Who or What Is Empire?

The American Empire is not America. It's not even the United States Government
It *is* the United States Government, but it is also less than that, and more than that
The hegemon of our day, the American Empire, is powered by American power and run from Washington. But it is not synonymous with the USAnot with the country, nor with its people, or even its government.
Obviously a sales lady in a Milwaukee donut shop or a mechanic in Topeka are in no way the Empire. Their taxes may help fuel the Empire's war machine but taxes ultimately rest on coercion and are not freely given.
To a lesser extent, even the taxes extracted from a Romania shepherd go toward aiding Empire's adventures yet it would be absurd to claim he is part of the Empire as opposed to merely living under it.
Our Milwaukee sales lady and Topeka mechanic are in fact victims of the Empire, albeit the level of their victimization is infinitely smaller than for example that of a Yemeni child withering away from cholera under a US-Saudi blockade.
Aside from being coerced into paying taxes the pair is spied upon and propagandized to. Moreover, the Empire needlessly amplifies their exposure to the danger of terrorism and forces them to live under the constant background threat of a mushroom cloud.
The American people are not the American Empire, but neither is the United States Government. You may have a positive or negative view of government, but there is no doubt that for example the US National Park Service or municipal councils — albeit part of the American state — are not imperial institutions.
Of course, there are other branches of the United States Government which are very much institutions of the American Empire: the Presidency, the State Department, the Pentagon, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, Congress, the CIA, the DHS, the DEA, the FBI and the Department of Energy.
Most of these started out as national institutions and for a few (eg the DEA, the FBI, Energy) that is still the majority of what they do. Still others, chiefly the military, and the diplomatic service, have been almost completely hijacked and they now almost exclusively serve the Empire, to the near-total exclusion of serving the nation. (The CIA has the dubious distinction of having been founded from the start as an instrument of the Empire.)
But it's not only government institutions which form the American Empire. Equally important are the defense industry, the mercenaries (Blackwater, Halliburton...), the think-tanks, the lobbies, the Democratic and Republican parties, the oil companies, and the press.
All of these are ostensibly private institutions but only in the sense that they're not part of US government. In fact, their fate is intertwined with the fate of the American Empire of which they are an integral part. Much like the East India Company of yore, they are not the government, but they are the Empire.
Powered by America's power, but not quite the same thing as it
A number of international organizations dominated by the US are likewise aspects of the American Empire. Chief among them are NATO, the IMF, and the World Bank.
Moreover, the US is often able to co-opt otherwise benign international organizations and make them into appendages of the Empire. For example the IAEA, the OPCW, OECD, even WADA, and sometimes even the UN.
Many of the client states of the Empire, chiefly the NATO members, time and time again voluntarily and eagerly share in the adventures, the saber-rattling, and the atrocities of the Empire. Nonetheless, their governments and their private pro-Imperial constituencies are not proper internal components of the Empire because their influence on its decision-making is non-existent.
The Europeans, the Canadians, and the Australians may be invited to lend additional bodies and an impression of legitimacy to Washington's global interventions but they do not get to set or influence the agenda.
At the very most they may be permitted by Washington to take on some particularly unimportant part of the world and run it as they please. Thus France today gets to impersonate an empire in its former colonies in the Sahel, and the running of Bosnia has been outsourced to the EU.
They remain as they were in the Cold War, client states, dependents, auxiliaries.
There are two exceptions however. The governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
These two wield enough influence in Washington that the Israeli cabinet and the Saudi court are able to influence the course of Empire's actions. They are not mere dependents on the Empire, but a part of its brain. Their influence should not be overstated since they are only two decision-making centers out of dozens, but unlike the NATO Europeans, the Israelis and the Saudis are players in the Imperial Capital.
Moreover, it does not follow these are any more nefarious than the native power centers of the Empire. True enough, the Saudis and the Israelis do not care an iota about the interest of the American nation, but then neither does any American imperial institution.
The Israelis and the Saudis still do however — just like the Pentagon or Congress — very much welcome the expansion of American power (since they get to influence how it is applied).
So in fact, the functional difference for American citizens is none. Either way, their interest falls second to the interest of the institutions which form the Empire's brain.
All of this to say that the Empire is the American Empire, but that does not mean it is synonymous with America, the US or even just its government. The Empire is both less and more than the United States Government.
So yeah, Saudi Arabia's MBS and NATO's Jens Stoltenberg are the Empire. A Milwaukee donut lady or even a US park ranger are not.