So, is America an empire or not? I appreciate Jonathan Schell's candor as he wrestles with this question in his short essay, "Empire Falls." It all depends on how your define "empire." In general, I agree that humanity currently lives in a non-imperial era insofar as empires are understood to be arguably global in scope, concurrent with a nation's stated imperial aspirations, and marked by military occupation in most or all of an imperial nation's non-homeland areas of influence. (I refer to our era as non-imperial, not post-imperial, because I think "post-" evokes permanence. I don't see why it would be an impossibility that empires in the traditional sense couldn't re-emerge eventually, though I admit it's hard to imagine outside of the realm of speculative fiction.)
American might not have stated imperial ambitions (at least not stated by everyone, just a "neo-con" minority), nor might it be overtly or heavy-handedly occupying numerous foreign nations (theoretically, the U.S. does aim to occupy Iraq, and if one argues that it is doing so, one probably must admit that the occupation is partial at best), but I think it's certainly imperial even if it is not traditionally an empire, especially if we look at what "imperial" may mean in an age that is marked by
1. digital technology,
2. globalization, and
3. air power.
In the 21st-century, whole national economies--whole multi-national industries--can be appropriated directly or indirectly without military occupation, through the electronic mechanisms of markets and other economic tools. A nation can, theoretically at least, "occupy" not just land but another nation's computer networks. Also, a nation might "out-source"--formally or informally--the military or quasi-military securing of a rival's resources through surrogate entities. But, it's not only the global reach of companies and technology that gives the U.S. (and theoretically several other nations) the means of a sort of empire-building, but also the U.S. dollar, as a commentator, Sam Baker, points out.
Beyond economic influence and operations, beyond tactical forays into Iraq or attempting to influence rival nations through surrogate entities, corporate, multi-national regulatory, or military, what about the more than 700 U.S. military bases in foreign states--from Japan to Korea, Britain to Cuba, Germany to the Indian Ocean? In the 21st-century especially, empires might not need to be entities that totally dominate other nations with blanket military presense. Perhaps a network of bases suffices? Afterall, empires throughout history have been, among other things, networks of military bases. (Monthly Review, March 2002, on Robert Harkavy's Great Power Competition for Overseas.)
Each U.S. base emanates a sphere of some degree of influence--a presence--though it's not occupation of a foreign nation per se, except within the base itself. To draw lines between the bases is to compose a graphic web impressive in the regular distribution of its interconnecting points. It's not as though the vast majority of the bases are all clumped together.
What is more, as many such lines drawn between bases of the British Empire in the late 1800's would be roughly analogous to sea or overland routes that the British Empire also would utilize and often nearly completely dominate, so such lines drawn between U.S. bases are roughly analogous to a combination of sea or overland routes or flight paths. Anything on the ground or in the sea (or in the air) along a flight path is in a sense also within the influence of the U.S., at least indirectly and temporarily.
But by such standards is the American empire actually waning? The U.S. used to have roughly 1,100 foreign military bases. I would argue, however, that the 1,100-base marker is too anomalous to use for, as it were, the baseline comparison, because it represents the number of bases immediately after WWII. By 1949, at the end of what Gore Vidal terms American's "Golden Age"--basically the last half of the 1940's--the number was down to 582 bases--U.S. soldiers were graduating from college thanks to the G.I. Bill, and the nation had had a brief but important period of artistic accomplishment, social progressivism, and cultural pride. Enter the arms race, U.S. deterrence against and sometimes provocation of the U.S.S.R., the industrial-military complex, and the 1950's frenzied culture of fear,nationalism, and conformity (e.g., government loyalty oaths instituted), and by 1957 the number is back up to nearly 900. It rose during Vietnam, dipped afterward, and now Iraq and Afghanistan have occasioned opening new ones. How many bases abroad does the U.S. operate? Alas, we must ask what is meant "base?" A safe answer seems to be more than 700. See Chalmers Johnson's essay on the U.S.'s network of bases.
Whether or not it's an "empire," and whether or not it in part involves 1,000 or 700 foreign bases, it's safe to say that the United States expensively maintains an extensive global network of military bases of operation bolstering other assets economic and diplomatic. I would call such a reality a non-traditional empire. The questions then begged include: how long will it last? why will it collapse? and how is U.S. foreign policy shaping the trajectory of empire--are factors like invading and partially occupying Iraq, the U.S.'s largely self-imposed diplomatic isolation, its dependence on fossil fuels located mostly outside of its homeland borders, its staggering foreign debt, and domestic factors like the nearly completed takeover by effectively theocratic elements of the ruling party, and an increasing wealth disparity hastening or delaying an end to its quasi-empire? As America continues in the early 21st-century to strike out at our enemies--whether real or imagined, whether created by us or seemingly foisted upon us--is it also compromising the viability of the quasi-empire, of the nation itself, or of its representative democracy, or could it somehow be strengthening any or all of them?
It's hard to imagine anything for the United State's imperial adventure but an end--perhaps in my lifetime--and unless there is an extensive political progressive correction to what are probably the most socially conservative and economically nihilistic governing forces in the nation's history, it's hard to imagine that that end will not be attended by genuine social, economical, and governmental chaos.
The British Empire faded away but the United Kingdom eventually became a place of greater opportunity for more of its citizens than ever in its history; it's economy currently is strong, it's culture largely intact, it's governmental system in no significant way is threatened with collapse or radical transformation. But, Rome didn't enjoy such a fate. Neither did the U.S.S.R. or 20th-century Japan.
In general, empires have not transitioned from empire with the homeland culture, economy, and government returning to what they were before the empire, let alone becoming something better than the years before empire.
So, how will America cope during that post-imperial transition; how will its people and government handle the reality that the nation's grand narrative might yet be written as a tragedy like so many empires before it? That will be the real test--far more so than is Iraq or the "war on terror" now, more so than was the Depression, and perhaps as much as was the Civil War. Will post-imperial America eventually be seen as another chapter in a successfully continuing (and thus, overall very impressive) experiment--freedoms and liberties intact--or will it be seen as something else, not so much a phase as an end?
Circumstances that cannot be imagined now will influence how well the post-imperial test will be handled. But there is no doubt that the American electorate will be one important factor. With that electorate so generally provential, increasingly religious, and shockingly ill-informed, there is certainly cause for concern. Add to that concern the above-mentioned debt and dependence on foreign oil, and the currents coming downwind of the future seem chill and acrid, certainly more autumn than spring. But winds shift all of the time, and the nature of America's post-imperial fate is uncertain. The only thing that is certain is that it will have one, for good or ill.