppose it are legitimate targets for harassment, violence, and murder. ♦



Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg.  His political analyses have appeared in Canadian Dimension, Dissident Voice, and People’s Voice, and his short stories have been published by Fairlight Books, antilang., whimperbang, and more.  Additionally, he has forthcoming work in Sobotka Literary Magazine, Voices: Journal of the Lake Winnipeg Writers’ Group, and Monthly Review.

Cover image: Colombians protesting austerity, police violence, poverty, and other issues.

Consider supporting Protean Magazine on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!