Update: A commenter at Reddit, to which this post was submitted (though not by me), calls it "terrible" and suggests a brief 2007 article by Michael Cox in Political Studies Review. I have no doubt that the Cox article (which I haven't read yet) is better than my post. For one thing, it's a 10-page article, not an 8-paragraph blogpost. I'm sorry the commenter considers this post terrible. (I myself used the term "half-baked," which is a tad more nuanced.) I'm planning -- no, really, seriously, truly I am -- a complete break from blogging in July and August, so the commenter in question can look forward to a long period of relief from my posts.
I rarely have the time or patience to read through my old posts, and I certainly don't have the inclination to do that now. But a quick search reveals that, with a couple of exceptions, I haven't had a whole lot to say on this blog, except indirectly, about the 'American empire' debate. The subject keeps coming up, though, at least at Crooked Timber, where a post by H. Farrrell called "Imperialist Doublethink" has reignited the whole thing.
There are at least several available positions on the debate, which for purposes of this post I'll label (1) the "imperial dynamics" view, (2) the "empire of bases" view, (3) the "dollar rules" view, (4) the "Empire capital E" view and (5) the "it's all rubbish" view. No doubt, as this is going from my keyboard straight to the screen, it's going to be somewhat half-baked. But since some of my carefully drafted posts of the past don't seem to have lit a lot of people's fires, so to speak, maybe in this context careful drafting can be dispensed with.
(1) The 'imperial dynamics' view: This is the one I feel most confident about expounding, b/c I have actually read (well, more or less) the Nexon/Wright 2007 article "What's at Stake in the American Empire Debate" (APSR, May '07). Nexon/Wright's position is: "Is the US an empire?" is not a useful question. Rather, the US's foreign relations exhibit certain 'imperial dynamics,' i.e. 'indirect rule' through local elites (cf., for example, Iraq, 2003-2011, and perhaps beyond) and 'heterogeneous contracting', i.e. the US strikes different sorts of bargains and arrangements, rather than the same sort, with less powerful (or more 'peripheral') actors, which it thereby contrives to keep from collaborating against it (though with mixed success: cf. Walt's Taming American Power). Nexon/Wright think that according to their criteria the US is less 'imperial' now than it was during the Cold War, though as of 2007 they were somewhat uncertain about how 'imperial' it would be in the future. (Note: Reading this article, or even parts of it, is not fun. But it was published in APSR, which I guess means you should read it whether it's fun or not.)
(2) The "empire of bases" view holds, as the label suggests, that the US is an empire b/c it has military bases all over the world from which it can project military power into whatever region it wants.
(3) The "dollar rules" view emphasizes the way the dollar's role as reserve currency reinforces, and/or is reinforced by, US military power. Sometimes it's expressed more crudely, as in the contention that the US uses the threat of military force to keep countries buying dollar-denominated debt. In this strong form, the position seems quite implausible. (CT readers will not need to have this all rehashed for them.)
(4) The "Empire capital E view": This has something to do with Hardt and Negri's famous book Empire, which I haven't read, though in good blogger fashion I did take five seconds to glance at the rather brief -- surprisingly brief -- Wikipedia entry on it. (I've also glanced in the past at one or two learned symposia on the book, which apparently left few lasting impressions on me.) In short, this view holds that Empire = the current 'liberal' world order, against which resistance of various kinds is steadily growing, despite the best efforts of the order's defenders to defuse it. Well, go read the book (plus its sequels) and come back and tell me what it says, 'cause it appears that I'm not likely to anytime soon.
(5) 'It's all rubbish': This view holds that empire means formal empire, which means formal colonies, which mostly no longer exist. Other uses of "empire" are just smoke being blown by jargon-wielding political scientists or radicals of one sort or another who are out to make trouble and bamboozle. Or so this view maintains.
Who's right? Good question. I'd love to stick around and answer that but I have to do some other things now. Sorry.