What is an Empire? Assessing the postcolonial contribution to the American Empire Debate




Biccum, April

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Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group


The American Empire Debate (AED) erupted in the late 1990s and prompted a research agenda among American international relations scholars that attempts to construct universal political theories of empire to answer the question of whether or not the United States is an empire. Conversely, postcolonial scholars have contributed to the AED without confronting the larger question at its root – what is an empire? This essay is a clarion call to postcolonial scholars and poses the following questions: How do scholars in postcolonial studies respond to the revival of the word “empire” in the public and academic domains in response to America’s role in the international system? What would be at stake in theorizing empire as a form of politics and what would postcolonial theory have to contribute to such an endeavour? The aim of this essay is to point out first that there has been a revival of the word “empire” in the public and academic domains and, given the traditional framing of the disciplines of political science and international relations around the state, this revival is significant, as are attempts to theorize it. As such, this essay is an attempt to deepen the conversation between postcolonial studies and international relations around a key term that actually links the two together – empire. It also aims to gesture toward what would happen to our understanding of global politics if we take “empire” as our central analytic.



American Empire, conceptual history, international relations, postcolonialism





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