America has more in common with China than is generally recognized. In this article, I employ the idea of the tributary system—most often associated with China’s international relations from antiquity—to interpret how America relates to the rest of the world (ROW). I argue that the United States has instituted the most successful tributary system the world has ever seen. As the hub or epicenter of the most extensive network of formal and informal alliances ever built, the United States offers its allies and partners—or tributaries—military protection as well as economic access to its markets.1 Through an equally impressive array of international institutions and organizations, many of which it created, the United States transmits and imposes its values and its preferred rules of the game on the international system. The ensuing economic and politico-military ‘orders’ are construed as ‘public goods’ provided by a benign American hegemony. In return for all its exertions, the tribute America seeks is straightforward: first, that it be recognized as the power or hegemon, and second, that others emulate its political forms and ideas. With both tributes in hand, the United States finds equanimity; it and the world are safe, at least from the United States’ point of view.
I elaborate on these arguments below and provide preliminary evidence in support of them. We begin with a discussion and critique of some of the most influential contemporary interpretations of America as an international actor, focusing on accounts of the US empire, the United States as the unipolar power, and as the chief patron of a system of client states. I suggest that while these accounts illuminate important aspects of the US–ROW relationship, they fail to emphasize the payback the United States wants in return for its exertions as the hegemon. This paves the way for introducing the idea of the tributary system, which takes hierarchy as its point of departure, but which emphasizes two insights not found in the existing accounts: the United States’ desire for recognition (by its tributaries) that it is the number one power, and for them (the tributaries) to adopt (US-style) liberal democratic norms and institutions. A discussion of the Chinese tributary system follows, focusing on six of its key characteristics. I then demonstrate how each of these features has parallels in America’s approach to world since 1898. Differences between the Chinese tributary system and that of the United States will also be discussed. The article concludes by spelling out the empirical/theoretical payoffs and implications of viewing US–ROW relations through the tributary lens. ...
The novelty of the tributary framework does not rest on the contention about American hegemony, a point that many international relations scholars accept. The novelty of the tributary concept resides elsewhere. First, its normative take on hegemony: it casts hegemony in a less positive light, emphasizing the hierarchical and unequal nature of the relationship. Mainstream international relations theory tends to portray hegemony in a predominantly positive light, emphasizing leadership, provision of public goods, and stability.106 The idea of the tributary system, in contrast, lays bare the inequality of the relationship by its very vocabulary. China thrived on that inequality and the rituals that affirmed it. The United States, however, is understandably more conflicted: inequality, manifested in the desire for recognition of US superiority, seems at odds with the self-understanding of a nation whose Declaration of Independence begins with ‘All men are created equal’.
The tributary idea, in other words, emphasizes hierarchy and inequality in ways that the notion of hegemony seeks to dissipate. Which concept fits better with America’s relationship vis-à-vis the ROW, I leave it to the reader’s judgment. Note, however, that while hierarchy in and of itself may have negative connotations or seems at odds with the notion of ‘sovereign equality’, it is presumed to have stabilizing effects by a veritable lineage of international relations scholarship. Hegemonic stability theory suggests that hegemons play a crucial role in underwriting the economic and security order by providing the public goods that lesser states are incapable or unwilling to ante up to.107 To be sure the hegemon also reaps huge all round gains.108 David Kang argues that Chinese hegemony during the Ming and Qing periods brought the region five centuries of peace and stability.109 William Wohlforth makes the case that US unipolarity is likely to last a generation and that it is also conducive to peace and stability.110 East and Southeast Asians who welcome American hegemony in their region might also be subscribing to a ‘hegemony is conducive to peace and stability’ line of thought than to balance of power principles.
The second novelty inspired by the tributary idea is the focus on ‘tribute’—if you recognize my pole position, what should you be doing when we meet and when we are far apart? China’s answer was: let me decide if you can visit (and how frequently), kowtow to the emperor when you come to pay tribute, and allow me to invest you with the legitimacy to rule; and finally, emulate our cultural forms when you are back home. Those who bought into the system reaped substantial economic and security benefits. Viewing the United States as the hub of the tributary system provides similar insights about what it would expect from its tributaries: acknowledge its superior power by not contesting it and by allowing it bases and places; play by US rules of the economic game, and emulate American political ideas and forms. The economic and security payoffs for the secondary states are as great as those garnered by China’s major tributaries.
Finally, viewing America as the fountainhead of a tributary system connects many of the most interesting—hitherto disparate—dots that constitute the landscape of American diplomacy: hegemon, leader of the free world, democracy (promotion), prestige/status, and credibility. These self-understandings and concerns have featured prominently as key factors impacting on US foreign policy, but there does not exist a narrative that connects them in a coherent way. The tributary idea connects them and sees these elements as essential parts of the (tributary) system. Hegemony needs a legitimating discourse to justify the hierarchy and inequality and while the extant literature hones in on the provision of public goods, it neglects the politics: democracy and leadership (of the free world). What is really distinctive about the US legitimation discourse is the fusion of the two: how democracy and US leadership are joined, as in the term leader of the free world. The latter accords the United States a moral status, prestige, and credibility that are critical ingredients in maintaining the tributary system. When the epicenter is perceived to be unrivalled on these qualities, tributaries will want to edge closer to the epicenter for protection (and prestige by association) and adversaries will think twice before challenging it. It is only in understanding how seriously the United States takes that leadership role that prestige and credibility become central concerns that must be protected in the overall scheme of things.
In a piece for The Atlantic as the Cold War was winding to an end, John Lewis Gaddis proposed characterizing the period from 1945 to 1989 as The Long Peace. ‘Change the name’, Gaddis wrote, ‘and you change the thing’.111 By the latter he meant that the very speech-act of naming it a ‘Cold War’, imparts a negative take on how we view and understand the period, perhaps making us less able to discern the positive developments. Viewing it as the Long Peace, in contrast, should dispose us to better understand, and perhaps preserve, the elements that sustained that peace. This article has sought to introduce a new vocabulary to view the way the United States relates to the ROW. Its distinctive contributions consist in introducing the (Chinese) tributary idea as a framework for analyzing US foreign policy and in fleshing out the parallels suggested by the framework in a preliminary way.
We began by observing how America and China’s approach to international relations have unrecognized similarities. Perhaps it is appropriate to end by commenting on an underappreciated difference. In his superb analysis of the Chinese world order and how it collapsed in the face of Western pressures, Yongjin Zhang honed in on a vocabulary change that revealed China’s existential dilemma after the mid-19th century: China’s sense of its place in the world shrank from ‘tianxia’ (all under heaven) to ‘guojia’ (a state), i.e. ‘the Chinese world became a China in the world’.112 Using the tributary lens to illuminate the longue duree of American diplomacy leads one to a rather different conclusion about America’s foreign policy trajectory in the 20th and 21st centuries: the United States’ place in the world seems to have moved from ‘guojia’ to ‘tianxia’. The term that most of us have used until now to describe that trajectory and state of affairs is the Pax Americana. Could that be a euphemism for the American tributary system?